When Francisco Lindor rejected the Indians' extension overtures following the club's run to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016, the countdown clock started ticking on his Tribe tenure. And the alarm might be sounding soon.
The offer Lindor rejected was reportedly in the realm of $100 million. To turn that down at age 23, on the heels of your first full Major League season, takes some serious self-confidence. And it's deceptively easy to forget that, at the time, Lindor, while gifted in the field and consistent at the plate, was not yet the extra-base-hit machine he's become in the time since. Lindor smartly bet on himself, and in 2017, broke out from a power perspective. Now, he's on the very short list of greatest all-around position players in the game.
And he's two seasons away from free agency.
As a native Clevelander, I can feel the agita growing in my gut just by typing that last sentence.
The Indians are unlikely to keep Lindor beyond 2021. Were he to hit the open market today, he would command, at minimum, a $300 million contract … and possibly well north of that. Granted, he'll be entering his age-28 season by the time he is actually a free agent. And between the industry's changed attitude toward aging curves and countless other unknown factors that could happen between now and then, we should leave open the tiniest hint of hope that he spends his entire career in Cleveland.
Again, though, it probably isn't happening. Teams that rank in MLB's lower-tier in attendance, population area and local television rights fees aren't typically in the habit of handing out one of the five largest contracts in the game (what it would likely take to lock up Lindor right now), because it hamstrings a club's effort to build a competitive roster around that one player. And let's remember: The practice of small-market clubs trading superstars before hitting free agency is nothing new. The Twins once traded Johan Santana a year from agency when he was the best pitcher in the game. The Mariners did the same with Ken Griffey Jr. -- then at the peak of his powers -- for the same reason. If Griffey can get traded, Lindor can, too.
The question, then, becomes: When do the Indians trade Lindor so that he doesn't ditch them in free agency and leave them with only memories and Draft pick compensation?
As you've probably noticed, that's already been a hot talking point in this Hot Stove season. MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi reported this week that multiple executives believe at least Lindor, Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts or Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant will be moved this offseason.
Lindor is a franchise player, a generational player. And a fun one at that. An organization can go decades without being lucky enough to land a player with his combination of charisma, character and capacity. So no, I can't personally advocate that the Indians trade Lindor this winter. And if pressed, I would guess that they don't trade him this winter, because deals like this are complicated to concoct. (And for what it’s worth, team president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told reporters at the GM Meetings this week, “My expectation is Frankie will be the shortstop Opening Day next year.”)
But if I strip away personal sentiment and analyze the situation coldly, it's a different conclusion. There are five reasons why the time to deal Lindor is right now.
Let's explore them:
1) The 2020 Indians look like an American League Central contender. But are they really a World Series contender?
Debatable. The rotation strength is, clearly, the Indians' key selling point and, for all we know, could carry them a long way. But with multiple question marks in the lineup and bullpen and the team unlikely to be major players in free agency, it's hard to put this club in the realm of the AL elite.(*) Cleveland won 93 games despite tremendous injury and illness adversity in 2019, but that total was beefed up by playing in the weak AL Central.
*Look, no matter how you feel about the Indians' payroll level in the last year, budgets are real. And this column is operating within the context of the reality the front office faces.
2) A summer 2020 Lindor trade probably isn't happening.
The AL Central is so forgiving that it's difficult to imagine the Indians, as currently constructed, being in total summer sell-off mode and doing a Lindor deal in July, when he can still impact two pennant races for his new club. While the Trevor Bauer trade is evidence that you can buy and sell at the same time, trading a starting pitcher who just frustratingly flung a baseball over the center-field wall after getting pulled from a game is a lot different than trading your stud shortstop and leadoff hitter, in terms of its impact on the clubhouse and on outcomes.
Looking further ahead, a summer 2021 deal would be a total Hail Mary. The Indians would not be in a great position of leverage with only a couple months of club control remaining and Lindor making a big chunk of change in his final year of arbitration.
3) The Mookie market is evidence of the danger of holding Lindor too long.
It is entirely possible that this point gets refuted by reality in the coming weeks. But right now, the strong sentiment in the industry is that the Red Sox are going to have a hard time getting the right package for Betts. Boston's right fielder avoided arbitration last year with a $20 million deal and will likely get a raise in his final round of arbitration before free agency. And even when the trade involves a former MVP who has been worth an average of 8.4 WAR the last four years, teams generally don't want to commit that kind of cash and fork over elite young talent for a one-year rental.
The Indians would be in a similar situation with Lindor one year from now. They need to monitor the Betts market closely and view it as an indicator -- maybe even a warning sign -- of what they're in store for if they don't deal Lindor this winter.
• Betts' future all the buzz at GM Meetings
4) Trading Lindor improves the odds of building an elite team.
For 2020, the Indians are stronger with Lindor than without him. Duh. But again, this is not an elite team in the present. And if the budget doesn't allow for the Indians to go out and buy the pieces it would take to build an elite team, maximizing in-house assets is essential.
Identifying trade targets and setting and maintaining a high price are proven strengths of this Indians front office. You can generally and genuinely trust them to make a smart Lindor trade. And when you strip away sentiment and remember the big jump in arbitration price that's coming for Lindor in the next two years, the Indians have a stronger chance of building a true title threat in 2021, '22 and beyond by nailing this deal right now and bringing in high-upside, low-cost young talent that provides greater financial flexibility overall.
This is where the Tampa Bay Rays have a weird advantage over other clubs from small or mid-size markets. They don't tiptoe around sentiment. They rather ruthlessly capitalize on trade values of established talent, because there is a clear understanding -- by the media, fans, etc. -- that their payroll level is what it is and those are the kinds of deals they have to do to win. That's how they managed to build a contender in the AL East with 2019's lowest payroll. The Indians maintain a much higher payroll than the Rays, but that kind of mindset might make sense for them at this juncture.
5) The Dodgers have what the Indians need.
None of the above means a darn thing if you don't have an adequate offer. And to be sure, even in a market light on shortstops (a post-Tommy John Didi Gregorius is the top option available), it's a very short list of contending clubs who could both pay Lindor what he'll be worth in 2020-21 and get the Indians what they need (a package fronted by young, Major League-ready talent) in this trade.
One of those teams is the Yankees. You probably shouldn't let fan sentiment affect front office decision-making. But, uh, you also probably shouldn't trade Lindor to the Yankees.
Another one of those teams is the Dodgers. That's why you keep hearing Lindor's name attached to them in the trade rumors. Because it makes sense. L.A. would be loath to part with infielder Gavin Lux and/or right-hander Dustin May (their top two prospects, per MLB Pipeline), which is exactly why those would be among the first names the Indians ask about. Perhaps you could attach Corey Kluber and his $17.5 million salary to the deal to make this the kind of reset it might take to get the Indians back to the level they reached in 2016-17, before the payroll picture became more cumbersome.
Anyway, I'll let the Indians and Dodgers figure out the details. The point here is just to acknowledge, somberly, that a Lindor deal does make sense.
These conversations are never fun, because we want from sports what we want from life: Constancy. A sense that the good things won't go away.
But they do go away. The dynamics evolve. And they've evolved considerably for the Indians over the past three years. Lindor grew into one of the best players in the sport and wants to be paid accordingly, as is his right. It is highly doubtful that the Indians will be the team to pay him. So at some point, you probably have to trade him. And as much as I hate to admit it, there's a compelling argument that the time is right now.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.