The Cleveland Guardians, Jose Ramirez, and the Fork in the Road

In 2015, Cleveland baseball was on the upswing, Terry Francona had recently seized control of the bench and the bubblegum bucket, Francisco Lindor was on his way, and Jose Ramirez’ sprint to the big leagues had succeeded. The next three years 2016, 2017, and 2018 would include a World Series appearance in 2016, a historically good Cleveland team in 2017, and a similarly talented 2018 team, as well as elevated organizational spending. Starting in 2019, the path to purgatory began with a salary dump transaction where Yandy Diaz was attached to Edwin Encarnacion to save money.

Still with complimentary star Francisco Lindor on the roster in 2019 and 2020, and perennial MVP candidate Jose Ramirez as well as a continually successful pitching pipeline, the Guardians club was able to contend, and in 2021, middle its way through a season. Still, Cleveland’s obsession with sustained contention, an admirable if unattainable goal at these payroll levels leaves it in constant flux as it enters another pivotal offseason.

Jose Ramirez is the center of this article in part because of the current pivot point and in part because of his greatness. Ramirez since the start of 2016 is third among all position players in Fangraphs Wins Above replacement (fWAR) at 32.7, behind only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. Ramirez is on his way to his fourth top-5 finish in MVP voting, and is simply a superstar.

In 2021, with a new name, Cleveland is once again faced with a handful of options on a roundabout of organizational management. First, the organization can take the approach it has in 2020, and 2021, limited spending on external additions, limited roster churn, and hope the pitching factory plus Jose Ramirez get the team to 90 wins. Second, the Guardians can lever up spending while it can complement superstar talents in Jose Ramirez and Shane Bieber. Third, the Guardians can extend Jose Ramirez and/or Shane Bieber long term, which buys them a year or two of buffer to build around them, and allow a deep minor league system to show fruit. Fourth, the Guardians can trigger a full scale rebuild, trade Ramirez and Bieber, look forward to 2024. Adding uncertainty is the reality that a work stoppage around the expiring collective bargaining agreement appears likely. With these paths in mind it is worth evaluating what each one would look like in practice.

  1. Unrepentant Apathy

This would involve one or two $6 million free agent acquisitions in the Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, or Andrew Benintendi mold, a light trade for another outfield project, and a collection of spring training invites for lottery ticket bullpen arms. More Bradley Zimmer, and Oscar Mercado plate appearances would be a true master-stroke of this approach. Essentially, this would be another effort at middling to a 78-83 win target with the notion that prospect breakouts and variance drive them close to 90 wins.

2. Aggressive Investment

There are a handful of different approaches to counting payroll be it estimated payroll, or estimated luxury tax payroll. Relying on a single one of those numbers as the truth is dangerous but it is doable when talking about investment, because one can just apply a percent or ratio. Using Fangraphs’ roster resource, the 2021 Cleveland payroll was $50,592,469. Guardians President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti discussed increasing investment in the article.

With a bottom-five payroll resources to invest should be measurable after continuous reduction in salary that saw the team go from ~$130 million budgets to ~$50 million budget in the span of roughly four seasons. Time to look at investment growth, a 25% payroll growth would be just $12.5 million, which with rising arb costs on Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, and Franmil Reyes is fairly meager. Larger payroll growth, 50% would be just $25 million, a reasonable expectation of payroll growth probably sits somewhere inbetween. By reasonable expectation, I mean based on previous ownership behavior.

Adding complexity, this is not exactly a deep free agent market, with top-end players out of the teams price range, and an unlikelihood the team would even surpass $15 annual average value for a player level, the pool of players drastically narrows. Two potential fits would be Chris Taylor, Mark Canha, and dare I say it, Kris Bryant types (Bryant name value versus market value are pretty divergent). Each of these could have AAV as high as $20 million and as low as $10 million in an unpredictable market; though Bryant likely sits at the top end.

