A few decades ago, an exasperated general manager of Cleveland’s MLB team asked the club’s penny-pinching owner, “What’s left to do? You’ve taken away everything you can.”
“Not everything,” the sneering owner answered.
That was Major League, not the major leagues. But sometimes truth is no stranger than fiction. In March 2019, Paul Dolan, the owner of the Cleveland baseball team that still isn’t really renamed, all but told his team’s fans that the face of the franchise wasn’t long for the Forest City. “Enjoy him,” Dolan said when asked about the future of then-25-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor, who was coming off a season in which he produced nearly eight wins’ worth of value while making little more than the major-league-minimum salary for a first-place Cleveland club. “We control him for three more years. Enjoy him and then we’ll see what happens.”
What happened, pretty predictably, is that Lindor trade rumors circulated incessantly right up until Thursday, when Cleveland dealt Lindor with one season standing between the 27-year-old and free agency (assuming the Mets don’t sign him to a long-term extension first). The Mets sent a package of four players to Cleveland for Lindor and pitcher Carlos Carrasco: 20-something infielders Amed Rosario and Andrés Giménez, and 2019 and 2020 second-round picks Josh Wolf and Isaiah Greene, who placed 14th and 16th on FanGraphs’s midseason Mets prospect ranking and ninth and 10th on MLB.com’s updated list. (In Cleveland’s better-stocked system, they come in at 25th and 28th, per FanGraphs.) The exchange ended Cleveland fans’ dread but not their frustration about the departure of a personable superstar who’s still in his prime. At least they can’t complain that they weren’t warned.
The Lindor trade is the latest in a string of swaps that have exposed several teams’ tepid appetites for contention. Given the choice between building around an increasingly expensive star whose production easily outpaces his salary and retooling or rebuilding with younger, cheaper, and less compelling players, some owners whose bottom lines are buoyed by baked-in revenue have enthusiastically said “Sell.” Cleveland is the third 2020 playoff team to trade a star player this winter, following the Rays’ decision to deal 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and the Cubs’ call to offload 2020 NL Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish. (Both Snell and Darvish were under contract for three more seasons.) Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Cleveland all faced the prospect of competitive pennant races in 2021, and they all acted to reduce their chances of winning in the short term with an eye toward cutting costs.
The long-anticipated Lindor deal comes less than a year after the Red Sox moved Mookie Betts, who was only two months older than Lindor is now and, like Lindor, was one year away from free agency when Boston dealt him to the Dodgers with David Price for Alex Verdugo and two prospects. The Betts trade was more unthinkable than the Lindor spiritual sequel, both because Betts was an even better player—no player so young and so recently productive had ever been traded before—and because Boston was a big-market behemoth one season removed from winning a World Series, whereas Cleveland is a committed miser. (When ESPN’s Jesse Rogers surveyed 15 executives and insiders in November 2019 about which player was most likely to switch teams last winter—Lindor, Betts, or Kris Bryant—eight picked Lindor and none picked Betts.) But the Lindor deal is equally antithetical to most fans’ philosophy about sports: When you’re gifted with a winning hand, you don’t decide to fold.
Although the Dolans and assorted sympathetic media members have long painted a Lindor trade as an imperative—one November report called Cleveland “strapped for money,” and another note on Thursday insisted that Cleveland “had to dump money”—there was no pressing reason for Cleveland to deal Lindor. There were many reasons not to. Drafted with the eighth overall pick in 2011, the homegrown, charismatic Puerto Rico native blossomed into one of baseball’s best prospects and finished second in the Rookie of the Year race in 2015 despite not debuting until mid-June. He earned MVP votes in each of the next four seasons and helped propel his team to three division titles and a 2016 pennant. The durable Lindor, who played in all 60 games last season, is coming off a down year by his standards, but his habitually great defense, coupled with league-average offensive production, still would have put him on pace for a 4-5 win campaign over a full schedule. Historically, his bat has been far better than average, which explains why he’s been baseball’s most valuable shortstop since the start of 2015, and why he’s projected to be the third-best shortstop in 2021, trailing only Fernando Tatis Jr. and Corey Seager. (Dan Szymborski’s ZiPs system actually has him first.)
