While a frosty winter for most free agents has been the general expectation throughout the industry, there’s also been a belief that the very top names on the market will still be compensated at a rate more commensurate with a typical economic climate. Names like Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, George Springer and DJ LeMahieu are widely projected to secure lucrative multi-year deals. Agent Joel Wolfe tells Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he expects client Marcus Semien to also command a high-dollar contract despite the harsh market conditions.
Wolfe didn’t say he expects a nine-figure deal for the 30-year-old shortstop but did plainly state that Semien’s “pure value in the industry is north of $100MM.” The use of “pure” value at a time when contractual expectations are depressed suggests that the actual target could be somewhat lower. Still, it’s rather eye-opening to see any agent invoke a $100MM price point in any context at this point — particularly for a player coming off a respectable but hardly elite season. I won’t fully rehash Wolfe’s comments for the purposes of this exercise, but Slusser’s interview is well worth a full read-through to get a broader sense of his representation’s thinking.
Semien’s market and contract, admittedly, are among the toughest to gauge among all free agents this offseason. That’s due to a combination of Semien’s pedestrian regular-season numbers, his huge postseason efforts and the fact that he was an elite, MVP-level performer in 2019 — but at no other point in his career. Add in that we simply don’t see solid, everyday shortstops reach free agency often, and it’s all the more difficult because of a lack of precedent.
Outside of Didi Gregorius last year and Zack Cozart a few years back, most quality shortstops have been locked up on contract extensions that buy out their early free-agent years. (It’s fair to wonder whether that would’ve been true of Gregorius, too, had he not required Tommy John surgery post-2018). Each of Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Elvis Andrus, Paul DeJong, Brandon Crawford, Jorge Polanco, Tim Anderson and Jean Segura took earlier paydays rather than a year-to-year arbitration approach, for instance. It may not seem like it at first glance, but Semien’s very presence on the market as an in-his-prime, starting-caliber shortstop is rather atypical.
Given that context, the scattershot nature of predictions for Semien isn’t all that surprising. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel predicted a three-year, $54MM deal, calling Semien a “steady 2.5 to 3.5 WAR player whom a savvy club will find solid value in for two or three years.” At FanGraphs, Craig Edwards predicted a four-year, $64MM deal, pointing to the fact that if you toss out the first two weeks of the season after a shortened ramp-up period, Semien posted a 133 wRC+ (playoffs included). The Athletic’s Keith Law ranked him sixth among free agents — between Marcell Ozuna and DJ LeMahieu — noting that he seems capable of handling shortstop for the next several years but calling 2019 a likely outlier season.
Tim Dierkes, Connor Byrne, Jeff Todd and I struggled with what to predict for Semien when we were discussing our annual Top 50 list. I was the most bullish of the bunch on Semien’s prospects, believing that the “one elite season” argument somewhat glosses over the fact that Semien kept his bat elite over the course of an MLB-high 747 plate appearances that year. Weighting that output the same as we’d rate a 500-600 plate appearance sample simply because it fell within the confines of “one season” didn’t sit right. Over Semien’s past 1000 plate appearances — closer to two full seasons than to one — he’s been about 25 percent better than a league-average hitter. For someone capable of playing average or better shortstop defense, that’s immensely valuable, even if there’s some further regression in store.
It’s tough to overlook a .223/.305/.374 slash in 2020, however, and even folding in his massive postseason performance that only jumps to .244/.326/.408. Even as the most bullish member of the MLBTR staff regarding Semien, I had a difficult time picturing more than a three-year deal in the range of $14-15MM annually. We ultimately put down a one-year deal with a return to market next winter, hopefully on the heels of a stronger showing, with the prevailing logic being that any multi-year offers received simply wouldn’t be that exciting relative to Semien’s post-2019 expectations.
The 2021-22 class of shortstops featuring Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa certainly isn’t a welcoming group to join, although as MLBTR’s Jeff Todd rightly pointed out, the huge supply of quality shortstops inherently means there will be considerable demand for replacements — and not every club losing one of those five will be able to meet the asking price to retain them. Therein could lie an opportunity for a strong contract for Semien. That glut of quality options, Wolfe tells Slusser, is “a factor we’d consider but not a guiding factor” in the shortstop’s ultimate decision.
While it’s again worth noting that Wolfe didn’t outright set a $100MM asking price, it still seems likely based on his comments that Semien’s reps at Wasserman have a loftier goal than most pundits expect to be attainable. Wolfe tells Slusser that interest in Semien has already been strong — including an inquiry from a club that already would appear to have a set shortstop. “I just got another call (Wednesday) from a team that said they’d be willing to move their shortstop to another position,” the agent tells Slusser.
Between the A’s, Reds, Phillies and Angels, there are at least four postseason hopefuls who have fairly straightforward openings at shortstop. Other clubs like the Yankees, Mets, Twins and Blue Jays could certainly shuffle their infield mix if they believe Semien represents a potential value purchase in a depressed market with a historically good 2021-22 shortstop class looming.
Wolfe’s comments to Slusser exude some confidence that Semien will eventually land a strong multi-year commitment, but there may not be a position player with a broader range of plausible outcomes on this year’s free-agent market.