Francisco Lindor and the Crowd of Available Shortstopson November 9, 2020 at 5:55 pm

Francisco Lindor and the Crowd of Available Shortstops

Last week, I noted that Marcus Semien was the highest-ranked player from our Top 50 Free Agents list who did not receive a qualifying offer. He heads what projects to be the strongest free-agent class at any position this year, but for teams willing to shop for a shortstop via trade, Francisco Lindor presents a tantalizing alternative. The Indians have reportedly informed teams of their intent to trade the four-time All-Star, who would be at the top of an even stronger crop of free-agent shortstops next year and who almost certainly isn’t going to receive a competitive offer to stay in Cleveland.

Lindor, who turns 27 on November 14, had the weakest season of his career on the offensive side in 2020, hitting just .258/.335/.415 with eight homers and six steals; his 100 wRC+ represented a 14-point dip from 2019 and a 19-point drop relative to his previous career rate. He did overcome a slow start to finish strong, batting .212/.264/.353 (60 wRC+) through his first 21 games and then .285/.371/.450 (122 wRC+) over his final 39. That’s a rather arbitrarily chosen point of inflection, but it’s not far removed from acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr.’s suggestion that Lindor was pressing at the plate early in the season. Even while shedding 1.1 mph of average exit velocity, Lindor wound up underperforming his Statcast expected batting average and slugging percentage (.278 and .441, respectively), though that kind of variance is unremarkable.

Beyond the bat, Lindor was a career-worst 2.5 runs below average via his baserunning, his second year in a row in the red. Thanks to his 5.8 UZR, he still finished with 1.7 WAR, ranking eighth among shortstops and prorating to 4.6 WAR over the course of a full season. His two-year total of 6.1 WAR places him fifth at the position (Semien is first at 8.8), and his three-year total of 13.7 WAR is tops.

If Lindor were hitting free agency with this as his platform season, it wouldn’t be ideal, but then Bryce Harper and Manny Machado faced a similar issue two winters ago and still wound up earning $300 million-plus even in a frosty market. Maybe this market will be even colder, post-pandemic, but Lindor does have another chance to put his best foot forward. He broke off extension talks with the Indians back in March, saying that the team never made an offer that reached $300 million and that he wouldn’t accept a Christian Yelich-like deal (nine years and $215 million from the Brewers). While president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti stopped short of calling Lindor a surefire trade candidate in early October, USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reported last week that the team intends to trade him by Opening Day:

The Cleveland Indians, severely strapped for money, are informing teams that they intend to trade All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor by opening day, according to two rival executives.

The executives spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of trade talks.

Cleveland shopped Lindor last winter, and were in serious negotiations with the Los Angeles Dodgers in a deal that involved shortstop Corey Seager, but decided to hang onto him when the Dodgers declined to increase their offer.

For as successful as the Indians have been over the past half-decade — only the Dodgers and Astros have higher winning percentages than their .587 mark — they’ve been shedding payroll left and right over the past few seasons, trading away Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger as they’ve gotten more expensive; letting Michael Brantley depart via free agency; and declining the affordable options of Brad Hand and Carlos Santana last week. They’ve skimped on spending via free agency, too: Since signing Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal following the 2016 season, the most money they’ve committed via that route was $16 million for two years of Yonder Alonso following the ’17 season, and neither of those players lasted longer than a year in Cleveland before being dealt.

Via Roster Resource, Cleveland’s payroll fell from $140 million in 2018 to $99 million (before proration) this year — that after Antonetti called recent payrolls “unsustainable.” The team’s current payroll estimate for next season is just $72 million, even with Lindor taking up $19.5 million of that in his final year of arbitration eligibility.

Resigned to losing Lindor to free agency, the Indians will instead look to trade him. With just a year of club control remaining, they won’t get a windfall, but that’s not to say that they won’t get a useful player or two for the long term. In September 2019, when it became clear that the Red Sox planned to deal Mookie Betts, I looked back at a handful of trades of star players one year before free agency. The quality of the returns was often clouded by the inclusion of other players in the deal. But for example, the trade of Jeff Samardzija from the A’s to the White Sox worked out quite well for Oakland given the inclusion of both Semien and Chris Bassitt. The trade of Justin Upton from the Braves to the Padres included Max Fried, and the trade of Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates to the Giants included Bryan Reynolds (man, what happened to him in 2020?). Betts, who was dealt along with David Price as part of a salary dump, brought back outfielder Alex Verdugo, infielder Jeter Downs, and catcher/infielder Connor Wong — a former top-50 prospect with five years of club control, a then-current top-50 prospect, and another prospect.

Betts was a more accomplished player than Lindor at the point he was dealt, having won an MVP award and a World Series (though Lindor got agonizingly close in 2016), and the Indians, unless they want to deal the very reasonably priced Carlos Carrasco or Jose Ramirez, don’t have a contract they need to get out from under in the same way that the Red Sox did with Price. They might land a couple of good players, but they’re not going to acquire a Yoan Moncada-level prospect for a player with a year of control remaining, and it hardly seems clear that Lindor will follow in Betts’ footsteps by inking an extension with the team that acquires him, lessening the sting of the trade. That’s not to say that, for example, the Mets — who in Ronny Mauricio and Andres Gimenez have a pair of top-100 prospects at shortstop, and a rich new owner looking to make it rain — couldn’t pull off such a move, but it’s hardly an automatic.

