A's shortstop Marcus Semien avoided arbitration and agreed to play the 2020 season on a one-year, $13 million contract. Once that deal expires it’s off to the open market.
Free agency will be kind to a shortstop who does most everything well, even in a possibly depressed market, rewarding him with more than the A’s have ever guaranteed a player on one contract.
Eric Chavez’s six-year, $66 million deal, inked back in 2004, still holds that distinction. That last sentence seems surreal considering how salaries have risen and how much elite talent has coursed through the A’s organization. With rare exception, they’ve all gotten paid elsewhere.
The A’s have done just fine building rosters on the cheap. They have reinvented themselves time and again, including a recent run with five playoff appearances and four 94-plus win seasons in the last eight years. Who are we to second guess their preference to draft, develop and eventually deal?
They can counter such criticism in a single word: Scoreboard.
The time has come, however, to break protocol and lock Semien up before he hits the market.
Full freight won’t come cheap. Can’t imagine Semien hired top agent Joel Wolfe last summer to take hometown discounts. His premium position, awesome standard stats and advanced metrics suggest he’s getting a fat paycheck soon despite the fact he’ll enter the 2021 campaign at age 30.
Both player and team have expressed interest in a deal, per the San Francisco Chronicle, but it’s unknown whether the A’s would meet an asking price that could increase if he repeats or even approaches his 2019 performance.
I asked Semien about entering a contract year in February while covering A’s spring training, before baseball hit pause over the coronavirus pandemic, and the polished shortstop played it cool.
“Right now, all I know is that I have a contract I’m working under,” Semien said. “It is what it is. Until anything happens ... of course it’s human nature to think about what’s in your future but, for me, I don’t think it will impact the way I play.
"It just adds more excitement to what could happen next.”
Several stories project Semien’s worth on a long-term deal. Generally speaking, they compare players of similar performance and adjust those contracts for inflation. Mock contracts are about as accurate as NFL mock drafts, so let’s just estimate Semien could max out eight figures or hit the lower end of nine under normal circumstances. He might end up with a little less due to baseball's hiatus and uncertain 2020 prospects, but he should still be in line for a rich contract.
Will the A’s pay big for this particular player? They should, especially when evaluating Semien from all angles.
The move makes sense from a purely baseball perspective. Semien finished third in MVP voting last year, and while we won’t slog through every elite metric, his 8.9 WAR, per baseball-reference.com, should speak volumes. He played every game and led MLB with 747 plate appearances, which was no fluke.
Semien has missed three games in two seasons and has been productive over 1,450 times at bat in that span. He has played at least 155 games in four of the last five years, missing the mark just once with a wrist injury. We all know about his marked defensive improvement, which both enhances value and illustrates a tireless work ethic and devotion to his craft.
All that ironman stuff should inspire confidence in those writing checks, because they would be maximizing a considerable investment on a per-game basis. Semien doesn’t play every fifth day. He doesn’t take Sundays off after working hard Saturday night. His age shouldn’t cause particular panic that a moderate-length deal would lose value on the back end if he starts breaking down. To this point, there’s little to no evidence he will.
So, in a statement of the obvious, Semien is an excellent baseball player just now maximizing potential.
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But this is about more than pure performance.
This also is about the slogan.
Rooted in Oakland.
The A’s latest rallying cry capitalizes on the Warriors moving to San Francisco and Raiders leaving for Las Vegas while the East Bay’s remaining professional team vows to stay and presses for a new ballpark.
Rooted in Oakland. The A’s shortstop is the perfect face of that marketing push.
Semien is East Bay born, East Bay raised and East Bay proud. He grew up in El Cerrito, went to Berkeley St. Mary’s High and then Cal. He has a permanent home in Alameda and uses Oakland Coliseum as his offseason batting cage.
He wants to live and work here. He wants to give a title to his home region and the team that helped him develop. He surely wants to open up a brand-new building.
Put Semien on a billboard off I-880, alongside to a Howard Terminal ballpark rendering. The man personifies what the A’s are trying to sell -- excellent play and a commitment to this area.
An argument could be made that superstars Matt Chapman or Matt Olson would have a similar effect, that fans care more about production than hometown sentiment, but why not have the best of both worlds? Why not use the contract to connect a homegrown star to the opening of a new venue with several hurdles left to clear before construction begins?
Signing Semien at some point before he becomes a free agent -- not now, obviously, with no games being played during a public health crisis -- would also signal a new way of conducting business once a ballpark’s built. If, of course, that is the A's intent.
And there’s surely a way to work a contract that leaves coin available as Olson and Chapman approach free agency in 2024. The A’s should also, in theory anyway, have completed or should be nearing completion of a new ballpark by then with new revenue streams allowing for a significant payroll increase.
Also, trust that it’s easier to spend other’s money and suggest altering a business model without having to account for its side effects. It’s still worthwhile to break protocol and make this statement signing.
Semien is a unique case, someone who would provide value to the baseball and business sides of the organization. It would be a mistake to trade a player like that for another round of prospects or, even worse, let him walk right out the front door.