NEW YORK -- Whether the Mets can sign Francisco Lindor to an extension this spring will be among the top baseball storylines to follow as Opening Day draws near. New York acquired the All-Star shortstop from Cleveland in January, along with starter Carlos Carrasco. Lindor, 27, can become a free agent following the 2021 season.
The Mets have indicated that they would be pleased with having Lindor’s services for a single season while acknowledging their desire to retain their prized acquisition long term. There’s pressure on New York to get a deal done, considering it gave up two big league infielders (Amed Rosario and Andres Giménez) and two top prospects (right-hander Josh Wolf and outfielder Isaiah Greene) in the trade with Cleveland.
It’s easy to see why any team would want to keep Lindor, a generational talent in his prime who oozes charisma and star power. Despite posting the worst offensive numbers of his career (.258/.335/.415, 102 OPS+) during the shortened 2020 season, Lindor leads all big league shortstops in FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (25.2) since his first full season in the Majors in '16. But for the Mets in particular, the opportunity to solidify the premium shortstop position -- something they haven’t done since José Reyes departed as a free agent following the 2011 season -- should be a tantalizing possibility.
From 2012-20, the Mets ranked last in the Majors with minus-101 defensive runs saved at shortstop. Infield defense has been a weakness for New York during that span, especially up the middle and on the left side. In that nine-year stretch, the Mets' defense at second base (minus-90 DRS, last in MLB) and third base (minus-46, 27th in MLB) has also left much to be desired. But at no position have they struggled more than at shortstop.
It wasn’t that Reyes was a defensive standout during the first of his two stints in Queens. From 2003-11, he was below average with minus-3 DRS, and in ’11, he posted minus-14 DRS, a career worst at the time. However, he was a solid defender early in his tenure while producing offensively, and he provided a stability at short that the Mets have been unable to replace.
The post-Reyes era
Following Reyes’ departure, several players have laid claim to the title of the Mets’ shortstop of the future. At first, the heir apparent was the light-hitting, defensive-minded Rubén Tejada. However, Tejada unperformed and drew criticism for his conditioning and work ethic. He also missed significant time because of injuries. As a result, in 2013, veteran Omar Quintanilla got most of the reps at short for New York.
Tejada’s woes paved the way for the Wilmer Flores experiment. Instead of adding an experienced shortstop following the '13 season, the Mets entrusted the position to the young Flores, who had played short early in his Minor League career. But by that point, he was mostly manning second and third. In 2015, despite ranking last in the Majors in DRS at shortstop with Flores getting the bulk of the playing time, the Mets still won the National League pennant. But after losing to the Royals in the World Series, they shored up the position by signing veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera.
In 2016, the first year of a two-year contract with a club option, Cabrera served primarily as New York's shortstop and provided an upgrade on both sides of the ball. However, the Mets re-signed the aging Reyes that year, and in ’17, he got the bulk of the playing time at short.
Reyes was a placeholder for Rosario, the highly touted prospect who was called up in August 2017 and wound up playing more games at shortstop for the Mets (387) than anyone since Reyes. But Rosario’s defense also became a liability, prompting talk of a possible move to the outfield. Despite taking a step forward in that regard during the latter half of ’19 and in ’20, Rosario ceded time to the defense-oriented Giménez last season. Both Rosario and Giménez are now in Cleveland, leaving 19-year-old Ronny Mauricio as the top shortstop prospect in the Mets’ farm system.
Now, the Mets have a chance to extend Lindor, the epitome of the modern shortstop who is a threat at the plate and provides elite defense.
A two-time Gold Glove Award winner with the range and instincts to make highlight-reel plays on a regular basis, Lindor has 46 career DRS at shortstop since debuting with Cleveland in June 2015. His 42 DRS since '16 rank fourth among MLB shortstops in that span. (The Mets rank last in that stretch with a collective minus-69 DRS at shortstop.)
A newer metric, Outs Above Average, which is based on Statcast data, tells a similar story. Lindor has accumulated 36 OAA since the stat debuted prior to the 2017 season, which ranks third among shortstops, behind Nick Ahmed (53) and Andrelton Simmons (43). In that same timeframe, Mets shortstops have had minus-38 OAA, second fewest in the Majors, ahead of only the Yankees (minus-41). In other words, Lindor’s defense has been worth 74 more outs than Mets shortstops in that four-season span.
It’s worth mentioning that Lindor is also a significant upgrade for the Mets on offense, his underwhelming 2020 notwithstanding. From 2012-20, Mets shortstops hit .255/.311/.375. Lindor, by comparison, is a .285/.346/.488 lifetime hitter. And he has more home runs in his Major League career (138) than Mets shortstops have hit since the start of the 2012 season (105).
Lindor also has three seasons with 30-plus homers, while Cabrera’s 23 home runs in 2016 stand as the most by a Mets player in a single season while playing at least half of his games at shortstop.
On the clock
In his introductory press conference last month, Lindor indicated that he is open to an extension with the Mets, but he would prefer not to negotiate after Opening Day.
“I have never negotiated a contract during the season,” Lindor said at the time. “Once it gets to a point in Spring Training, it’s time to enjoy the ride and focus on winning, and that is the only thing I should be focused on. Not how much money I am going to get, how much money do I need to get. It’s about focusing on what I have every day, my task.”
That means New York has about six weeks to strike a deal with Lindor or risk him hitting the open market. It is believed that the four-time All-Star will command a contract with an overall value north of $300 million -- hence Cleveland’s decision to trade him -- and if there’s anyone in position to meet his asking price, it’s new Mets owner Steve Cohen.
But at the least, in 2021, Lindor will turn a position that has long been a weakness for the Mets into an enviable strength.