Still either Canha or Taylor would immediately improve the team’s significantly below average offense, and as team operations go, trading pre-arb prospects is the Guardians other major spending device. With infielders Richie Palacios, Tyler Freeman, Brayan Rocchio, Gabriel Arias, and Angel Martinez, the upper levels of the Guardians system is getting more and more crowded, and a trade is necessary to ease the 40-man burden. This even ignores Andres Gimenez, still a significant prospect in his own right. Of course, each of these players has varying value, if based on data/conversations this author rank them Rocchio, Freeman, Palacios, Arias, Martinez. Of course, Arias may have the highest ceiling so this could be a very nice screenshot to have in 12 months.

This is all to say the Guardians could materially improve their offense around Jose Ramirez by spending roughly $12-15 million on one additional bat, and then consolidating two prospects for an outfielder, or offensive value add at first base.

3. Extending Jose Ramirez

Jose Ramirez has two team option years left on what is perhaps the most team-friendly deal signed in baseball over the past 20 years, it is team constructed grand theft. What is truly unfortunate is not only are the terms of the years already complete abysmal for Ramirez but the two option years of $11 million and $13 million are handcuffing him from taking a truly massive payday. With these options, Jose Ramirez will not hit the free agent market until 31, and pairing aging curves with not being able to cash in on his projected production for 2022 and 2023 is a massive blow. Major League Baseball contracts with a flat annual average value (AAV), especially the very big ones, are constructed on the team getting significant front end value (surplus), and taking deficit on the back end as production deteriorates. For Ramirez, two seasons in his career remaining where he would be expected to create the most significant surplus are owned at the absurdly low cost of $11 million and $13 million.

With that in mind, if the team were to extend Jose Ramirez, ti would significantly reduce AAV against some comps where players are hitting the market at 29 years old or younger. Anthony Rendon is the strong comparable contract for Ramirez but for those two pesky options. In 2019, Rendon signed a seven year $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. Rendon’s first season under the agreement was his age 30 season, Ramirez will be 31/32.

Between the fact that the Guardians already own the age 29/30 seasons cheaply, and Ramirez would not hit the market until 31 it significantly diminishes potential AAV. An AAV meeting ground might be $27 million over five years with an option/buyout. This would buyout the two cheap option years where Ramirez has all the risk, and guarantee him $135 million over the next five years. Then do a sixth year option of $30 million with a $5 million buyout, so the guarantee reaches $140 million. Of course, there are a number of other constructs to explore including deferred guarantees which the Washington Nationals have used, or additional guaranteed years. Ramirez’ representation could argue this is insufficient, and choose to test free agency, they would probably be right but they would absorb a ton of risk to do so.

The team has changed names, changed logos, why not keep its most joyful face and superstar for a long time?

4. Trade Jose Ramirez Now and Rebuild

Typing that out was not a fun experience but it still remains a better option than option #1, the “throw your hands up in the air” approach to roster management.

Surplus value based trade valuation is an imperfect and flawed science but it remains the best way to create expectation ranges. Over the next two years Ramirez is owed $24 million total, and for the same time period projected for ~12 fWAR. At $8.5 million per win, a reasonable estimation Ramirez is projected for $100 million in value generated, minus salary reaches $76 million surplus. Based on research by Craig Edwards, fans could expect a 65 future value (FV) or 60 FV position player as a the centerpiece, if the team went for a big centerpiece and limited secondary pieces. For current context that means any prospect in baseball as a centerpiece but for Adley Rutschman depending on the FV you ascribe to him. Think C.J. Abrams, Julio Rodriguez, and Spencer Torkelson as the level of prospect to center a deal.

For Jose Ramirez, the organization could acquire a true top-end prospect to be a centerpiece of a rebuild, it is the most saddening option but it is not the worst. The one major complication is the potential work-stoppage if the 2022 season is cancelled, the trade value impacts are significant.

Only One Bad Choice

There are four possible choices but simply continuing on in passivity is unacceptable. It is certainly possible that Ramirez and the Guardians cannot find a middle ground to extend, the best outcome but if that is the case the team must move aggressively in one direction or another. Either invest heavily in the near term or trade Ramirez before his value craters. Refusing to act only makes for frustrating baseball, and an un-engaging product.

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