The depth of the shortstop market, both this year and next, may be a problem for Lindor, because more affordable options abound. Here’s a look at how the position stacks up, both for this year’s free agent market and next year’s bumper crop (though of course, some of them might sign extensions before the end of next season):

2020 and ’21 Free Agent Shortstop Classes
Class of 2020 Prev Team Age wRC+ UZR WAR 2021 Proj WAR Med Years/Med Total
Marcus Semien Athletics 30 91 2.1 1.2 2.9 3/$51.0M
Andrelton Simmons Angels 31 99 0.8 0.6 2.8 3/$42.0M
Didi Gregorius Phillies 31 116 0.4 1.4 2.2 3/$45.0M
Ha-seong Kim Heroes (KBO) 25 141 2.0 4/$44.0M
Freddy Galvis Reds 31 91 0.4 0.5 0.2 2/$12.0M
Class of 2021 Team Age wRC+ UZR WAR 2021 Proj WAR 2021 Salary Est.
Corey Seager Dodgers 27 151 -3.5 1.9 5.4 $12.15M
Francisco Lindor Indians 27 100 5.8 1.7 5.1 $19.5M
Carlos Correa Astros 26 97 -0.7 0.9 4.2 $9.1M
Trevor Story Rockies 28 117 4.0 2.5 3.6 $18.5M*
Javier Baez Cubs 28 57 0.4 0.0 2.2 $10.95M
2020 free agent contract estimates via FanGraphs crowdsource. 2021 salaries for pending free agents are arbitration estimates via Roster Resource/MLB Trade Rumors except * actual salary.

Those are two very different groups of players. This year’s class of shortstops looks strong relative to the rest of the current market in that no other position (besides starting pitchers) has multiple players currently projected to produce at least 2.8 WAR next season or as many as four players projected to produce at least 2.0 WAR. All of these guys except Galvis should be above-average in the near term.

Yet all of those players — save for Kim, a new arrival from the KBO who packs power, speed, and a plus-plus arm into a 5-foot-9 frame — are on the wrong side of 30, and only Semien projects to be worth more than any member of next year’s class in the coming year. They’re more than stopgaps, but probably not cornerstones. Due to some combination of their ages, the strength of their platform seasons, and the current economic climate, none of them projects to break the bank.

The market for these guys is largely the teams they’ve vacating, plus possibly the Mets if they deal Gimenez or incumbent Amed Rosario to trade for a bigger piece; the Yankees if they decide to move Gleyber Torres back to second base and let DJ LeMahieu walk; the Phillies if they want to keep Jean Segura at second base and Scott Kingery in a multiposition role; and then any of the teams whose shortstops are in next year’s class, if they were looking to cash in on a player they don’t intend to retain. Some of these teams do have in-house candidates to take over the vacancy. The Reds have Jose Garcia, currently rated as our No. 77 prospect. The Angels have David Fletcher, who has handled shortstop reasonably well in Simmons’ absences over the past three seasons, as well as Luis Rengifo and Franklin Barreto, who are young enough not to give up on despite their struggles with the bat (but who probably are not shortstops).

As for next year’s class: wow. The group’s average age is 2.4 years younger than the class of 2020 (29.6 vs. 27.2), produced about 50% more value this past season, and projects to be more than twice as valuable next year (5.0 vs. 2.2 in terms of average WAR). The projections aren’t too hung up on the subpar-but-short seasons of Lindor and Correa, who were first and second in our Positional Power Rankings in July but now trail Fernando Tatis Jr. and Seager (who was fifth at the time). Baez slipped from 13th in the PPR — which felt quite low after his two very strong seasons — to 17th in our 2021 projections after an abysmal season at the plate (.203/.238/.360), and Story slipped from sixth to ninth despite a strong campaign, but the gaps between these guys are small, and tweaks to our projections may shuffle the rankings again.

For the big-spending teams, these are the guys worth waiting for, particularly given the hopes of a revenue rebound in the coming year. For teams that are still somewhere in the rebuilding process, the timing may work out better. The Giants, for example, have Brandon Crawford heading into his final season before free agency and could pursue any of these guys as his replacement.

Story stands out as the most likely player from the 2021 group besides Lindor who could be dealt ahead of free agency, given the mess the Rockies made with Nolan Arenado, whom they signed to an eight-year, $260 million extension in February 2019 but have since angered by not maintaining a strong lineup around him. The Cubs’ ongoing belt-tightening might make Baez a trade candidate, but his value is depressed even after he won his first Gold Glove last week.

The Dodgers’ past interest in Lindor is notable, particularly given that Seager was the big name on the other end of that rumored deal, but it’s tough to imagine it being revisited along those lines now. Yes, Los Angeles would get a better defensive shortstop (Seager’s UZR was last in the majors) for 2021, but not necessarily a better offensive one, and they’d not only shed talent but also have to fill the spot next winter. It’s difficult to imagine lightning striking twice for them via a trade for Lindor followed by another massive pre-free agency extension, though it’s tantalizing to consider the possibility that they could acquire Lindor without using Seager — given their organizational depth, a trade around MLB-ready catching prospect Keibert Ruiz would be one option — and move this year’s LCS and World Series MVP to third base to replace free agent Justin Turner. Los Angeles could then figure out which of the two to retain beyond 2021, but that’s a lot of moving parts — and money.

The mind reels at the thought of which teams could match up with these shortstops in a better economic climate, to say nothing of the dozens of hypothetical trades one could lay out for Lindor. That’s a subject for another day. The point here is that the Indians have a challenge ahead of them if they’re going to maximize their return for their top player given both their minimal remaining club control and the presence of so many alternatives, both this winter and next. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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