If you’ve been even loosely following things for the past couple of years, the notion that the Indians will trade star shortstop Francisco Lindor this offseason should come as no surprise. Still, it’s nevertheless of some note to see USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweet that Cleveland has informed other clubs of their intent to trade Lindor before Opening Day.
This is hardly the first such indication of the concept. We’ve discussed the possibility here at MLBTR numerous times in the past couple years — most recently two weeks ago when Connor Byrne ran through potential offseason trade partners who could take on Lindor for his final year of club control before free agency next year. The Athletic’s Zack Meisel also took a look at the possible market for Lindor last week, consulting with his colleagues who cover many prospective trade partners for the Indians.
The eventual trade of Lindor will serve as the inevitable culmination of a saga that began two years ago when, asked about the possibility of a Lindor extension, Indians owner Paul Dolan ominously told fans to simply “enjoy him.” Cleveland has long been a low-payroll organization, though the club ramped up payroll after its 2016 World Series run, even signing Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60MM contract that winter.
Since that time — particularly over the past two offseasons — it’s been a steady march to reduce spending and return payroll to normal levels. Encarnacion was traded two years into that deal, while All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley was allowed to leave as a free agent without the club risking a qualifying offer. Cleveland has traded Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger as well and neglected to spend to address a lackluster outfield group in the post-Brantley era, instead focusing on hopeful bargain-bin additions.
All of those payroll-paring efforts came prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic that left all 30 MLB clubs without gate revenue for the 2020 season. The Indians themselves raised one of the most substantial red flags regarding the economic turmoil throughout the game when they placed All-Star closer Brad Hand on waivers in an effort to avoid paying a $1MM buyout on a $10MM club option they did not intend to exercise. To the Indians’ credit, the negative framing of that move here at MLBTR was proven to be a bit misplaced when Hand went unclaimed and Cleveland was forced to pay the buyout anyhow.
That said, the decision not to retain Hand, coupled with all of the team’s recent market dealings, paints a clear picture of an organization that feels it necessary to further slash payroll — even at a time when the roster possesses enough talent to contend in the American League Central.
Jason Martinez of Roster Resource/FanGraphs projects that the Indians will have a roughly $72MM payroll for the 2021 season, but that figure includes the $19.5MM salary which MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects Lindor to earn. Trading Lindor and potentially non-tendering some members of their arbitration class would put the Indians down into the $50MM range, pending any smaller-scale offseason additions.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Lindor’s trade value is likely at an all-time low. Beyond the fact that he has merely one year of club control remaining, he’s also coming off a poor season at a time when many rival clubs will simply balk at taking on a near-$20MM salary.
Lindor, 27 next week, turned in a pedestrian .258/.335/.415 slash (100 wRC+) with eight homers and six steals in this year’s shortened slate of games. It’s only a sample of 266 plate appearances, and Lindor registered a combined .278/.342/.514 output (121 wRC+) in the 2017-19 seasons combined, playing all-world defense at shortstop and averaging 34 homers and 21 steals per year along the way.
That track record should still fuel demand for his services, but with the benefit of hindsight, many fans will suggest the Indians waited a year too long to move him, given the inevitable nature of his trade candidacy. In addition to Dolan’s “enjoy him” line, it’s crucial to add that Lindor turned down an extension offer reported to be in the neighborhood of $100MM prior to the 2017 season, when he had just over a year of Major League service time. A long-term union between the two sides has never been seen as likely, and the primary question now is one of where — not whether — he’ll be traded.
Lindor himself has acknowledged the possibility of being traded this winter while simultaneously rejecting the notion that the team “can’t afford” to sign him. Asked by Meisel on Oct. 1 if Cleveland should be able to meet his asking price on a contract, Lindor replied: “Of course. It’s a billion-dollar team. Of course.”
Asked later in the interview about his expectations for the game’s economy over the next year in the wake of 2020 revenue losses, Lindor rhetorically answered: “Did you see MLB just signed a $3 billion contract?” The contract referenced by Lindor is the reported seven-year, $3.7 billion deal with Turner Sports to continue broadcasting half of the postseason’s games. Back in 2018, MLB also agreed to a seven-year, $5.1 billion rights deal with FOX for the World Series and the other half of postseason media rights in that same 2022-28 span.