Can the Cleveland Indians Trade Francisco Lindor and Still Contend?

The Cleveland Indians look poised to face their most daunting task of the Terry Francona era: competing without Francisco Lindor.

According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the Indians are expected to trade the homegrown shortstop this offseason. This is an organization that has built a reputation for trading away its premier players a year or two before they hit free agency while remaining in contention. Trading Lindor severely tests their inclinations.

Lindor is a free agent after the 2021 Major League Baseball season, and the Indians have been opposed to paying him his retail worth, which could make him the highest-paid shortstop in the sport. Therefore, a trade holds merit from their perspective.

Cleveland’s history with these types of transactions, as well as another American League team’s return on a star outfielder, is an apt model for what a Lindor trade could amount to.

Hours before the 2019 MLB trade deadline, the Indians traded Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds in a three-team deal with the San Diego Padres, netting outfielders Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, left-handers Logan Allen and Scott Moss, and infielder Victor Nova.

Puig left Cleveland in free agency; Reyes is one of their leading offensive catalysts; Allen has made four appearances out of Francona’s bullpen; Moss and Nova haven’t yet made it to the big leagues.

Last offseason the Indians traded Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Delino DeShields and reliever Emmanuel Clase. DeShields underwhelmed at the plate this season, posting a .628 OPS, and Clase missed the season due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension.

At the August 31 trade deadline, Cleveland sent right-hander Mike Clevinger and outfielder Greg Allen to the Padres for outfielder Josh Naylor, catcher Austin Hedges, right-hander Cal Quantrill, left-hander Joey Cantillo, and infielders Gabriel Arias and Owen Miller.

Naylor garnered minimal regular season at-bats but hit .714 in the Indians’ two-game first-round series matchup with the New York Yankees; Hedges has been a reserve catcher; Quantrill is a versatile flex pitcher; Cantillo, Arias, and Miller haven’t yet made it to the big leagues.

Some of the players they’ve acquired are hidden gems, whereas some trades have yielded negative results. Cleveland’s model isn’t perfect, but it has helped them win at least 56 percent of their games in each of the last five seasons. Moving Lindor feels different, though.

Kluber was the backbone of their pitching staff for a near-decade, and trading him was like removing a tooth; Bauer at his best has been an elite pitcher; Clevinger is an overpowering starter. But Lindor is the Indians. He’s the heart and soul of their program.

There’s nothing he can’t do.

A switch hitter, Lindor is adept at putting the ball in play at a high level, hitting for both contact and power. Meanwhile, he swipes bags at a considerable rate and is stellar up the middle. For his career, Lindor is hitting .285 with an .833 OPS and a 117 OPS+. From 2017-19, he totaled 103 home runs and 255 RBIs and has 99 stolen bases to his name.

Last offseason the Boston Red Sox traded the 2018 AL Most Valuable Player, Mookie Betts, and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers for emerging outfielder Alex Verdugo, top infield prospect Jeter Downs, and catching prospect Connor Wong.

This trade was motivated by Boston and Betts being unable to agree on an extension with the outfielder set to hit the open market after the 2020 season. Albeit, they received some compelling talent, it wasn’t fair value for a player of Betts’ caliber.

Cleveland and Lindor are in an equidistant predicament.

Let’s say the Indians move Lindor for a shortstop with brief MLB experience, a top infield prospect, and a mid-level pitching prospect: where does that leave them?

The Indians are founded on starting pitching. They have one of the best rotations in the sport, which is absurd given that Bauer, Kluber, and Clevinger were all traded. Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Triston McKenzie make for a reliable rotation that has come nowhere near its potential.

Offensive inconsistency was Cleveland’s Achilles heel this season. Outside of Jose Ramirez, Franmil Reyes, and Cesar Hernandez, this was an underwhelming offensive attack. On the other hand, they clinched the first AL Wild Card seeding with that unit.

Whether MLB’s expanded playoffs (eight teams per league) continue is unknown. In the scenario they go back to five teams per league or merely cut a team or two off, the Indians are hanging in the balance without Lindor, specifically due to the AL Central.

Sure, the Minnesota Twins laid an egg against the Houston Astros in the AL Division Series. At the same time, they’re not going anywhere. They have a formidable offensive depth chart and an improving, young bullpen.

The Chicago White Sox have a lethal offense and a killer young pitching staff. They’re a contender as is for the 2021 season and the wrench in the Indians’ retooling ways. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees will be back in contention, and the Oakland Athletics are a tough opponent from all aspects of the game.

While he had a rough year at the plate (Lindor posted a career-worse .258 batting average and .750 OPS this season), Lindor is still a player teams have to plan for. He hits well from both sides of the plate and generates offense at the top of the order.

Lindor sets the table for Ramirez, Reyes, and friends to do damage in the middle of the order. Remove him from the equation and both a table setter and an offensive mainstay is gone.

The Indians have to do what’s best for their structure. However, one can’t help but wonder what a return for Lindor would’ve been had the Indians moved him last offseason; they would’ve been trading a star shortstop with two years of control.

Cleveland’s recent trades have included a variety of assets going their way. Typically, it has been a mix of a young MLB player on the rise, an unsung prospect, and a respected veteran; that return won’t make up for Lindor’s impact.

Are they a safe bet to have a winning record next season? They are. Be in the playoff hunt until the cows come home? That is feasible. Make the playoffs? That is far-fetched.

Trading Francisco Lindor could be the straw that breaks the Cleveland Indians’ backs.

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