Wednesday night at Progressive Field, Cleveland saw its 2020 season come to a heartbreaking end with a Game 2 loss to the New York Yankees in the Wild Card Series (NYY 10, CLE 9). It was a wild back-and-forth game, and Cleveland took a lead into the ninth inning. Closer Brad Hand blew his first save of 2020, and now they're heading home.
Superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor had a disappointing regular season relative to his standards, hitting .258/.335/.418 with eight home runs while starting all 60 games. He then went 1 for 8 with a double in the two-game Wild Card Series. Tough year, but Lindor is on the short list of the game's best all-around players, and he's right smack in his prime at age 26 (27 in November).
It is entirely possible Wednesday night was Lindor's final game with Cleveland. He is due to become a free agent following the 2021 season and it is unlikely the club will retain him. Given his age and excellence, Lindor is a $300-million ballplayer, even after the shutdown. Similar to Mookie Betts, Lindor is a type of player who will get paid well no matter the financial landscape.
On Thursday, Lindor was asked about staying with Cleveland, specifically whether the club can afford to retain him. His response? "Of course. It's a billion-dollar team," according to The Athletic's Zack Meisel. Lindor then noted MLB recently signed a new $3 billion television deal with TBS. Also, MLB signed a $5.1 billion extension with Fox that begins in 2022.
Lindor has reportedly turned down contract extension overtures in the post, including a $100 million deal back in 2017. That doesn't mean he does not want to stay in Cleveland, however. It just means he wants fair market value and doesn't want to sell himself short. Betts did the same thing, and when the Dodgers met his asking price, he passed on free agency and signed long-term in L.A.
Cleveland is among the lowest spenders in the sport each year and the club's Opening Day payrolls have shrunk from $134 million in 2018 to $120 million in 2019 to $96 million in 2020 (full season payroll). They figure to be among the teams hit hardest by the pandemic, which could mean a further payroll reduction in 2021. Keeping Lindor will be close to impossible in that case.
On that note, Bradford William Davis of the New York Daily News asked Lindor on Thursday whether Cleveland should spend more money on the roster. His answer was a laugh.
Lindor had a $17.5 million full season salary in 2020 and his 2021 salary should be in the $25 million range through arbitration. That's a hefty price tag for a small market Cleveland team. They could look to trade Lindor over the winter or hang on to him, try to win in 2021, and either trade him at the deadline if they're out of it, or take the free agent compensation draft pick after the season.
Needless to say, Lindor is far too valuable to let leave for a dinky draft pick. His trade value is significant -- Betts was traded one year prior to free agency and that's a good barometer for Lindor's trade value -- and Cleveland is not shy about traded key players at midseason, even while in contention. They traded away Trevor Bauer last year and Mike Clevinger this year, remember.
Which teams could have trade interest in Lindor this winter? The Angels immediately jump to mind given their (latest) disappointing season and need at shortstop. The Giants as well. I wouldn't rule out the Yankees, especially if DJ LeMahieu heads elsewhere as a free agent. The Athletics, Blue Jays, Braves, Brewers, and Cardinals are all possibilities too.
For now, Lindor remains with Cleveland, and the club will spend the offseason trying to pick up the pieces and build a contender while Jose Ramirez is under contract (signed through 2023) and Shane Bieber is in his prime. It seems certain Lindor's days with the team are numbered though. He's far out of their established price range.