On Francisco Lindor, Success Cycles, and Rumor Laundering

Before diving in to the offseason, I want to re-expound on something that most people, especially on the national level, continue to not understand about how the Indians are making decisions.

The “success cycle” is the current paradigm for team building. At the start of the cycle, a team strips down their roster almost completely, trading off all their veteran players, and fielding a team that has no chance of winning for several years, with the side benefit of having an extremely low payroll. Then, assuming the front office made astute drafting and prospect evaluation decisions, the team begins to spend some money again, bringing in a couple key free agents. Then, when the young core is ready to compete for a championship, the wallet is opened wide and the minor-league system becomes only a vehicle for acquiring veteran players. Once the core gets old/expensive, the roster gets torn completely down and the cycle begins anew.

It is my belief that the Indians do not want to follow this cycle, having institutional memories about previous rebuilding eras. The 2002-2004 rebuild, short and necessary though it was, turned half the fanbase against the team, with attendance never recovering. The 2009-2012 rebuild wasn’t quite as devastating to attendance or fan perception, but nevertheless was not a fun period. In addition, the causes of those fallow periods haven’t been lost on the current front office, some of whom were there for them. Poor drafting, poor free agent decisions, and trading away prospects for short-term fixes were what sunk the team into the last two rebuilds, and many of the decisions since then have been made to avoid those previous mistakes.

With that in mind, consider the last year of decisions made by the Tribe front office. A typical team in the Indians’ place would have gorged itself in the free agent market, or at least traded some prospects to fill a hole. The Indians did neither, in fact they let go Michael Brantley via free agency, and suffered for it the following season. They traded Yan Gomes, their starting catcher, and shed payroll in several other moves. Yet they didn’t tear the roster apart, keeping the starting rotation together (at least to start the season) and the rest of the starting lineup. In other words, they didn’t commit to one path or the other that the success cycle demands of a team once the roster reached maturity. They did trade Trevor Bauer, but in return received a short-term rental (Yasiel Puig) and a medium-term solution (Franmil Reyes) in addition to some prospects.

So when the rumors about the Dodgers looking to trade for Francisco Lindor broke, I shook my head. The reporting by Jon Paul Morosi, as usual, is vague enough to be correct even if nothing happens:

 
Sources say the Dodgers are expected to pursue a trade for Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor as one possible addition to an offense that managed only a .303 on-base percentage during this month’s National League Division Series loss to the Nationals.

(snip)

The Indians have made no apparent progress on a long-term extension for Lindor, and many in the industry believe there is a good chance he will be dealt before next Opening Day.

Note that this reporting is that the Dodgers will be pursuing Lindor, not that the Indians are either looking to trade him or even listening. Just that some people in the industry (read: other front offices) think the Indians would deal him because they haven’t been able to make progress on a long-term deal. This of course led to this headline from Beyond the Boxscore, an SBN site (sigh):

This is clickbait. Oh sure, the headline/sub-headline is hedging its bets by using “it sure looks like” and “Lindor might be on the move” but ultimately it is using a rather typical Hot Stove League piece of reporting (X team is interested in X player) to give an excuse to wag the finger at the Indians for not ponying up to sign Lindor to a long-term deal:

While the Dodgers trying to make a move happen doesn’t mean that Cleveland will Lindorit’s clear that Cleveland’s ownership has little interest in extending Lindor or retaining him when he reaches free agency after the 2021 season. If Cleveland were to trade Lindor, it would be hard to view it as anything other than a purely cost-cutting move. We saw what their miserly approach following the 2018 season did to an assured division title, so such a move would be an admission that profits are more important than winning. 

