Tuesday evening, Cleveland ace and reigning AL Cy Young award winner Shane Bieber stuck out eight Cubs in 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball en route to his fourth win of the season (CLE 3, CHC 2). It was his 20th consecutive start with at least eight strikeouts, extending his MLB record. Bieber is 4-2 with a 2.95 ERA and an MLB-leading 85 strikeouts this season.
Long ago Cleveland pioneered the practice of locking up young players to long-term extensions before they reached free agency, and according to MLB Network's Jon Heyman, the club approached Bieber with contract offers each of the last two spring trainings. Obviously nothing came of it, though Cleveland is trying, and Heyman says they're hopeful they can get something done.
Bieber, 26 later this month, is making $679,700 in his final season as a pre-arbitration-eligible player this year. He'll have a chance to break Dallas Keuchel's record $7.25 million salary for a first time arbitration-eligible pitcher after the season. Like Keuchel, Bieber will enter arbitration with a Cy Young (maybe two?), plus a boatload more strikeouts, and strikeouts pay well.
With three arbitration years ahead of him, Bieber can not become a free agent until after the 2024 season, so Cleveland still controls him for quite some time. That said, the sooner you lock him up, the greater the savings. Players only get more expensive the closer they get to free agency, and there's always a chance Bieber raises his asking price with another Cy Young award.
Believe it or not, there is a pretty good contract benchmark for a pitcher with Bieber's accomplishments and at his service-time level: Blake Snell. Snell signed his five-year, $50 million extension with the Rays when he was four years away from free agency (like Bieber now) and right after winning his Cy Young award (also like Bieber now). It fits very well.
Bieber's representatives can use Snell's contract as a starting point for negotiations and they wouldn't be wrong to seek more because of inflation, and also because Bieber has been better to date than Snell was prior to his extension. The comparison:
Bieber lost 102 team games to the pandemic last season and still threw more innings than Snell in the three years leading up to his extension. More innings with better strikeout and walk rates, and identical park-adjusted ERAs. Unless they're feeling generous, Bieber and his representatives have no reason to take anything less than Snell's five-year, $50 million extension.
Cleveland locked up Corey Kluber to a five-year, $38.5 million deal in 2015, right after he won his first Cy Young and when he was still four years away from free agency. Kluber then was three years older than Bieber is now though. Others who signed extensions at Bieber's service time level include Germán Márquez (four years, $43 million) and Luis Severino (four years, $40 million).
Of course, spring training has come and gone, and it seems unlikely Bieber will sign a long-term deal during the season. It does happen from time to time, though most players prefer to focus on the season, and leave the business stuff for the winter. Cleveland will undoubtedly try to lock Bieber up long-term again next spring, when he'll be only three years away from free agency.
Surprisingly few starting pitchers have signed long-term deals when they were three years away from free agency, like Bieber will be next spring. Here are the only two remotely comparable pitchers:
- Aaron Nola, Phillies: 4 years, $45 million plus one club option (can max out at 5 years and $58.75 million)
- Carlos Martínez, Cardinals: 5 years, $51 million plus two club options (can max out at 7 years and $85.5 million)
Nola signed his extension in Feb. 2019, right after finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting in 2018. Martínez signed his deal in Feb. 2017. He was coming off a 3.02 ERA in 375 innings the previous two seasons and looked like one of the top young starters in the game. Nola and Martínez were both very good at the time of their extensions, but still below Bieber level.
Bieber has a realistic chance at breaking Keuchel's salary record for a first time arbitration-eligible pitcher next year, in which case his arbitration salaries could go something like $8 million in 2022, $14 million in 2023, and $20 million in 2024. Value his free agent years at $24 million a year (a conservative number, I think), and he's looking at five years and $90 million or so next spring.
On the open market Bieber would be a $300 million pitcher. Gerrit Cole holds the pitcher contract record at nine years and $324 million, and Bieber is every bit as good as Cole, and he's three years younger now than Cole was when he signed his deal with the Yankees. Bieber could very well break Cole's contract record as a free agent.
Bieber is not a free agent though. He's still tied to Cleveland through arbitration, and while my back of the envelope five-year deal worth $90 million seems light, it would smash the current record for a pitcher at Bieber's service-time level (Martínez's $51 million deal). Five years and $90 million would be fair for a pitcher of this caliber three years away from free agency.
Cleveland is a small-payroll team, though they reportedly offered Francisco Lindor multiple nine-figure extensions over the years. The money to sign Bieber is there. The bigger question is whether the two sides can find common ground. For what it's worth, Bieber says he's open to a long-term deal. From Associated Press in February:
"It's absolutely something I'd be open to," Bieber said on a video call from camp in Goodyear, Arizona. "In terms of conversations, it really hasn't happened yet, so that's something I'd love to dive into and hopefully that will be reciprocated as well."
At the time president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said Cleveland is "hopeful that Shane will be here for a really long time to come," without providing any details about their contract extension talks.
Keep in mind Bieber is still waiting for his first big MLB payday. He received a $420,000 signing bonus as a fourth-round draft pick in 2016 and this year's $679,700 salary is his highest to date. Bieber may be willing to trade his maximum earning potential through arbitration and free agency in exchange for the security of long-term deal and guaranteed millions. I wouldn't blame him.
For now, Cleveland controls Bieber through 2024, and he remains one of the very best pitchers in baseball. They will continue to pursue a long-term extension because that's what Cleveland does with star players, but the closer Bieber gets to free agency, the more expensive he will get. There will never be a better time to sign him than right now.