Francisco Lindor probably won't be a member of the Cleveland Indians by Opening Day.
But it could take several weeks -- or longer -- to learn which uniform he'll wear in 2021.
Multiple industry sources said this week that the Indians are likely to trade their four-time All-Star shortstop, as first reported by USA Today, although no deal appears close at this early stage of the offseason.
Lindor, who turns 27 on Saturday, is eligible for free agency after the 2021 season. Following the Indians' unsuccessful effort to sign him to a long-term extension, a trade has become increasingly inevitable -- particularly with the team's budget tightening and Lindor projected to earn roughly $20 million in salary next year, according to multiple estimates.
The Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Blue Jays and Cardinals are viewed as the strongest candidates to land Lindor, sources say. However, some of those teams aren't prepared -- yet -- to engage in serious trade talks with the Indians.
The Mets, who ushered in a new era with owner Steve Cohen's closely followed news conference Tuesday, are in the early stages of a hiring a president of baseball operations. While a Lindor blockbuster fits with Cohen's bold vision for the franchise, the club can't initiate a major move until key members of the new management structure are in place.
And given the Mets' posture as one of the most aggressive teams in the industry this offseason, it behooves the Indians to wait on dealing Lindor until the Mets are able to participate fully in the marketplace.
The Mets' ongoing interest in adding a star-level outfielder -- such as free agent George Springer -- could influence their pursuit of Lindor. While Mets fans should be cautious not to expect the additions of Springer and Lindor, one move could (in theory) help to enable the other.
If the Mets sign Springer, then outfielder Brandon Nimmo or infielder/outfielder Jeff McNeil would become more expendable. While Nimmo will be a free agent following the 2022 season -- meaning he's not controllable well into the future -- his '21 salary is likely to be substantially lower than Lindor's. Thus, the acquisition of Nimmo would allow the Indians to address their longstanding lack of outfield production while saving money.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old McNeil is controllable through 2024 and fits more closely with the profile of players the Indians are prioritizing in talks. One source said the Tribe is seeking three players -- either in the Majors or close to debuting -- in return for Lindor.
Of note, Cleveland doesn't necessarily need to acquire a shortstop in the deal; Tyler Freeman, the Indians' No. 2 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, plays the position and could arrive to the Majors by 2022, if not before.
From a leverage standpoint, the Indians are helped by the fact that sources say the Mets' closest geographic and divisional rivals -- the Yankees and Phillies, respectively -- also are interested in Lindor. Competition among those clubs could provide Cleveland with its best chance to extract maximum value for Lindor, the franchise's 2011 first-round MLB Draft pick.
Yet, the teams pursuing Lindor have their own negotiating edge: The free-agent shortstop class includes a number of appealing options, including Didi Gregorius, Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons. As those players sign, the number of teams in the Lindor market will diminish.
Toronto is an intriguing landing spot for Lindor, for reasons outlined recently by MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal. Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins were key leaders in the Indians' front office when Lindor was drafted and developed there. In recent comments to Sportsnet.ca, Atkins did not explicitly rule out the possibility of moving star shortstop Bo Bichette to another position -- at least temporarily -- in order to acquire an elite player.
And the Blue Jays' farm system is rich in position players, with Austin Martin or Jordan Groshans -- the Nos. 2 and 3 prospects in the organization, according to MLB Pipeline -- among the possibilities to go to Cleveland in a Lindor deal.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are eager to inject energy and production into their starting lineup. Lindor can supply both. His arrival in St. Louis would mean a different role for Paul DeJong, the franchise's starting shortstop since 2017. Lindor's ebullient personality would brighten the current narrative around the Cards, which is currently dominated by their misevaluation of postseason star Randy Arozarena prior to trading him to the Rays.
Yet, the Cardinals can't act quickly on Lindor. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected their budget -- as it has for all teams, to varying degrees -- and the front office must first determine whether they'll re-sign franchise icons Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.