Twenty-two months ago, The Athletic’s Zack Meisel sat down with Paul Dolan, CEO of Cleveland’s MLB franchise, and asked him about Francisco Lindor. The team’s star shortstop—and best and most popular player in decades—was due for a contract extension. What, Meisel asked, did Dolan have to say to fans who were worried Lindor might leave as a free agent?
“Enjoy him,” Dolan said. “We control him for three more years. Enjoy him and then we’ll see what happens.”
Cleveland fans would’ve been wise to do as Dolan said, because they had even less time than they might have feared. On Thursday, Cleveland traded both Lindor and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets for infielders Amed Rosario and Andrés Giménez, pitcher Josh Wolf, and outfielder Isaiah Greene.
When hedge fund billionaire (and sometime racketeering and insider trading defendant) Steve Cohen bought the Mets last fall, he was expected to usher in a new golden age for a franchise that had floundered under the Wilpon family’s shaky leadership. While December’s two free-agent signings—catcher James McCann and reliever Trevor May—were a start, this trade is a watershed moment for the club. Lindor is just 27 years old and has never produced at anything short of an All-Star level during his six MLB seasons. Carrasco should become the second-best starter behind Jacob deGrom in a rotation that also includes Marcus Stroman and (Tommy John recovery permitting) Noah Syndergaard. Lindor and Carrasco are championship-caliber players on bargain contracts, and the Mets acquired them for two unspectacular prospects and two young big leaguers whom Lindor makes redundant.
Put another way: Paul Dolan is the cousin of reviled Knicks and Rangers owner James Dolan. This trade doesn’t completely balance the family’s account with New York sports fans, but it’s a serious down payment.
Cohen’s purchase of the Mets was a huge deal not just because he ousted the Wilpons, or even because everything that happens in New York gets overblown. This sale had the potential to shake up the balance of power in MLB’s most competitive division.
The NL East is the only division in baseball in which all five teams have the desire and ability to make the playoffs in the short term. The Nationals were unlucky to fall to last place in 2020, but retain the substance of the roster that won the World Series in 2019. The Phillies have underachieved the past three seasons, but have both the offensive talent and rotation depth to contend if they can field even a mediocre bullpen, instead of the historic calamity they trotted out last season. The Braves looked every inch a championship-caliber team last year, and in 2021 they’ll have full seasons from top prospects Cristian Pache and Ian Anderson, plus contributions from free-agent signing Charlie Morton and no. 1 starter Mike Soroka, who missed most of 2020 with an Achilles injury. Even the Marlins were able to bite and scratch their way into October last year, and are developing a corps of young pitchers with the potential to take them back.
In the middle of that grand guignol of a division sit the Mets, a club with a few exceptional players surrounded by a supporting cast of question marks. In the past decade, the Mets have run payrolls near or slightly above the MLB median, despite playing in the league’s biggest and richest market. An owner who’s willing to run a payroll commensurate with that market could replace those question marks with solid big leaguers, turning the Mets from hopeful to powerhouse. It seems Cohen has done just that.
The Mets weren’t terrible last year, but now they’re replacing Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha in the rotation with Carrasco and Stroman (who opted out last season). They’re replacing Rosario (76 OPS+ in 2020) at shortstop with Lindor, one of the best in the world at his position. They’re replacing lovable but largely stationary backstop Wilson Ramos with McCann, the second-best catcher on the market. Pete Alonso, hailed as a star in the making in 2019, might hit in the bottom half of an order that features Lindor, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, and Michael Conforto. Not many lineups go this deep.
Teams with one superstar and a bunch of unknowns tend to miss the playoffs. Teams with two superstars and a bunch of above-average supporting players tend to make it.
The Mets have acquired a superstar one year from reaching free agency, along with a good veteran pitcher, from a team eager to dump salary. Such a trade invites comparisons to the one the Dodgers and Red Sox made 11 months ago, with Mookie Betts and David Price going to Los Angeles in exchange for outfielder Alex Verdugo and prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong. Lindor isn’t in Betts’s class as a player—nobody short of Mike Trout is—but Carrasco is better than Price at this point in their respective careers and makes a fraction of the salary. Plus, none of the players the Mets gave up is as good as Verdugo. There’s a solid argument to be made that none are even as good as Downs. If this trade isn’t more lopsided than the Betts trade, it’s certainly in the same category.
Invoking Betts invites the obvious question of whether the Mets will extend Lindor beyond this season, and if so, for how much. The Manny Machado deal (10 years, $300 million) seemed reasonable for Lindor a couple of years ago, but he might not get an offer like that under the league’s current financial conditions. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which it wouldn’t be a good idea to extend Lindor.
