Josh Donaldson’s hamstring tightness figures to open up even more playing time for Arraez at that position than the Twins were anticipating, at least in the short term. Manager Rocco Baldelli said even before Donaldson got hurt that he would be looking to slot Arraez into the lineup as often as possible, as the leadoff hitter. In the first game of the season, Arraez rewarded that profession of faith by collecting two hits (and having a third stolen on a dazzling defensive play) and drawing a walk.
If you were dubious that the Twins would find something close to 600 plate appearances for Arraez this year (should he stay healthy enough to claim them), recent developments should have put those doubts to rest. From optioning Alex Kirilloff to starting Arraez in left field on Thursday to Baldelli’s commitment to using him as the leadoff hitter, and especially in the wake of Donaldson’s misfortune, all signs point to a vital role for Arraez in the team’s plans for the entire season.
It might also be time to think beyond this season, though. In the hours just before the Angels opened their season with a 4-3 win over the White Sox, the team announced that it had signed a five-year, $26-million extension with second baseman David Fletcher. The deal could stretch to seven years and almost $40 million, as the Angels hold two club options. Fletcher, 27 next month, is three full years older than Arraez, but he’s also a year closer to free agency. Though he bats right-handed, he’s extremely similar to Arraez at the plate: below-average power, but top-tier skills in other offensive areas. No one — not even Arraez — makes contact on a higher percentage of swings than does Fletcher. He’s versatile, too, but a better defender at each infield spot than Arraez is.
The Angels didn’t have extraordinary leverage over Fletcher in negotiating this deal. Though he’s a slightly late bloomer, Fletcher could have hit free agency at about the same age at which Tommy La Stella just did so. La Stella, another player very similar to Fletcher and Arraez, signed a three-year deal worth $19 million. Six and a half years ago, Fletcher signed for an above-slot $406,000 after the Angels took him in the sixth round. There’s significant value in the certainty he just gained by signing a long-term deal, but he probably would have made at least this much if he had merely gone year-to-year until reaching free agency. Moreover, he’s already made somewhere close to $1.5 million as a professional ballplayer.
Though there are special circumstances involved in both Fletcher’s deal and the one Ozzie Albies signed with Atlanta two years ago, the contracts can’t be dismissed as data points in any conversation about an Arraez extension. I wrote about what an Arraez deal could look like last month, and intentionally shot a hair above the market rate, because I felt that the relevant precedents for such a deal were unfairly underselling the skill sets of the players in question, including Arraez. However, the Fletcher deal further sets that market, and at this point, I’m forced to admit that any five- or six-year deal (even with club options attached) between the Twins and Arraez would only need to guarantee the gifted hitter about $25 million.
Given that reality, the Twins would be nuts not to be talking to Arraez and his representatives about getting a deal done. There is nothing to be gained by waiting. If there’s a deal to be done that will allow the Twins to capture real upside during what would otherwise be Arraez’s most expensive arbitration-eligible seasons and his early free agency, and the total cost is only the rough equivalent of Donaldson’s annual salary, then they need to pounce on the opportunity.
In the meantime, Arraez will certainly be pouncing on his. However stretched he might be as an everyday third baseman, he’s secure at that position for as long as Donaldson is out, because the Twins lack a realistic alternative. Despite his limitations, Arraez is indispensable to this Twins team, and he might well prove to be a key cog for an AL Central dynasty. Given how cheaply they could ensure that, the Twins should be very excited about the prospect.
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