The trade deadline is less than a week away, and we really don’t know much of anything at this point. Of course, five days ‘til the deadline is always kind of a tough time to be considering the market, because that seems like prime time for wild speculation, but still with enough time left for wiggle room in terms of rumours going around. You can analyse what should happen earlier, and you can follow the rumours about what could be happening in the last couple days leading up to the deadline, but a week out? Well, you can do either, or both, or neither, and it all amounts to a complete shot in the dark.
This year, of course, things are even more complicated than usual. The shortened season, expanded playoff pool, and nearness of the deadline to the end of the campaign all serve to obscure what should be done, could be done, might be done, will be done. The most likely outcome, it would seem, would also be the simplest: things just don’t get done. With this level of uncertainty, the easiest route forward for teams would be to simply sit on their collective hands, let the season play out however it’s going to play out, and just take a mulligan on this bizarre year of 2020. That is, sadly, how things will probably play out, I think.
However, it is possible, if not exactly probable, that we see something different. That maybe there are clubs willing to make moves, either to shore up their postseason chances, increase the possibility they actually make some sort of run come October, or possibly to get a head start on this offseason’s work, making moves they might want to make this December now, so as to potentially find an angle or edge they might not otherwise.
Now, here’s the thing: the first thing I mentioned there, the shoring up of playoff chances? Well, considering over the half the teams in baseball will make the postseason this year, I think it’s pretty debatable just how hard you really need to work to try and make the playoffs. There are plenty of very bad teams who will not qualify, but those teams were 100% not qualifying anyway, no matter what the format. There will still be bubble teams, as well, but when you go from the thirteenth best team not getting in (and that’s only if you want to think of the play-in games as ‘playoffs’), to the seventeenth best team not getting in, that’s a little bit different story. That team falling between eleventh and maybe fourteenth in the pecking order should have different priorities from the team falling between fifteenth and, say, nineteenth. Note I said should have different priorities; we can all think of a few examples of clubs that don’t recognise who they really are, to their own detriment. For the most part, though, if you’re a bubble team in a sixteen-team playoff format, you should probably be prioritising long-term concerns over short-term success. Just saying.
All that being said, there are definitely some players on the market, and a decent number of them will move. Problem is, most of the deals which have a good chance of actually getting done will probably end up being the low-hanging fruit types of deals, trades which are too easy to be interesting, that make too much sense to be worth much debate. Yes, the Pirates are motivated to move a couple guys, and I actually do like Trevor Williams, in case you were wondering. If the Cardinals didn’t produce #4 starters like Willy Wonka produces chocolate bars and problematic treatment of native people allegory thinkpieces, I would be all in for a Trevor Williams deal. Again, though, that’s the sort of deal that’s not going to make huge waves.
What I’m interested in are the one or two cases where waves might actually be made. And in particular, I’m interested in one very, very high profile player.
Francisco Lindor has been one of the best players in baseball almost since the moment he stepped on to a major league field. Cleveland drafted him eighth overall in 2011, he showed good on-base skills and top-quality defense in the minors, and no one thought he would ever hit for any power. He was never a big guy (still isn’t), was relatively slight of build, and just wasn’t that sort of hitter. A funny thing happened when he got to the big leagues, though. Lindor’s on-base skills took a hit, mostly due to facing the best pitching on the planet, but he actually made up for it by becoming a slugger. He hit over 30 home runs each of the last three seasons, has continued to play outstanding defense at short, and has been worth at least five wins in either three of the last four years or all four, depending which version of WAR you subscribe to.
Francisco Lindor is also a free agent after next season. He plays for the Indians, who do not, as a rule, carry huge payrolls, and have multiple other players they will likely have to figure out how to pay before long. Lindor is absolutely the best of those players, it should be said, and he might just be so special a player that Cleveland decided to do whatever it takes to keep him in the fold. I don’t think that’s a guarantee, though, and so the question of when Lindor might hit the market is at least worth asking.
I wrote not too long ago about Kolten Wong’s own relatively near free agency, and what that might mean for the Cardinals going forward. Wong has a club option for 2021, after which he will be free to go wherever he wants, and so a team looking to maximise the value they get from him might want to at least begin considering their options. In the case of Kolten, he will turn 30 years old this October, and thus would seem to be a questionable option for a long-term contract. I did not say a bad option; only a questionable one. Lindor, on the other hand, will only turn 27 in November, which makes him a very, very different case. For Wong, you would be signing him after 2021 for his age 31 season and beyond, meaning you’re probably only going to get about one season of what could still be reasonably construed as his peak years. Lindor, on the other hand, will begin his next contract with his age 28 season, giving you four seasons from 28-31 where you should be fairly confident you’re getting close to peak Frankie Lindor. Now, we can quibble about exact aging curves and the like, but I don’t think there’s a lot of argument that getting a guy on a hall of fame pace for his age 28-31 seasons is a big deal. In other words, Lindor is not only an incredible player, but he’s also still young enough that you would be getting something close to the best version of him, rather than trading for or signing up for nothing but decline years, a la the Paul Goldschmidt deal. (Which I’m not saying was a bad deal, only that it was always going to be a deal that netted you the downslope of his career.)
Now, it is worth noting that the Cleveland Indians are very much in the playoff picture this year, and therefore would seem to have little incentive to move Lindor while they’re trying to chase down a postseason berth. On the other hand, there is always the chance they could extract extra value from a team looking to make a deal now and get Lindor onboard for their own playoff push, rather than waiting for the offseason and sacrificing any value they might get now. Of course, the marginal value of this particular season is, to put it lightly, somewhat dubious, and how much money teams are looking at losing probably affects all of this in a huge way, but I have very little understanding of exactly how to measure and weight all those factors.