Lindor hits for contact (.285 career batting average, 14.1 percent strikeout rate) and power (three seasons of at least 30 home runs and 40 doubles). He’s a great defensive shortstop, superb athlete, and incredibly intelligent two-way player. He’s never had a major injury. And he’s put in huge performances in MLB’s biggest, highest-pressure environments.
If a team is interested in drawing fans and winning championships, Lindor is the kind of player who’s worth writing a blank check to keep. In the likely event the Mets do sign him to an extension, by this time next year he’ll be as popular as David Wright was in his prime.
So why, then, would Cleveland let him go?
It might seem melodramatic to say this trade cost Cleveland’s club its soul, but there’s no other way to put it. Lindor is the kind of player, personality, and star who can’t be scouted or developed—the kind who just falls out of the sky from time to time. Cleveland had a player on a Hall of Fame track, a thrilling all-around talent, a rare entertainer, and a willing leader who wanted nothing more than to play, and win, in Cleveland. Now he’s gone.
So too is Carrasco. In 2020, Carrasco made 12 starts and posted an ERA+ of 157. Carrasco is one of only 13 pitchers with an ERA+ of 125 or better since 2014 in 1,000 innings or more. An owner unwilling or unable to pay such a pitcher $12 million a year should frankly get out of show business. Carrasco’s lone down season since joining Cleveland’s rotation full-time came in 2019, when he was suffering from leukemia—a struggle that led the organization and city to rally around one of its most popular players. Carrasco has been with Cleveland since 2009, when he was acquired in the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Philadelphia. Before his departure to the Mets on Thursday, only seven active players had been with their respective teams for longer.
That departure comes not a moment too soon. MLB players who have 10 years of service time and have been with their current team for five years get what are called 10-and-5 rights—an automatic no-trade clause. Carrasco has nine years and 147 days’ worth of service time. If Cleveland had waited until May to make this deal, Carrasco could have vetoed it.
Sometimes, a team will trade a star player before he hits free agency, knowing his peak won’t line up with the competitive window. The hope in these cases is to bring back someone who could emerge as an equivalent star in the future. That’s what the White Sox did in 2016 when trading Chris Sale to Boston in a deal that brought back Yoán Moncada. The Marlins did something similar in 2019 by sending J.T. Realmuto to Philly in exchange for a package headlined by Sixto Sánchez. It would’ve been disappointing but defensible had Cleveland done this with Lindor, but it didn’t.
There’s no Moncada or Sánchez in this trade. Cleveland got two decent big league infielders, and Giménez has a shot to become an above-average regular if he turns into a competent hitter long term. Yet it’s vanishingly unlikely that any of the four players the Mets gave up will turn into a star.
Cleveland, it’s worth mentioning, is not some perennial bottom feeder. This team has made the playoffs four times in the past five seasons—thanks in no small part to Lindor and Carrasco—and is bringing back reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and MVP runner-up José Ramírez. Even if it’s not willing to run a $200 million-a-year payroll, it didn’t have to tear the roster down.
Cleveland sheds about $44 million off their payroll in the #Mets trade, which is what they sought to do all winter.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) January 7, 2021
It’s unsatisfying to talk about this trade from a perspective of salary differential, and there’s certainly no reason for fans to give a damn, but it’s also the only honest way to understand this trade from Cleveland’s perspective.
Lindor, after arbitration, would’ve cost more than $20 million in 2021. Carrasco is owed $12 million in each of the next two seasons, with a $3 million buyout if his team doesn’t pick up his option for 2023. Giménez will make the league minimum in 2021, as will Greene and Wolf if and when they reach the majors. MLB Trade Rumors projects that Rosario will make between $1.8 million and $2.6 million in salary after his arbitration case.
Cleveland got worse, and cheaper. And that’s the point.
It traded one year of control over Lindor and three years of control over Carrasco for three years of Rosario and five of Giménez. With Lindor and Carrasco off the books, Cleveland’s payroll commitments for 2021 are in the neighborhood of $40 million. Beyond this year, its only commitment is a $2 million buyout to Ramírez, should it not pick up his club option for 2022.
This is the end result of the systematic dismantling of the club that won the pennant in 2016 and 102 games—including an AL-record 22 in a row—in 2017. In trading Lindor and Carrasco on the heels of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger, Cleveland hasn’t acquired a single tentpole prospect. Instead, the club has assembled the core of an extremely cheap average to below-average team, one good enough to fulfill obligations to sponsors and broadcast partners and to cash revenue-sharing checks from teams like the Mets and Dodgers, who actually seem willing to do more than the bare minimum. Dolan’s club has turned into the Pirates with a better player development program.
Dolan has sold off a club with a high ceiling for one with low overhead. He’s traded away a generational shortstop and one of the league’s most exciting players simply to offload salary. What can fans even say to him? Except, of course: “Enjoy it.”