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Danny Cunningham column: Cleveland Guardians signing José Ramírez is a win, but why did it take so long?

The Guardians front office and ownership deserves credit for locking up Ramírez. But it’s also a move that needs context.

CLEVELAND — A week of firsts in Cleveland is underway, specifically regarding the baseball team. 

For the first time in more than a century, on Thursday afternoon in Kansas City, Cleveland’s professional baseball team will take the field under a new nickname. No longer the Indians, the Cleveland Guardians are set to embark on their inaugural campaign with this new identity. It’s a moment – and a season – that’s worth celebrating for that reason. 

The team taking the field with a new nickname isn’t a surprise to anybody, but the other first for the franchise is one that is fair to be both thrilled and surprised at. 

The Guardians are now taking the field for the first time ever with a $100 million player. The team agreed to a contract extension with All-Star third baseman José Ramírez that is reportedly worth $115 million in new money and keeps Ramírez in Cleveland through the 2028 season. 

Ramírez’s contract extension came as a surprise to many, and rightfully so. The team has been well known for developing stars, only to trade them away or watch them walk elsewhere in free agency. Ramírez is the first of his kind to not do that. His contract extension, paired with the full no-trade clause that it features, means he may in fact spend his entire career in Cleveland. If Ramírez does in fact do that, he would be joining a very short list of players that have. The only organization that Ramírez has known professionally opened the pocketbooks to keep him, in a place that he clearly wanted to be. 

This is a move that deserves praise for the front office and ownership of the Guardians, no doubt, but it’s also a move that needs context. It’s a reason to be excited about opening day and the season as a whole, but not a reason to excuse the past casualties of the frugality of the franchise. It’s a move that will bring fans back, but a move that was also needed to prevent a mass exodus of fandom from many. 

The team has consistently cut payroll since going all in towards a World Series title in 2017. Financial difficulties cut short what was a true window to win a championship. Those same financial difficulties have forced the team to move on from several high-profile players throughout the Dolan family’s ownership. Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana – twice – Edwin Encarnacion, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Carlos Carrasco, and more have all been traded away or allowed to depart in free agency because the team couldn’t afford to keep them around. 

The instant rebuttal will be that it can be difficult for small markets to retain star players in a league that doesn’t feature a salary cap, and that’s certainly true to a degree, but it’s not as true as the Guardians have made it seem.

The first ever $100 million contract in baseball was handed out by the Los Angeles Dodgers to Kevin Brown all the way back in 1998. Between now and then, 25 teams in baseball had given out a contract that guarantees at least $100 million, with the Guardians becoming the 26th. Prior to this week, the largest contract the Guardians had guaranteed as a franchise was a $65 million deal to Encarnacion – his deal was three years guaranteed for $60 million and featured a team option for $20 million for a fourth year, or a $5 million buyout, bringing the guaranteed total to $65 million. That total was the second lowest for a franchise's richest contract, trailing only the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

It's a great thing that Ramírez is the first player in franchise history to reach that mark, but he’s far from the first one that deserves to have been given that sort of payout. 

The news of Ramírez and the team reportedly at an impasse during extension negotiations sent some fans into a spiral. The team first signed Ramírez to an extension following his breakout season in 2016, and he followed that extension up by becoming one of the best players in baseball. Since 2017, the only two players that have been statistically better than Ramírez are Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Having Ramírez on his previous contract was the most team-friendly value in baseball. 

Realizing that if an agreement couldn’t be reached between Ramírez and the team meant he would likely be dealt away in a trade would have been the final straw for a number of fans, and that would have been understandable. Sending away yet another cornerstone for cheaper, lesser players, again, would have been the worst move made by the franchise yet. Especially with a player like Ramírez who very clearly wanted to stay in town. Keeping Ramírez around was the franchise doing something it very much needed to do, but it should be remembered that paying to keep him is doing the bare minimum. 

The move should be celebrated, but it doesn’t erase the history of how the team has treated its previous stars. If anything, it should beg the question as to why something like this didn’t happen sooner. 

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