Lindor is in line to receive a modest raise from the $17.5 million salary he would have earned in a non-abbreviated 2020 season, which will make him a bargain for someone so skilled and marketable but a big-ticket item by Cleveland standards. He would have earned more than twice as much money as any other Cleveland player—except, of course, for Carrasco, who’s owed $27 million over the next two seasons. Only five Cleveland players are set to make more than the MLB minimum.
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 no coincidence that the club packaged its two highest-paid players together: When owners prioritize payroll over performance, they tend to start slashing (as Boston did last winter) with the top earners, even if those players’ skills more than support their salaries. The 33-year-old Carrasco, who like Lindor has only ever played for Cleveland and is beloved by both teammates and fans, signed two team-friendly contracts en route to becoming the club’s longest-tenured player. He won MLB’s AL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2019 after he returned to the field following treatment for leukemia, and then won The Sporting News’s Comeback Player of the Year award in 2020, when he pitched like his old ace-adjacent self and finished second in WAR to Cy Young winner Shane Bieber on Cleveland’s staff.
Such is the state of Cleveland’s remaining roster that Lindor stands to earn about half as much of the rest of the roster combined. Cleveland’s payroll is expected to settle at roughly $40 million by Opening Day, well below even the Pirates and the Florida teams. That figure represents a reduction of more than $100 million relative to its 2018 level. Although Cleveland president Chris Antonetti said he expects to reinvest the savings into the roster, it’s hard to have much confidence in the competitive intentions of a team that’s traded Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Carrasco, and Lindor since the 2019 trade deadline and made many other money-motivated, anti-competitive calls such as declining to extend a qualifying offer to Michael Brantley after the 2018 season and waiving reliable reliever Brad Hand earlier this winter.
Cleveland’s success at developing pitching, coupled with the talented tandem of Lindor and José Ramírez, has allowed the club to compete despite dealing prominent players and getting next to nothing from its outfield, which remains depleted. But instead of surrounding the club’s championship-caliber core with complementary talent, Dolan has subtracted from the team’s strengths, a slap in the faces of fans of a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1948. Ramírez is the sole remaining position player who projects to be above average, and the team as a whole has slipped several projected wins behind the Twins and White Sox.
Cleveland holds team options on Ramírez and Roberto Pérez for 2022 but has no guaranteed money allotted to player payroll beyond 2021. Dolan, whose reported net worth of more than $4 billion makes him one of MLB’s wealthiest owners, is unwilling to invest more than a sliver of that fortune in paying players. If you own a winning team with bubkes on the books beyond this year and you still aren’t willing to pony up for a homegrown, Hall of Fame–type talent like Lindor, it’s probably time to hand off the franchise to someone who will.
There’s a way in which this trade can seem sensible, just as there was a way to make the math work, WAR-wise, for the Betts trade. Pitchers are fragile—as Kluber and Clevinger proved after Cleveland dealt them—and Tampa Bay has shown that it’s possible to build pennant winners by repeatedly flipping established players for inexpensive, promising replacements. Instead of a single season of Lindor, Cleveland can expect several seasons of cost-controlled, league-average-ish play from the team’s two new middle infielders. Rosario is a former blue-chipper who held his own in 2019 but regressed in 2020, while Giménez is a less highly touted prospect who stole some of Rosario’s playing time last season. Granted, Carrasco is better than Price, the prospects are far from the majors, and none of the players in this package is as safe a bet to be above average as Verdugo was when Boston acquired him. But if Cleveland wasn’t going to extend Lindor, dealing him, however demoralizing, was arguably a better option than letting him walk for draft-pick compensation, though they dealt him when his market was past its peak.
