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Assessing Francisco Lindor’s Potential Trade Fit with the Cardinals

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It’s unlikely, but let’s humor this idea anyway

88th MLB All-Star Game Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

KMOX Sports floated a bit of an eye-popping rumor on Twitter earlier this week, via a Jon Morosi report:

On the surface, this seems wildly unlikely. The Cardinals have a solid player already at shortstop in Paul DeJong; Francisco Lindor’s salary is around $21M for 2021 (more on this soon) at a time the Cardinals wouldn’t even bother with Kolten Wong’s $12M option; Lindor is only signed for one more season before reaching free agency; and trading for Lindor will require a sizable package of young, cost-controlled assets. If you summoned a demon at some Mississippi Delta crossroads and asked them to craft the exact antithesis of the kind of trade the Cardinals typically make in the Mozeliak era, trading for Lindor at this point is what that demon would create. Still, it’s worth thinking about. Superstars like Lindor have eluded the Cardinals for years, Paul Goldschmidt notwithstanding. While Lindor’s salary represents an increase for the Cardinals, coupled with Wong’s departure, it could manageably fit into the team’s 2021 payroll. It would also galvanize the fan base at a time of great malaise, particularly with how exciting Lindor is to watch. Maybe the fit isn’t as implausible as it seems at first blush.

First, as we mentioned, Lindor is likely to be paid around $21.5M in arbitration in 2021 before hitting free agency. There’s also a compensation pick value that comes with Lindor. I’ll spare you the rest of the details, instead pointing you to Baseball Trade Values’ assessment of Lindor’s value. They land at $36.2M of value as the median acquiring price for Lindor, going up to $41M in a bidding war. That’s the bar the Cardinals likely must reach if they want Lindor- a package worth between $36M and $41M.

We can also get a decent idea of what Cleveland wants in these kinds of trades by looking at their recent trades of Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer. Both had values in the $35-40M range, just like Lindor.

  • In the Clevinger trade, Cleveland acquired an MLB-level defense-first catcher (Austin Hedges) with a little over a year of cost control; a prospect just outside of the top 100 (Josh Naylor); a serviceable and young 40 FV arm (Cal Quantrill); a 40+ FV shortstop prospect (Gabriel Arias) with some helium but a ways off in A+; a 45 FV A+ arm (Joey Cantillo) with very good K rates despite middling velocity; and Owen Miller- something approximating what Max Schrock was a few years ago (I’m not a scout so forgive me if that comparison is way off base).
  • For Bauer, they got a few months of Yasiel Puig in a pennant race; a defense-challenged masher in Franmil Reyes, under team control through 2025; a serviceable prospect arm in Logan Allen; a 19 year old corner lottery ticket in Victor Nova; and a 40+ FV (albeit 25 year old) arm in the minors in Scott Moss.

Cleveland acquired one one-dimensional, medium range value major league regular with years of cost control in both of those trades (Hedges and Reyes). The Puig-in-a-pennant-race value is probably comparable to Naylor’s just shy of the top 100 prospect value. Each deal featured an advanced but limited ceiling prospect (Quantrill and Allen), each deal featured a productive but limited skill set prospect (Miller and Moss); and each featured a high talent lottery ticket (Nova and Cantillo), with Arias as a bonus lottery ticket in the Clevinger deal.

Put another way, Cleveland has gotten an average (but one-dimensional) regular with cost control, a sampler platter of 2 or 3 prospects (either low floor/high ceiling, or high floor/low ceiling), and one asset just under a top 100 prospect value. What does that mean for the Cardinals?

Just this week, VEB writer emeritus Ben Clemens postulated that Cleveland’s asking price would have “fewer prospects and more controllable contributors.” That makes sense. They’re still a good team with an open window, and they want to keep it open as long as they can without tearing down for a rebuild. They’re more likely to take a sampler platter of options instead of, say, one or two prospects whose value approximates Lindor long-term. Guys like Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore probably wouldn’t be part of this kind of package.