Was it disappointing that the Indians let Michael Brantley go last year? Absolutely. But this analysis is ridiculously simplistic. The Indians have been a competitive team for seven straight years now, and are to the point in a typical success cycle where other teams in mid-tier and low-tier markets have thrown in the towel and tore the team completely down. The Royals were competitive for five seasons (2013-2017), then tore their roster completely apart. The Pirates also lasted five seasons (same time frame) before firing practically everyone and presumably starting over. But for all the Indians’ “miserly” ways, they still managed to field a team that until the last series of the season was in contention for a playoff spot. In other words, they have maintained the payroll of a contending team for longer than their peers, and at least will try to be competitive for an eighth year.

The author of the article is applying to the Indians a template that is not applicable. The Indians may eventually trade Lindor because it’s obvious that they aren’t going to give out an 8-year deal at $30M+ average annual value, but I do not think that they will trade him this winter, as Morosi is suggesting, nor would a Lindor trade be driven by cost-cutting for 2020. Lindor even at a projected $16M-18M salary is still a bargain for any team, including the Indians. The Indians want to compete again in 2020, and Lindor is inextricably linked to that goal. He will very likely be playing for someone else by the end of the 2021 season, and almost certainly will be by the start of the 2022 season, but that’s just how mid-market teams fare when it comes to superstars.

If team owner Paul Dolan had wanted to maximize profit, he would have done what the Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs or many other teams since then did: completely tank, a strategy that this author would undoubtedly condemn. In 2013, the Astros had a payroll of $35M despite residing in one of baseball’s largest markets, a payroll that the Indians hadn’t had since 2004. Cleveland ownership’s spending obviously isn’t going be confused with the late Mike Illitch of the Detroit Tigers anytime soon, but the Dolans have now presided over as long a competitive window as the Jacobs Field Era Indians of the mid-to-late 1990s, and are attempting to extend that window into 2020 and beyond. As an Indians fan, it has been a fun seven seasons, and although I’d love for the team to spend more, I can’t complain much about the results on the field.

The author then remarks that (1) MLB revenues are up and (2) references a Ringer article about how top prospects who are traded tend to underperform. Let’s take each argument separately.

That MLB revenues are up but payrolls have not increased at the same rate may be an issue for the MLBPA to key on in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations (they expire after the 2021 season), but this is not relevant to the Indians re-signing Francisco Lindor. Free agency is a competition between MLB clubs, and the Indians are not going to fare well in this competition because they don’t have the revenue sources that other teams do, as alluded to in this sentence:

 
Forbes’ valuation of each baseball team put Cleveland as the sixth-least valuable team, but as a brand they’re still worth $1.1 billion.

Furthermore, a team’s valuation is not relevant to having more cash to throw around unless the team borrows against it. Or the owners sell the team, I guess, but that’s not helpful either for obvious reasons. Dolan did sell a piece of the club to John Sherman a couple of years ago, but Sherman is going to have to divest that by the time he officially takes over as owner of the Kansas City Royals.

The Indians may be able to deal with the short-term risk of allocating ~20% of their payroll ($30M AAV) to one player, but they simply can’t deal with the risk of allocating a significant portion of their payroll to one player 8-10 years from now, when Lindor would likely be on the downside of his career. Lindor will likely ask for that length of contract on the free agent market, and I don’t blame him for it, given that both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado got those types of deals last winter. Lindor bet on himself by not taking an earlier long-term extension (a la Jose Ramirez), and now he’s well within his rights to collect on that wager.

As for not trading Lindor because prospects don’t tend to work out, that’s not an argument that resonates with Indians fans. Of the high-profile players that the Indians have traded since Bartolo Colon in 2002, almost all those trades eventually worked out. And that’s not counting the many core players that the Indians got in what were considered minor trades (Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Mike Clevinger, to name but a few). If the organization has been consistently good in one thing, it’s been getting good value when they do trade a core player.

In conclusion, I have no doubt that the Indians will eventually trade Francisco Lindor, but I don’t think it will be this winter, and that they will do so with a similar goal as they had in dealing Trevor Bauer: a return that balances the short-term (Puig) with the medium-term (Reyes) and a bit of the long-term (prospects).

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