January 20, 2021
Business SportsMoney

Now More Than Ever, Francisco Lindor-Esque Deals Expose Cracks In MLB’s Foundation

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Indians’ fans likely saw this one coming for years, but that didn’t make it go down any easier. Francisco Lindor was taking it one year at a time, not allowing the only club he’s ever played for a hometown discount in long-term contract talks, as is his right. In the meantime, the club had let many other members of their nucleus walk before their big pay days. Glass half full from an Indians’ fans perspective – they were saving it all for Lindor. Well, the half empties were right, and Lindor is now a Met.

Now, this general type of trade happens in all major sports. “Tanking” is all the rage these days. For the uninitiated, club decides it can’t compete in the short term, and rather than dwelling in purgatory for what could be an interminable period, they tear it down to the studs, trading superstars for salary relief/young, inexpensive prospects/draft picks in return. If you’re not going to truly contend, stink to high heaven, and reap the additional benefit of picking high in the draft order during the rebuild.

The 76ers did it in basketball, and the Astros did it in baseball, going from worst to first, spurring a wave of imitators from all major sports.

Lindor was traded along with veteran righthanded starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco to the Mets, in exchange for young shortstops Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez, and a pair of minor league prospects, righty pitcher Josh Wolf and outfielder Isaiah Greene.

Industry insiders have almost universally lauded the Mets for their acquisition of Lindor, but most have also stated that the Indians did as well as they could under the circumstances.

Well, the “circumstances” are part of the problem. As I wrote here just last week, there is a serious imbalance between the number of teams simply trying to win and those putting the balance sheet ahead of the standings. Of course, part of the reason is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has left the industry unsure of their near-term revenue streams.

I submit that the depth of baseball’s current problems go well beyond that, however. And last offseason’s trade of Mookie Betts from the Red Sox to the Dodgers and this Lindor deal both serve as lightning rods highlighting their exposure.

Betts and Lindor aren’t merely superstars – they fill in other boxes as well. They both have the sixth tool, extreme durability and health. They post up every day, and help their clubs even on days when they go 0-for-5. Both players have smiles that light up any room, and have fun every time they step on a baseball field. Both are perfect ambassadors for the game as it courts a younger and more diverse fan base. They are perfect faces of their respective franchises, and of their industry.

Trades like this might happen in other sports, but there are sport-specific differences.

  • Trading Of Draft Picks – Baseball is the only major sport that doesn’t allow trading of draft picks. Now, one can make the argument that in football and basketball, draft picks are more valuable. Top of the draft guys like LeBron James and Peyton Manning immediately change franchises. In baseball, even a historic talent like Stephen Strasburg takes a little while before he makes an MLB impact. Still, no sport offers up to 12 years of team control of a prospect (in minors and majors combined) as does baseball. These picks have value.
  • Lack Of A Salary Cap – Baseball is the only major sport without a salary cap. The players’ union has avoided one like the plague, but I would argue that a cap might actually help them as part of a CBA that reduced years of team control and the number of years before a player qualified for arbitration. The cap could be set at a high level, but perhaps more importantly, a team salary minimum could be instituted. No other sport features ”rich” clubs spending over five times as much on players as “poor” clubs, as does MLB.

Those are ongoing structural issues the industry faces, Now, during the pandemic, there are other wrinkles causing complications for the industry. Ones that clubs, players and fans may not fully appreciate just yet:

  • Unstable Player Development Systems – In 2020, no minor league baseball games were played. And Francisco Lindor was traded for a package that included arguably one established MLB player. Rosario has shown flashes, but was less impressive on the surface than the younger Gimenez last season. Batted-ball data suggests Gimenez overperformed his true talent level in 2020. At least we’ve got some data on those two. Wolf and Greene were 2019 and 2020 2nd round picks that have missed valuable development time. Who are they as players? Plenty of 2nd rounders with tools wash out, as they never translate them into skills. There’s a huge difference between facing your organization-mates in instructional league and playing a full minor league schedule. Toss in the massive realignment of minor league affiliations that clubs are dealing with, and it’s a delicate time for minor league players, instructors and administrators.
  • Accountability To The Fans – Follow me on this one. I’m a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan. They were a mess this season, finishing last in the hideous NFC East despite being the only club returning an intact coaching staff. Carson Wentz forgot how to play football, they switched QB’s (to Jalen Hurts) a couple weeks too late, and finished up by playing third stringer Nate Sudfeld in the 4th quarter on national TV in a winnable game with high stakes for other clubs, showing the rest of the country what I already knew – they were bad, fundamentally unsound, and boring. Great combo. If there were fans in the stands that last Sunday night, there would have been bags on heads, boos, you name it, and the front office, coaching staff and players would have had to wear it. (Now, the coaching staff will not return intact.) The Red Sox never had to face their fans after the Betts trade, as their awful season unfolded. The Indians are going to have to wait a while to face theirs as well. And as jobs and family finances have been squeezed over the past year, how high on the priority list will shelling out hundreds to go watch your Lindor-less club be? The vaccine is here, and one would think the country will gradually open up as the weather warms, but what will attendance levels look like, especially in cities where there isn’t much hope of winning?

So, new Mets’ owner Steve Cohen has Lindor in place for at least this season, at an arbitration salary that will likely fall in the $21.5M range, before any proration. They’ll try to lock him in for the long haul. They also have Carrasco in place through 2022 at a total cost of $27M. If healthy (he’s been less than durable over the years, but looked 100% after returning from leukemia treatment last season), he’ll be well worth it. The Indians have their cost flexibility – as of now, their entire 2021 team payroll is $40M – and more young talent.

But one would think that the industry should attempt to implement a structure that doesn’t incentivize deals like this. In 2020, over half of the teams made the playoffs, and there’s still a chance that format continues. Keeping your payroll low, sneaking into the playoffs and getting lucky seems to be what goes for trying to win these days. Unless changes are made, we might be headed for a sport with eight or so $200M+ clubs facing off with 22 teams below $100M. If that happens, MLB might as well start relegating teams like European soccer.