Here are the cost-controlled MLB contributors the Cardinals can offer, along with their BTV trade values. Note that these BTV values are murky- they’re probably still updating them, and like everyone else, it’s hard to know what to do with how 2020 went:

  • Harrison Bader, 16.7
  • Tommy Edman, 15.9
  • Paul DeJong, 15.1
    (this was bumped up just in the past week, although I personally suspect it’s higher than this)
  • Tyler O’Neill, 8.6
  • Genesis Cabrera, 6.2
  • Johan Oviedo, 6.1
  • Lane Thomas, 5.0
  • Andrew Knizner, 4.3
  • Daniel Ponce de Leon, 0.9

I’ve omitted reliever values because they seem elevated. From there, there’s also a tier of prospect values to keep in mind. That would be:

  • Ivan Herrera, 20.6
  • Zack Thompson, 13.7
  • Elehuris Montero, 5.3
  • Malcom Nunez, 4.8
  • Jhon Torres, 4.6
    (although Cleveland just traded him to STL, so it’s doubtful he’d be involved)
  • Jake Woodford, 2.8
  • Angel Rondon, 2.6 (I suspect this will be higher when they update it)

Cleveland’s outfield situation is a goat rodeo comprised of known mediocrities (Delino DeShields, Jordan Luplow, Tyler Naquin) and “cross your fingers and hope they develop quicker or at all” types (Josh Naylor, Oscar Mercado). Franmil Reyes, of course, is the DH. Their outfield has been that way for a few years now.

Keeping in mind Cleveland’s probable desire for cost-controlled MLB-ready players, a player like Harrison Bader could make a fine starting point in a Lindor package, with the caveat that Cleveland’s offense also needs an upgrade and Bader wouldn’t help in that way. From there, it becomes a mix-and-match game of trying to hit their desired value. If they want another MLB-ready regular, Tommy Edman could become part of the package, with DeJong sliding over to second base. It seems like overkill, but DeJong himself could theoretically be included. Or Zack Thompson might be an alternative, near MLB-ready (but not quite), and all six years of his pre-arb years intact. Then the sampler platter portion kicks in, with multiple options from the 10 and under range.

Returning to the Clevinger and Bauer trades, a Cardinal package would (theoretically) shake out like one of these packages:

Option A: Bader, Edman, Woodford, Knizner

Option B: Bader, Thompson, Lane Thomas, Woodford, Ponce de Leon

Option C: O’Neill, Herrera, Cabrera, Oviedo

Option D: Edman, O’Neill, Montero, Oviedo, Rondon

Or a thousand other permutations with that kind of approximate value.

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Does Lindor Fit?

Any inclusion of DeJong is problematic. A top-end projection for Lindor (5 to 6 fWAR) would represent an upgrade over even an average projection for DeJong of about 2 to 3 wins for 2021. The price for those extra 2-3 wins would be the future value of the additional prospects, along with DeJong’s future cost-controlled years. That’s a lot of risk to absorb.

The problem with a lot of the permutations is that the Cardinals lack the minor league depth the Padres had when they made the Clevinger deal earlier this year. The Padres could throw prospect after prospect in the deal to satisfy Cleveland’s needs without harming the long-term outlook of the franchise. The Cardinals don’t have that luxury. At the moment, they need those kinds of players more than normal.

That’s not to say that average value prospects should stop them from making the deal. It’s just that they’re going to feel it more than other organizations right now. Then there are the other ramifications. Dealing for Lindor means Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright are highly unlikely to return. It doesn’t address the rotation, which has a lot of question marks for 2021 and would probably have weakened depth by the inclusion one of Thompson, Cabrera, or Oviedo in the Lindor deal.

There are a few more flying ointments. Assuming the Cardinals still want to cut payroll, taking on Lindor’s salary means they’d have to find a taker for Carlos Martinez, Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Miles Mikolas, or Paul Goldschmidt to decrease payroll. Last week, I explained why that’s going to be extremely difficult. Also, most of those proposed deals above are predicated on the notion that Cleveland would actively want the players I listed, and prefer them to a package offered by other teams. It’s possible, but far from a guarantee.

This feels like a move more suited to a team with a deeper caché of prospects, and a team closer to championship contention. If the Cardinals can make it happen without including either Edman or DeJong, it makes sense. Moving DeJong over to second base would free Edman to resume his role as The Zobrist™, his most effective role. Carlson would slide to CF, O’Neill would have to become more of a regular in LF, and Fowler and Thomas would have to gobble up the remaining regular at-bats. But it’ll take an elevated payroll, something the team seems unwilling to do.