Indians have 5 potential options with Lindor

July 13th, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has altered the trade situation in at least one way: Instead of getting asked by reporters about his future in person, now Lindor gets asked via Zoom.

But the Lindor dynamic has quite likely changed in meaningful ways as well. He is still a central figure in what looks to be the strangest swap market in history, with only 38 days separating Opening Day from the Trade Deadline. And like so much in the sport and the world right now, the conversation is complicated.

What hasn’t changed is this: Lindor is eligible for free agency after 2021. And barring a big surprise, he is likely going to test the free-agent market, presumably signing with a team outside of Cleveland, as the Indians would likely struggle to build a championship-caliber club around a player with one of the largest contracts in MLB.

That’s why the trade conversation endures. The Indians listened to offers for Lindor last winter and didn’t like what they heard. But trading him prior to his expiration date is the best way to inject new life into their system -- the lifeblood of clubs in a market such as theirs.

An extension appears unrealistic, so the Indians have five options with regard to Lindor during his remaining contractual control. Let’s explore each one.

Option #1: Trade him now!
As in, prior to Opening Day 2020. If this were to happen, we could come up with a conspiracy theory that Terry Francona ordered a trade of Lindor after the star shortstop punked Tito by giving him pine tar instead of hand sanitizer.

But no, when the Indians open the season on July 24, Lindor will be in their lineup. Team president Chris Antonetti said that the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic isn’t going to influence roster decisions.

Option #2: Trade him by 4 p.m. on Aug. 31
Had this season played out as originally scheduled, the Indians -- a team with a history of slow starts under Francona -- would have opened it with enormous pressure to start strong, lest the Lindor trade talk take on a life of its own (this happened with staff ace CC Sabathia in 2008).

This dynamic has changed in several ways.

For one, while every team is under pressure to start strong in a 60-game season, 38 days does not leave much time for separation in the standings. The Indians would have to totally tank to even be of the mind to deal Lindor.

Furthermore, the ongoing pandemic has to be a consideration for even the most competitive general managers. Because the unfortunate reality (that we’re all rooting against) is that you could acquire a player with the intention of him elevating your team in October, only to have October taken away. That could limit clubs’ aggressiveness.

Finally, the wrinkle this year is that only the 60 players in a team’s player pool will be eligible to be traded. That limits the number of Minor League players the Indians could target in a trade. And with no Minor League season, there’s no way for the Indians to properly evaluate prospects in 2020.

Pre-pandemic, I thought there was a decent chance of Lindor getting moved at this year’s Deadline. I don’t really think so now.

Option #3: Trade him next winter
This was -- and perhaps still is -- the most likely scenario. After all, Lindor’s arbitration price tag is rising. He had been scheduled to make $17.5 million prior to the shutdown, and his 2021 salary will likely rise well north of $20 million. In the last calendar year, the rising price tags of Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber influenced the Indians’ decisions to deal them.

But as we saw with Mookie Betts’ move from Boston to Los Angeles, it’s not easy to deal a star player with only one year of contractual control and a big salary. To get that deal done, the Red Sox had to eat a significant amount of the money owed to David Price and attach him to Betts, and the package they got back (Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong) has received mixed reviews.

The financial ramifications of the pandemic are undoubtedly going to influence both the Trade Deadline and next winter, and that could create a more limited market of teams in on Lindor than might otherwise have existed. And for the Indians, there’s also that aforementioned prospect assessment issue in this environment.

Option #4: Trade him at the 2021 Trade Deadline
Too many unpredictable variables exist to accurately analyze this possibility right now.

Will the Indians be contenders in 2021? They have enough controllable pitching to insist they ought to be, but one can never be sure.

Will contenders be lined up for Lindor? He’s a game-changer, no doubt, but position players aren’t always the hot commodities in-season that prime pitchers are (for the sake of perspective, none of the five prospects acquired by the Orioles in their mid-2018 Manny Machado trade with the Dodgers are on MLB Pipeline’s current Top 100 list).

But if conditions were to align -- the Indians falling out of it, and perhaps an infield injury striking a club with serious World Series aspirations -- Cleveland could capitalize on Deadline desperation and perhaps still fare quite well here.

Option #5: Ride it out to the finish line.
I used to consider this option an impossibility. Now, I’m starting to wonder...

While Lindor’s big 2021 price tag might be difficult for the Indians to absorb (especially in these conditions), it also has a big impact on his trade value, and you can’t just give away a once-in-a-generation player. The $12 million salary of Carlos Carrasco and $9.4 million salary of José Ramírez are the only significant guaranteed commitments on the books for 2021, and this is an organization with a good farm system that routinely churns out quality arms.

It would be sub-optimal to lose Lindor in free agency and only get Draft-pick compensation back. But as explained above, the dynamics of the pandemic could negatively impact potential trade returns. So come 2021, there might be an argument for trying to make one last run with Lindor before he leaves for his big pay day. And hey, maybe he’d leave on a high note.