The Indians have 11 players hitting arbitration this year, but while the Indians are generally looking to extend players once they hit their arbitration eligible years, there are limited candidates this time. Only Bryan Shaw and Lonnie Chisenhall are in their final years, and both would be extremely risky long term signings. Of those who will reach free agency prior to the 2020 season, there is only one player who has been consistent enough for a significant enough time to be worth looking at a long term extension.
We’ve been talking about extending Cody Allen since 2014 on Burning River Baseball and generally have always come back with the same determination that the Indians have. It’s too risky to guarantee a reliever money, particularly a closer who would command more money per year and could lose it at any moment.
While an extension has been a possibility over the last couple off-seasons and at this point, would have likely saved some money for the Indians, it is more likely than ever now. The 2017 season will be Allen’s second through arbitration after making $4.15M in 2016. According to MLB Trade Rumors, he is likely to make $7.7M in 2017, highest among the Indians arbitration eligibles this year and second highest among all relievers in baseball behind Jeurys Familia.
As one of the top closers in baseball, this makes sense. As much as front offices have moved to advanced stats, the arbiters generally love the old school numbers and Allen is a star looking at either, saving 32 of 35 with a 2.51 ERA, 11.5 K/9 and 2.86 career FIP. Looking at these numbers, a salary near $8M is very reasonable league wide, although it would be the second highest for a pitcher on the Indians behind Andrew Miller and the fifth highest on the team as it is set now, behind Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Miller.
This unbalanced team salary could effect the Indians decision on possibly extending Allen. They are already paying Miller $9M per season for each of the next two years and will likely have to pay Allen at least that much in 2018. Do the Indians want to continue this trend of paying relievers more than starters? Corey Kluber is set to surpass $10M first in 2018, Carlos Carrasco never will under his current contract.
It is possible that an extension could alleviate some of this. Looking into the somewhat distant future, Miller’s contract comes off the books before 2019 (as does Allen’s) and an extension into his free agent years could allow the Indians to make his contract back heavy. By paying him slightly less than what he is worth now, but guaranteeing that amount later on, the Indians could have greater financial flexibility while Miller is still on the team.
Losing Miller before 2019 should be part of the Indians side of the reasoning for getting a deal done right now. With Shaw possibly leaving after 2017, this would decimate the Indians bullpen, cutting off all three heads of the three headed monster by the 2019 season. Signing Allen now would at least provide some certainty going into those later years.
Against the Indians possibly extending Allen should be the volatility of relievers as a whole. This could be an argument to sign him as well as Allen has been extremely consistent over the last three seasons, but it also seems like one or two relievers go from journeymen to superstars within a season. Dan Otero was arguably the Indians top reliever this year (at least before Miller showed up) and Jeff Manship was a lock-down option in 2015. Scott Atchison was a surprise in 2014 and the trend has extended for decades before that.
Despite this, the Indians cupboard is slightly barren. Kyle Crockett has been solid when given a chance and Perci Garner looked good in limited opportunities, but in general, there is extremely little Major League ready talent in the upper minor leagues who could be considered future closer candidates. There are plenty of middle relief options, including those two, Shawn Armstrong, Joe Colon, Jeff Johnson and possibly Louis Head and these could be extended depending on who makes the rotation next year as Ryan Merritt and Shawn Morimando could also rejoin the pen. However, none of these is an Allen or a Miller, where they can blow you away with a fastball and drop a devastating breaking pitch as well.
To find a pitcher like that, the Indians would likely have to break into their minor league starting pitching depth, something they could do, but something that would be a risky move. If you were to convert a top pitcher to the bullpen in the belief that you have plenty of starters up and coming (the Indians do), you could find the next great bullpen ace, but you could also waste years of that pitcher’s career if he were better suited to a starting role. Think Fausto Carmona in 2006.
Even if the Indians can find some great relievers down the line (David Speer, Cameron Hill and Ben Krauth are three in particular to look for), it wouldn’t hurt them to have an established closer. If these players develop into dominant relievers, it would only work to make the Indians bullpen similar to the 2016 edition and that of the Royals in 2014 and 2015.
For the last four seasons, Allen has pitched between 67 and 77 games in the regular season, had a BB/9 between 3.2 and 3.6, a K/9 between 11.3 and 12.9 and an ERA between 2.07 and 2.99. He has been the model of consistency and is only now entering his prime years, turning 28 next week. He should have at least three more seasons of dominance ahead of him and likely another four where he would still be a solid reliever after that. Only two of those are currently guaranteed to be in Cleveland.
While there is more urgency if they were to try to re-sign Shaw for the long term and a larger financial stake should they try to extend Danny Salazar or Francisco Lindor, there may not be a more important extension candidate for the Indians this year than Allen. He’s already expensive, but if they wait any longer, his risk will have disappeared, so he will have no reason to agree to a deal. With free agency looming after the 2018 season, it’s easy to imagine Allen seeing dollar signs and refusing to negotiate. The Indians need to get a deal done right now when they still have the smallest bit of leverage and try to get at least two more years out of Allen. There are only a handful of relievers as good as Allen in baseball right now and the Indians have two of them. If they don’t do anything soon, however, they won’t have any at the end of 2018.