But slow and steady compilers can’t replace the personalities and legacies of players like Betts and Lindor, and we shouldn’t accept that Cleveland couldn’t keep Lindor solely because Dolan may assert that was so. Lindor, who long said he hoped to stay in Cleveland, also said he wasn’t willing to sign a discounted deal, and he and the team suspended contract talks on the eve of the pandemic. But he never seemed to concede that Cleveland couldn’t sign him on his terms, only that the club likely wouldn’t be willing to. Although Cleveland’s media market and attendance—the latter of which has been suppressed in part by the team’s reluctance to spend—place the team at a disadvantage compared to upper-tier teams, they’re hardly so destitute that they couldn’t have shelled out for a single, singular star if they had been willing to make a little less profit. As Baseball Prospectus writer Rob Mains observed in December, Dolan’s investment in the team has been “incredibly lucrative” through the past 20 years. Thanks to the revenue-suppressing effects of a shortened season played without fans, times are tougher than they were through the decades of prosperity that preceded the pandemic, but ownership claims of devastating losses have routinely been exaggerated.
When Dolan delivered that notorious “Enjoy him,” he pointed to the Padres’ 10-year, $300 million contract for Manny Machado as a potential problem for the team. “They’ll bump up against the issue with having so much of their payroll tied up in one guy,” Dolan said. Two years later, that doesn’t seem like an issue at all: Machado is still a star, the Padres are one of the best and most exciting teams in baseball, and they’ve avoided committing a disproportionate amount of their payroll to Machado not by trading him away, but by trading for and signing other well-compensated players.
If not for all of the trade activity, this winter would truly be boring in baseball. The free-agent market has been as slow as expected: One of MLB Trade Rumors’ top 15 free agents has signed, and only four of the top 30 and 11 of the top 50 have inked contracts. Two of the top-30 signees were a pair of previous Mets additions, James McCann and Trevor May. The Mets may yet make more major moves—in addition to being in on Bauer and George Springer, they’ve talked to the Cubs about Bryant—but for now, Cleveland’s loss is Queens’s gain. Brand-new Mets owner Steve Cohen has followed through on his promises to Mets fans—and, in the process, succeeded in pushing the latest story about his business improprieties out of the headlines. What a difference a more motivated billionaire makes.
Mets shortstops rated sixth worst in the sport from 2018 to 2020, and the team’s infield defense has long been a bugaboo; over the same three-season span, Mets pitchers allowed the NL’s highest batting average on ground balls. Lindor, who has consistently ranked in the 95th percentile or higher according to MLB’s defensive outs above average, changes all that, providing support for a staff that will allow a lot of grounders and catapulting the Mets’ projected production from shortstop from 19th in MLB to second. Carrasco gives the Mets an imposing trio of Jacob deGrom, Carrasco, and Marcus Stroman at the top of their rotation, which should be reinforced by the midseason return of Noah Syndergaard. The combination of baseball’s second-best projected rotation and a lineup bolstered by Lindor yields the third-highest team WAR projection overall. The only two teams above the Mets are the Dodgers and the Padres, which just so happen to be the two teams on the other end of the Betts, Snell, and Darvish deals. It’s almost as if buying when a bunch of competitors are selling is a simple way to get good quick.
Baseball is a zero-sum sport, and it’s not as if superstars fall off the face of the Earth when teams trade them. When the Red Sox decided to deprive their fans of Betts, the Dodgers were happy to take him off his old team’s hands and extend him, and he immediately delivered a runner-up MVP campaign that helped L.A. end a three-decade drought between titles. The recent relocations of Snell, Darvish, and Lindor hurt three teams’ 2021 odds, but they also set up tight, riveting races in the NL West and NL East. As some fan bases stew and mourn, others celebrate.
Baseball has always been a business, and some sizable proportion of owners have always operated parsimoniously. Realistically, not every team can contend at the same time, and “trying to win” doesn’t always look like acquiring as much production as possible in the present season. Save, perhaps, for a few of the deepest-pocketed teams, there should always be some balance between competing today and continuing to compete tomorrow. But it’s still lamentable when owners who may or may not care about baseball pull the plug on a player who’s forming a beautiful friendship with fans because their clubs can make money whether they win or lose. To the extent that the Lindor deal demonstrates that baseball is broken, it’s not because Cleveland couldn’t keep him. It’s because breaking Cleveland fans’ hearts was optional.