What a Javier Baez extension could look like as Cubs reportedly negotiate new deal with star shortstop
The Cubs are coming off their first postseason-less season since 2014 but might soon lock up a key piece
The Cubs have hit a big offseason after a disappointing season in which a collapse kept them out of the postseason for the first time since 2014. They still have a championship core, but it's possible a shake-up is needed. In terms of shortstop Javier Baez being moved, it seems that is on the backburner, with an extension more a priority for Theo Epstein et al.
Baez and the Cubs have begun negotiations on a long-term extension, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times.
Baez is entering his age-27 season. In 2018, he had an MVP-caliber season (finishing second to the rightful winner Christian Yelich), hitting .290/.326/.554 with 40 doubles, nine triples, 34 homers, 111 RBI, 101 runs, 21 steals and 6.3 WAR. Last season, he was banged up with a heel injury in May and then was shut down in September with a thumb injury. He still managed to hit .281/.316/.531 with 38 doubles, four triples, 29 homers, 85 RBI, 89 runs, 11 steals and 4.8 WAR in 138 games.
In his first full season as the Cubs' shortstop, Baez also rated out as an exceptional defender due to his elite range and arm.
He certainly has his flaws (will he ever learn the strike zone and even out that strikeout-to-walk problem a bit?), but otherwise this is an upper-echelon player at a premium position.
Let's figure out what a potential long-term extension for Baez might look like.
First off, we need to see what's left until he hits free agency. Baez has two years left in arbitration. He's projected to make $9.3 million this year, per MLB Trade Rumors. It's reasonable to believe that a season like the last year puts Baez up in the $15 million range for his last year of arbitration in 2021. As such, we need to start with something around two years and $24 million to absorb into any deal that is long term and buys out free agent years.
Now we need recent market comparables.
The best I can come up with is to place Baez between two recent high-profile, middle-infield extensions.
Last spring, Xander Bogaerts signed a six-year, $120 million extension with a vesting option for 2026. This seems to be short of what Baez should get. Bogaerts was a year younger, yes, but he only had one year left before hitting free agency. Also, Bogaerts had just 6.0 WAR combined in the previous two years before signing his extension while Baez was at 11.1. Yes, we know it's "not the be-all, end-all," but it's a decent way to show Baez has been a lot more productive the last two years than Bogaerts was his last two years before an extension.
On the high end, there's Jose Altuve.
Before 2018, Altuve's age-28 season, he signed a seven-year, $151 million extension. He combined for 15.8 WAR in his previous two years. Like Baez in the first of those two years, Altuve finished in the top three of MVP voting (Baez was second, Altuve was third), but Altuve won the MVP in 2017 while the Astros won the World Series.
It's not quite as simple to split the difference, but it seems clear Baez should get more than Bogaerts and less than Altuve, even taking into account he's a year younger than Altuve.
Given that he is a year younger than Altuve and also has an extra year before free agency than Bogaerts did, I think seven years is reasonable. Bogaerts' average annual value is $20 million while Altuve's is $21.57 million. With an extra year over Bogaerts, Baez is probably good at $20 million per.
Absorbing the two years and $24 million estimate on arbitration would mean buying out five free agent years for something around $116 million -- at a $20M AAV for the whole seven -- and that's pretty reasonable for a player of Baez's caliber. Throwing club and/or vesting options at the end of the deal generally help matters, too, because every player believes he'll still be productive ("oh yeah, I'll be good enough to earn that") while the team protects itself against regression.
As far as the logjam the Cubs have with contracts against the backdrop of ownership wanting to avoid the luxury tax in future seasons, the Cubs can backload the deal a bit to avoid huge salary increases in 2020 and 2021 (to be clear, the luxury tax is based upon average annual value, but if Baez's salary is a lot lower in 2020 and 2021, it would likely make the deal a lot more palatable for ownership to better absorb the taxes it doesn't want to pay). Further complicating matters is that we won't know what the new collective bargaining agreement will look like after the current one expires after the 2021 season. Maybe there's no more luxury tax, so backloading makes even more sense.
It's far more complicated than this, but a rudimentary overview has my best guess at a good point in negotiations where things might start to get serious.
Let's go with seven years, $140 million with a vesting option for $30 million in 2027 if Baez takes 600 plate appearances in 2026.
Who says no?
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