GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Here on the back fields of the Indians’ player development complex, Francisco Lindor was seemingly safe from all the conversation about his free-agent future, his trade value and his agent’s discussions with the Indians about a long-term extension. Here below the high sky, in the midst of live batting practice, all that talk of money and markets could take a back seat to baseball itself.
That is, until Lindor fouled back a pitch, and the ball smashed the (expensive) Trackman radar device set up behind the plate.
“You know what?” manager Terry Francona quickly joked. “There goes that contract.”
When marquee talents like Lindor inch closer to the open market or otherwise find themselves bandied about in the trade market, the conversation is inescapable. And as we enter the 2020 season, there is unmistakable, undeniable and understandable fixation on what the future might hold for three of the game’s most dynamic infield talents -- the Indians’ Lindor, the Cubs’ Kris Bryant and the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado.
Will one of them be dealt between now and July 31? Some rival executives are to the point of actually expecting as much.
Will all of them be dealt between now and July 31? That’s obviously less likely … but not completely off the table. All three of these clubs face competitive challenges that could amplify the trade conversation in the coming months, which means all three face particular pressure to get off to strong starts.
If they don’t, we could be headed toward one of the most dynamic Trade Deadline periods of all time.
The important thing to keep in mind with all three of these players is how limited trade value can become for even baseball’s best and brightest when there is only one year of guaranteed control involved. Lindor and Bryant are both eligible for free agency after 2021, and Arenado has an opt-out in his extension with the Rockies after '21. All three will make well north of $20 million in '21 (Lindor and Bryant will get there in arbitration, and Arenado is locked in for a $35 million salary), which also affects their trade value. In Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong, the Red Sox got a good -- but not jaw-dropping -- return for one year and $27 million of Mookie Betts. And they also included David Price and absorbed half of the $96 million still owed to Price over the next three years.
So if Lindor or Bryant are to be dealt, there is added value to doing it before this year’s Trade Deadline, when those players can still impact two playoff races instead of one. It’s more complicated, but the same equation might apply to Arenado, given his post-2021 opt-out.
With all that said, let’s take stock of what’s at stake for the Indians, Cubs and Rockies in the coming months.
Lindor: Small market, ticking clock
Mr. Smile has publicly professed his love of Cleveland on multiple occasions in recent weeks.
“I love it here,” the four-time All-Star shortstop said at the start of camp. “The city of Cleveland has been nothing but good to me. Why would I want to leave?”
As is often the case in these situations, money is the key factor.
The magnetic and gifted 26-year-old is the kind of player who can chase or break free-agent records. While the Indians have made efforts to lock him up for the long term, those conversations are unlikely to lead anywhere. The highest Opening Day payroll in Indians’ history, per Cot’s Contracts, was $134.8 million in 2018. If we assume Lindor is at least a $30 million-per-year player in his free-agent years, that’s 22.5% of that particular budget (which has been shaved the last two seasons) -- and teams have typically been hesitant to commit such a large portion of their payroll to one guy.
There is an argument for simply keeping Lindor through 2021 and putting your best competitive foot forward this year and next before letting him walk and recouping a Draft pick. It’s tricky terrain for a lower-revenue club that relies so heavily on its farm system producing cost-controlled talent, but it’s not inconceivable. And on paper, the Indians should be good enough to contend for, at minimum, a Wild Card spot here in '20. They have arguably the best pitching staff in the American League Central.
But what if that staff goes south? In the past seven months, the Indians have traded Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber. That puts more pressure on less-established arms. Mike Clevinger’s torn meniscus and Carlos Carrasco’s hip flexor strain are minor relative to other pitching injuries, but they are reminders of how quickly depth can be tested. And now Emmanuel Clase, the highly touted young reliever acquired in the Kluber deal, is on the shelf for eight to 12 weeks with an upper back issue.
So, yes, there are an awful lot of eyes upon the Indians as the season starts, with evaluators from other clubs wondering if they’ll do with Lindor what they did with Bauer last year -- acting in July upon trade groundwork that was laid in the winter. For all their success in the Francona era (best record in the AL going back to 2013), the Indians are a .486 team in March/April (21st in MLB) in that span. With the division deepened by the White Sox’s progression and the Lindor clock ticking, '20 is no time for a sluggish start.