So the question is, will Francisco Lindor be put on the market in the next week? Well, probably not. I do say probably not, though, because there is at least some chance Cleveland might look at their place in the division, at the somewhat inexplicably great Minnesota Twins (seriously, I keep looking at their roster, and for the life of me I can’t figure out where the wins are coming from), and the oncoming White Sox, and they might just decide that their best chance to reload on the fly is to make a move on their franchise player sooner rather than later. This offseason seems more likely, but the Indian front office seems smart enough they would push to get a trade done either now or in the winter rather than waiting for next trade deadline, when they very likely will not get much in return, even for a player of Lindor’s caliber.
Lindor is going to be expensive in 2021, being arbitration eligible for the last time. I don’t know Cleveland’s exact financial situation, nor how much they have been effected by this year’s events, but as I said, they rarely push the envelope on spending, and in fact have gone above their comfort zone the last couple years to keep their window of contention open, from what I understand. Francisco Lindor is an incredibly valuable player, and it’s tough to see how any team wanting to compete could move him. Then again, it’s also hard to see how any team wanting to compete could not at least consider offers for him. Funny how that works.
Now, seeing as how this is a Cardinals blog, the next question I should really ask is: would the Cardinals be in on any possible Lindor deal? Actually, probably the best question is should they be in, to which the answer is almost certainly yes. The question of would they, however, is a little more complicated. I think the answer is still probably yes, but it’s far from a sure thing it would work out in the Redbirds’ favour.
To be sure, the Cards have a very deep farm system, and could afford to make at least one big splashy trade if they wanted to without compromising the talent pipeline overmuch. It’s fair to point out the Cardinal system might be slightly lacking in star power, but even that isn’t a sure thing. They don’t have quite the upside at the top of the very best farm systems in the game, but the Gorman/Liberatore/Herrera/Thompson group does have a substantial ceiling all the same. So do the Cardinals have enough value in the farm system to pull off a deal for a player like Lindor? I think they do, yes.
The problem here is I actually don’t think the Cards match up with the Indians’ needs all that well, even though the two clubs do seem to favour dealing with each other quite often. It’s always interesting to consider why two organisations trade with one another more than with others, and I honestly don’t know if it has to do with similar valuation methodology of players, differing methodologies, differing strengths of development, maybe just the personalities of the front office personnel lines up. I really don’t know. The Cards and Indians like to deal, though, for whatever reason.
The issue, though, is that the Cards’ and Indians’ farm systems are actually very similar right now, which makes it harder to make a deal. For instance, one of the two systems’ top prospect right now is a left-handed hitting third baseman named Nolan. Can you guess which one? That was a trick question; the answer is both. The Cards’ top prospect right now (if we consider Dylan Carlson no longer really a prospect, which I kind of do), is Nolan Gorman, the Indians’ top guy is Nolan Jones, a power-hitting lefty with average defensive upside at third. What I’m saying is that offering Cleveland the top guy in your system right now would create more confusion than excitement, most likely.
Cleveland does have a very good shortstop prospect near the top of their system, so they might have a built-in replacement in the near future, limiting the need for a shortstop to be included in the deal. But Cleveland’s top ten prospects right now are one catcher, one outfielder, and a bunch of pitchers and infielders. The Cardinals’ top ten right now (minus Carlson), is one outfielder, one catcher, and a bunch of pitchers and infielders. Admittedly, teams trade for value as much as they do need, but it’s still easier to come up with a trade, especially when dealing with premium prospects, when the deal would create balance, rather than redundancy.
So what exactly do the Indians need? Well, what the Indians really need is a young, cost-controlled outfielder or two who can really hit. Dylan Carlson would seem to be the ideal type of player used to acquire Lindor in this case, but it’s hard to see the Cardinals being willing to move their top guy right now even in a deal like that. Besides, as good as Lindor is, you would only be trading for one year (an expensive year at that), plus the final month of this season. Would trading Carlson for Lindor make you better in 2021? Almost certainly. Would it make you better over the next several years? Probably, yes. Would it make you better overall when you consider what else you couldn’t do with Lindor’s salary on the books, as opposed to Carlson at cost-controlled numbers plus whatever else you could buy? Well, um...that’s a tougher question.
Maybe a Tyler O’Neill would interest Cleveland, and I’m sure the Cardinals would be at least willing to discuss that deal, much more so than I would bet on them dangling Carlson. And if O’Neill would get the job done by himself, as much as I love Bro Neill, I make that deal in a heartbeat. I wonder, though, if Cleveland could sell that deal to the fanbase. Here’s the return for our franchise player, everybody! He’s 25 years old, has 350 plate appearances total in the big leagues, and is currently hitting .154! Yes, those numbers are not necessarily the whole truth, but the optics of dealing a franchise icon for a guy with that track record is tough to sell. I suppose the good news is that at the moment, it isn’t as if a club could see attendance tank if they made an unpopular move.
Do I think Francisco Lindor will be moved by the trade deadline? Honestly, I don’t. I do think there’s a good chance he will move this offseason, but even that isn’t a guarantee. Everything in baseball is so up in the air right now that I don’t know what direction things are heading in. Maybe we’ll see a huge wave of cheap player extensions as guys try to ensure themselves some security in a world that suddenly seems very tottery. But it’s at least a possibility that the Indians could move on from their franchise player sooner than later, and if they do, I’m sure there will be a bidding war for his services.