The Cleveland Indians were down a run in the 11th inning of the 1995 American League Divisional Series Game 2 when Albert Belle stepped to the plate. In the post-strike, abbreviated 144-game season, Belle had hit 50 home runs and 52 doubles, so none were surprised when he tied the game with one swing. The home run elevated from essential to legendary when Boston Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy dared question the validity of the bat; prompting Belle to pull up his sleeve, flex his substantial muscle, and point to the bulging bicep to indicate the source of power.
Should the Indians have traded Belle with two years left on his contract?1
If they had moved Belle, fans would not have memories of one of the most dynamic offensive seasons by anyone ever to wear a Tribe uniform including the above sequence. Mo Vaughn’s name would not draw immediate vitriol in Northeast Ohio for winning a contentious AL MVP Award, Fernando Vina would not have been run over, and Belle would not have hit a grand slam to break a tie game against the Baltimore Orioles in the 1996 ALDS.
Such is the question fans of the Indians are forced to consider about Francisco Lindor as opposing teams salivate over the possibility of trading for the superstar shortstop and even purposefully leak information about potential trade returns to the media.
The argument to trade Lindor this offseason is simple yet flawed. Asset valuation dictates his trade value might be at a peak given the time remaining on his current contract will only lessen. Chief executive officer Paul Dolan’s own quotes demonstrate the ballclub does not expect to retain Lindor beyond that time frame.2 Thus, the Tribe will have more assets in the post-Lindor years by trading him than they would if they allowed him to sign elsewhere– even if the Qualifying Offer (QO) remains as-is in the next collective bargaining agreement (CBA).3
Application of the above would be logical if the front office believed the disappointing finish to the 2019 season was a harbinger of the contention window closing. If the 2020 season– and potentially the 2021 season– were not years the Indians thought the postseason possible, then ensuring the best team in the future would become essential as the front office did when trading C.C. Sabathia in 2008 and both Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez in 2009.
However, the situation for the upcoming Tribe campaign is quite different than the decade prior. Building around Lindor in the short-term rather than rebuilding in the wake of his departure is not only feasible but should be preferred. The team is coming off a 93-win season and only losing Jason Kipnis, Tyler Clippard, and Yasiel Puig as contributors with $15-20 million to spend this offseason to reach the same operating budget. The Indians return what is expected to be a strong rotation with Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Aaron Civale. Jefry Rodriguez and Zach Plesac might be alternatives to plug in if the health should fail any of the Top 5 or converted into premier relief options. The bullpen will likely have to make up for the loss of Clippard, which having a full season of James Karinchak should do. The lineup has a couple of obvious holes at second base and the outfield, but those should be plugged through free agency– or even a trade. Upper-level prospects such as Nolan Jones, Daniel Johnson, and others appear near-ready to contribute.
Most fans claim winning a World Series is the most important objective for the Cleveland Indians. Well, it will be nearly impossible for the Tribe to be a better team in 2020 or 2021 without the best shortstop and Top 5 player in all of baseball on their roster. The 26-year-old Lindor is entering his prime and has compiled a 23.2 fWAR since 2016, which is only topped by Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich, and Anthony Rendon.4 There should be little doubt the Indians World Series odds are higher for the next two seasons by retaining Lindor.
Navigating the AL Central division appears to be challenging but manageable. The Minnesota Twins were a phenomenal story in 2019– for fans of baseball outside Northeast Ohio– but the team is not without serious questions despite the expectation they will remain a formidable opponent. An offense reliant on a record-setting home run binge might need to adjust to Major League Baseball re-instituting a regulation ball with more drag and less bounce… what percentage of those home runs become long flyouts? Is Jake Odorizzi now a premier pitcher well worth the $18 million contract he was given for next year or will he revert to the mediocre starter he was from 2013 through 2018? If he reverts, will the Twins have enough in the rotation after Jose Berrios? Can the bullpen repeat the excellence they demonstrated in the second half of 2019? Can they hope to repeat a 23-12 record in one-run games?
The rest of the division is far less worrisome. The Chicago White Sox appear to be stuck in a loop: “a year or two away” unless they can have a substantial offseason.5 The Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are still paying for the years they propped their contention windows open by trading away what was then their future and is now their present.
The American League has the Houston Astros stuck in a scandal-filled offseason, and the Boston Red Sox contemplating trading Betts. The New York Yankees are stacked, yet still have impending questions about their rotation. The Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics are among the teams who could push for the postseason. There will be elite ballclubs to contend with, of course, but there always will be. The last 71 seasons on Indians baseball have demonstrated just how difficult it is to win even a single World Series… again making elite stars– such as a certain ever-smiling lead-off hitter– essential on teams with enough overall talent to contend with the variability of short series baseball in October.
There is also the effect of the optics from a Lindor trade on the long-term fan psyche. The economics of being a small-market baseball team add monetary and psychological disadvantages in developing a consistently winning franchise and loyal fanbase. Astute fans frustratingly understand that the best of the best players are merely on loan– hopefully, for the highlight years of their career. Belle, CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez, and Manny Ramirez were each with Cleveland for eight years. Lindor has already shaved a year off of those totals by betting on himself.6 If the current ruminations come to fruition, they would subtract another two. The belief for how long the Indians will have ‘the next Lindor’ will in part rest on how they handle ‘the current Lindor.’
Maybe there are some valid reasons to trade a super-star player while they still hold high value and will give a bounty in return. However, any strategic deployment removing multiple seasons of a Hall of Fame caliber player in their prime from a contending ballclub’s roster is simply wrong. Keep the casual fans engaged by being competitive with the most marketable player in Major League Baseball, while maximizing the Lindor-window and trusting the loaded lower-levels of the farm system will be able to help beyond it.
In an alternative universe, the Indians front office would have spun the phrase Manny being Manny as a reason they needed to trade Ramirez after the 1998 season and missed having his two best offensives seasons being those wearing a Tribe uniform. Jim Thome’s jersey would have been torn off his back by a trade after the 2000 season; never having the opportunity to team up with Ellis Burks and Juan Gonzalez. Albert Belle would have been remembered mostly in Cleveland for giving Jason Grimsley his audition for Mission Impossible.
No thanks. Let’s stick with this reality, and let’s stick with Lindor in an Indians uniform for as long as we can.