Bryant: Leading off … but for how long?
The Bryant situation is more directly comparable to what happened with Betts in Boston. The Cubs, like the Red Sox, are a big market, big revenue club, but one that recognizes the need to improve its future flexibility and its farm system.
For whatever reason, the Cubs have not maintained the edge they established in 2015 and then rode to curse-breaking glory in '16. They spent all winter talking about shaking up their group dynamic and replaced Joe Maddon with David Ross. But to date, nothing else has developed on that front. Bryant’s service-time grievance didn’t help advance any trade talks, but that was settled several weeks back, and Bryant is still a Cub. Ross is going to insert him in the leadoff spot and hope that can ignite a lineup that arguably added up to less than the sum of its parts the last two seasons.
“Kris Bryant is a really good at-bat, gets on base, is probably one of our best baserunners,” Ross told reporters. “His baseball IQ is extremely high.”
So is his trade value. Bryant, 28, tried to ignore all the external discussion this winter, but it was impossible to ignore it completely. And it’s not going away, either. Rival evaluators still get the sense that the Cubs would entertain genuine offers for the 2016 National League MVP Award winner.
As in, right now, before Opening Day.
It’s rare for a trade of this magnitude to happen this time of year, but extension talks with Bryant have netted nothing, and so the Cubs have to keep their options open.
It’s worth noting that 37.5% of the Cubs’ March/April schedule comes against the Pirates (69-93 last year) and the Orioles (54-108 last year), so there’s good opportunity to build some early confidence that quiets the Bryant noise. The Cubs are hoping he gets off to a strong start offensively, and they need a strong start as a group.
Arenado: Changing the channel after “Family Feud”?
Festivus came a little late in the Rockies’ world, with the seven-time Gold Glove Award winner airing his grievances not in December but in January. After GM Jeff Bridich told the Denver Post that trade talks involving Arenado had been called off, Arenado told MLB.com and other outlets that the Rockies front office had shown him “disrespect.” Arenado has since tried to put that rare outburst behind him and focus on preparing for the season, and Bridich has made attempts in recent weeks to assuage his star.
“The waters are smoothing,” one source said.
Hey, families fight. Happens.
It is curious, though, that Arenado, who turns 29 in April, was generally viewed as unavailable at the time of the GM Meetings in November and then viewed as available by the time of the Winter Meetings in December. Whether that was a product of the Rockies doing their due diligence in exploring all options or something more pointed is not known.
What is known is that the Rockies went 71-91 last season and did little to externally upgrade their roster this winter. So in the Rockies’ Scottsdale, Ariz., camp, the talk is of internal upside -- what, for instance, the continued growth of Ryan McMahon could mean for the lineup, and what bounce-backs for the likes of Kyle Freeland and German Márquez could mean for the rotation.
“We feel as though the group we have, as a group, did not play well,” manager Bud Black said. “There were some great individual performances, but, collectively, we didn’t play to our potential. So with that, there’s a bounce-back feel that I’m sensing … I don’t think it’s wishful thinking; I think it could be reality.”
None of us should forget that the Rockies won 91 games in 2018 with fantastic young pitching (especially by Colorado standards) and 87 the year before that. But the NL West remains dominated by the Dodgers, and the projections aren’t kind to this club. FanGraphs has the Rockies at 75 wins, PECOTA says 77. Neither of those win totals would be enough to reduce the Arenado rumors.
But the 2021 payroll picture must be taken into account here, as well. The Rockies will have relievers Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw coming off the books next winter, and Ian Desmond’s front-loaded deal will see his pay reduced by $7 million in the final year of his deal. New money from the Rockies’ recent local TV rights extension kicks in next year, too. So Colorado might have the means to more effectively build around Arenado in advance of his opt-out decision.
The question, for now, is whether the family fight was explosive enough for the Rockies to return to the Arenado trade talks come July.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.