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The pros and cons of a potential Francisco Lindor deal

It’s not likely to happen, but there are fair arguments for and against

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Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

As you may have heard earlier in the offseason, the Cleveland Indians intend to trade Francisco Lindor by Opening Day. This is a bold choice that in no way can or will backfire upon the Indians. Great teams trade away their best offensive stars all the time, like the 2020 Red Sox, and we all saw how great the 2020 Red Sox were.

That said, if you squint, you can actually see how this makes more sense for the Indians than it may have for the Red Sox to deal Mookie Betts a year ago.

First and foremost, Lindor only has one year left until he becomes a free agent. Secondly, he will be making in excess of $25 million per year for a boatload of years once he does hit free agency. Unlike the Red Sox, who have a theoretically infinite flow of cash (that they chose not to use in 2020 for the interest of resetting the luxury tax), the Indians do not have all the money in the world. Or at least, they don’ts spend that way, spending most of their time in or close to the bottom third of the league in payroll. Only once in the past ten seasons did they finish in the top half of the league in payroll.

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

They’ve made a point of not spending in recent years, as the only players on the roster making a guaranteed $5 million or more are Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, and José Ramírez. Once they trade Lindor, their highest paid player will be Carrasco, who has two guaranteed years left at $12 million a piece, as well as a club option for a third year at $14 million.

With the Indians slashing payroll and presumably not bringing Lindor back, they can focus on getting their maximal return. So the fit for them is clear. Trade Lindor, get back good, young pieces like the Red Sox did for Mookie Betts, and try to stay relevant at the same time. It’s easier said than done.

With their fit clear, the next question becomes: Can the Red Sox benefit?

The answer is of course yes, as there are very few players on the planet as talented as Francisco Lindor. Since he debuted in 2015, only two position players have amassed more fWAR than Lindor: Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. He hits the ball well, he plays great defense, and he’s a net positive on the bases.

So we’ve established that Lindor is very good at baseball, and that the Red Sox would be lucky to have him. Great. The next problem that arises is the same thing that makes him worth trading away from the Indians perspective: The lack of control over his contract. With Lindor being an impending free agent, a team will get one year of the services of Lindor in exchange for the presumably talented players they must send to Cleveland to attain him. This is a reasonable gripe, and one I will not argue against.

At the end of the day, it’s one guaranteed year of a superstar talent, and the 2020 Red Sox did not inspire a ton of confidence.

But I believe there’s a chance for the Lindor trade to be a parallel for the Mookie Betts trade a year ago in that there’s a chance that Lindor never makes it to free agency either. I won’t blow the entire article, as it is behind a paywall, but this article by the Athletic does a great job of illustrating the relationship between Lindor and new/old Red Sox manager Alex Cora. With a strong relationship between the two, an extension could be much easier to hammer out than under other circumstances.

Alex Cora Boston Red Sox Manager Press Conference Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Making this trade would allow Red Sox ownership and management to potentially placate a swarm of fans who were disappointed, angry, or otherwise confused by the Red Sox decision to trade Betts in the previous offseason. While there is no replacing Betts, winning cures all (or at least most) ills. While there are no games in the offseason being played, winning the off-season is still a thing that teams sometimes try to do. What better way to revitalize a fanbase after the debacle that was the 2020 Red Sox season than by introducing a new superstar to be the face of the Red Sox?

That said, for all the positives, there’s one big negative staring the Red Sox in the face in this hypothetical scenario: The cost of actually acquiring Francisco Lindor.

There’s no way to sugar coat it. Trading for Lindor will cost as much, if not more, than it cost to acquire Betts. There is no David Price contract to absorb to lessen the cost of prospects or major league talent heading out. Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs, and Connor Wong were enough to get it done a year ago, you might point out, but this also included moving Price and his salary out of town too.

The first piece to move is obvious: It basically has to be Jeter Downs. First of all, Downs is the top or second best prospect in the system. He plays in the middle infield, same area as Lindor, who the Indians will need to replace. He’s close enough to the majors that he can appeal to an Indians team that was still a playoff team in 2020. He checks all the boxes that a centerpiece needs to.

The second piece requires a little thinking, but I can’t get away from thinking that it has to be one of these three names: Alex Verdugo, Triston Casas, or Tanner Houck. We can safely ignore Verdugo as a name right now. It makes zero sense in any context to trade him, given first that he is Boston’s best outfielder. Additionally, Verdugo was one of the brighter spots of the 2020 season, and it would not be popular to ship him out for a rental. Houck to me also doesn’t make a ton of sense. Not because he isn’t good, but because the Indians pitching machine just doesn’t need as many arms as we do. Houck may be the type of player who would be a promising trade candidate if we didn’t need starting pitching, and the Indians did, but neither of those things are true.

Thus, I’m left to think Casas is the only name there that truly makes sense, as loathe as I am to consider it. Casas is the other prospect in our top two alongside Downs, and swings a lofty bat to match the top prospect billing. Casas represents an alternative answer to the current first base mashup of Michael Chavis, Bobby Dalbec, and the rotating door of fringe free agents and waiver wire material. Casas is a bit farther away from the majors, having yet to play above High-A, though he did impress at the Alternate Site and could be closer than we think. Either way, his loss would be one felt throughout the system.

I imagine this is not enough, so the Indians would require one more legitimate prospect going back. I believe, given the current state of the Red Sox system, that you would be looking at one of the following names: Gilberto Jimenez, Jarren Duran, or Jeisson Rosario, all outfielders. Other than George Valera, the Indians have a lack of decent outfield prospects in their minor league system. And even with Valera you kind of have to squint to see what he really is, in my opinion, as he played with players far older than him in the Midwest League in 2019.

Taking one of Jimenez, Duran, or Rosario would allow them to build up an area of organizational weakness. My guess is that they would be asking for Duran, and be negotiated down to Jimenez or Rosario, but I would be remiss to not mention Duran. I just believe the Sox think too highly of him to actually move him as a tertiary piece in a deal for a rental without the contingency of an extension.

There may be other lesser pieces involved (such as a reliever coming back to Boston, to balance something out with a fourth prospect), but I feel like this most accurately represents what the cost to acquire a top talent like Francisco Lindor would be. Something along the lines of Downs+Casas+Jimenez/Rosario, with room for negotiation on the finer details.

Can the Red Sox do that? Of course. Lindor would slot in over Downs, and the Red Sox would just live with Dalbec at first base. The loss of Rosario or Jimenez would hurt, but there would still be Duran in the system (and the one of Rosario/Jimenez not traded). While this would hurt the farm, it would not completely destroy it either, as Chaim Bloom has done work to get the system back to looking half respectable.

The better question is if the Sox should. It should be mentioned that it’s not likely to happen at this point. My opinion, as fun as having Lindor would on the team would be, is no. It would be a bad idea to make any trade at this juncture; at least without the guarantee of an extension. The Red Sox desperately need pitching, and cannot afford to be wasting their top prospects on rental position players. With the guarantee of an extension, it becomes easier to stomach, as finding a top 5 player in baseball is tremendously hard.

Plus, if Lindor makes it to free agency, the Red Sox can just throw money at him a year from now and sign him outright while keeping Downs, Casas, and whoever else they have to ship out to make it happen. Not that I believe that even in free agency will the Red Sox put a big target on Lindor. At least not right now.