Mets’ Francisco Lindor contract talks: Cautionary tales loom

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There are times when the dance partners move close, yet never dance.

Following the 1999 season, for example, the Rangers traded two-time AL MVP Juan Gonzalez to the Tigers. Texas did not believe it could sign Gonzalez long-term as he entered his walk year. Detroit quickly offered a then-record seven-year, $119 million extension. Gonzalez rejected the bid, in part fearing spacious Comerica Park would depress his production.

That offseason, Derek Jeter and the Yankees agreed on a seven-year, $118.5 million extension. George Steinbrenner, though, refused to finalize an accord that would top the seven-year, $105 million pact of Kevin Brown for the largest ever. The Boss ordered his subordinates to wait for another deal in the pipeline to be completed so Jeter’s would not be the record. Yep, that was the Gonzalez offer that was never accepted.

Francisco Lindor and the Mets are now circling each other, and often when there is this kind of momentum a deal becomes inevitable. But the Gonzalez/Jeter episodes remind that industry expectations of a deal and a deal being done are quite different. And industry expectations are strong. I have yet to speak to a non-involved executive or player representative who does not anticipate a Lindor extension before the season.

They see the Mets as motivated after surrendering assets to acquire Lindor from Cleveland. Also because they sense Steve Cohen wants to continue to differentiate himself from the Wilpons. As one AL executive said, “Do you know how little $300 million over 10 years is to Steve Cohen, when it comes to getting what he wants?”

The $300 million is relevant. The Mets have, at minimum, indicated a willingness to go to what plays like a demarcation line to gain Lindor’s attention. One player rep wondered if Lindor would consider, say, a four-year, $160 million extension with an out or two that would make him the first-ever $40-million-per-year player and get him back into free agency no later than after his age-30 season.

But most player reps expect Lindor to seek the largest total guarantee. When I suggested eight years at $300 million because 1) it’s $300 million and 2) $37.5 million annually would top Gerrit Cole’s current $36 million record, agents generally felt Lindor would pursue the most total dollars even if the average value fell. My concept would make Lindor a free agent again in his mid-30s and securing meaningful dollars then as a middle infielder is difficult.

Mets Francisco Lindor contract talks
Derek Jeter, Francisco Lindor, Juan Gonzalez
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; Corey Sipkin; Allsport via Getty Images

So the most probable range is between Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million) and Mookie Betts (12 years, $365 million). Betts’ pre-extension situation last year was similar to Lindor’s now — traded to a big market, and entering both his age-27 season and walk year. Lindor is not as accomplished as Betts was, but timing and desperation are often determining factors.

Remember that Brown was once the highest-paid player in the game (a contract, by the way, I remember appalling a commissioner’s office employee named Sandy Alderson).

This time Alderson wants the player long-term. The player wants long-term riches. Gonzalez (for the player) and Jeter (for the team) provide cautionary tales about what can occur without an agreement.

Gonzalez: There were reports at the time that Gonzalez was offered eight years at $143 million, but then-Tigers GM Randy Smith told me Tuesday it was seven at $119 million. Regardless, Gonzalez never approached even the lower amount, for in 2000 he showed he was done as an elite player. Lindor is coming off his worst offensive season (.750 OPS), albeit in a shortened schedule. He also will be playing the bulk of his games in a much tougher division (the NL East rather than the AL Central).

One NL executive said, “His value changes as a free agent if he is a high-.700 or low-.800 OPS guy rather than the high .800s (like in 2018),” especially if shortstops Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story get to free agency after this season to provide options. A player rep said if the Mets cross $300 million then Lindor should consider that he will be “the centerpiece of a New York team that is good. That has great value for Lindor” in raising his profile for endorsements and passion projects.

Jeter: After not signing following the 1999 season, Jeter hit .339 and won both the All-Star Game and World Series MVPs in 2000. Plus, Alex Rodriguez obliterated the previous pay scale by signing a 10-year, $252 million pact with the Rangers. The Yanks had no regrets that they ultimately paid a lot more (10 years at $189 million), but it shows how quickly the price can change, especially for a charismatic, talented shortstop in New York.

So the Mets risk the charismatic and talented Lindor’s price rising by his success and/or others signing. Baez and Correa are viewed as having good chances of re-signing before free agency; maybe Seager too. That could raise the price for Lindor while removing potential replacement options for the Mets.

Does that provide greater motivation that if you are close to dancing on this kind of extension that both sides should figure out how to actually dance?

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