Last offseason, Cleveland was rumored to trade either Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. As a small market team, Cleveland supposedly had trouble paying their players who had received raises in arbitration, and they could have remained competitive without one of their top two starters.
A trade never materialized during the season, but one thing was obvious: Cleveland was reluctant to spend. They let Michael Brantley go, not even bothering to extend a qualifying offer. With their outfield as an obvious weakness, they opted instead to field a cardboard cutout of Carlos Gonzalez while swapping Yandy Díaz for Jake Bauers.
After the 2019 season got away from them due to some unforeseen circumstances (the myriad injuries to the rotation, José Ramírez’s prolonged slump, the Twins breaking the single season team home run record) and completely foreseen circumstances (the outfield performing quite badly), Cleveland finally traded Bauer. After a disappointing end to the 2019 campaign it appears that Francisco Lindor could be the next on the trading block.
Jon Morosi reports that the Dodgers will actively pursue a trade for Cleveland’s shortstop. While the Dodgers trying to make a move happen doesn’t mean that Cleveland will Lindor, it’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.
Lindor would demand quite the prospect haul. If it’s the Dodgers who ultimately wind up with Lindor, they may have to part with one of Gavin Lux or Dustin May. Either one of those players would likely shoot to the top of Cleveland’s prospect rankings. Still, it’s important to remember that both are unlikely to be the player Lindor is. Cleveland did well with the Bauer trade, but replacing a starter with a career 4.43 DRA is much easier than replacing a 30-homer hitter who plays excellent defense at a premium position. Before the 2019 season, ZiPS projected Lindor for seven-win seasons in 2020 and 2021. The odds are against May or Lux or any other top prospect providing that kind of impact. Zach Kram at the Ringer found that top prospects who are traded tend to underperform. Cleveland would be making themselves worse in the short term with no promise of ever getting as much value in return.
It’s also important to remember that Cleveland absolutely can afford to extend Lindor for what he’s worth. Yes, Cleveland is a small-market, and they rank in the bottom ten for attendance, but attendance is just a part of a team’s income. MLB experienced record revenue in 2018 despite attendance falling, and it will most likely be the same story in 2019. 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.
This raises the question: if Cleveland doesn’t want to spend money on Francisco Lindor, who would they want to spend money on? Not Michael Brantley or Edwin Encarnacion or Bauer. Playing in the same division as the Tigers, Royal, and White Sox, Cleveland might have the easiest path to the playoffs of any team in baseball, but it’s hard to see them following it if they’re not willing to spend on free agents or even pay players through the end of arbitration. As long as Cleveland keeps crying poor, the drought will continue.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.