Do you really need a detailed explanation as to why the Toronto Blue Jays ought to trade for one of the game’s best players?
Of course you do.
Francisco Lindor is going to be traded. If not soon then sometime within the next few months, and almost certainly when the season gets underway.
Lindor, who will be a fresh 27-year-old shortstop by next year, has been in what you may call an awkward position in Cleveland. Similar to Manny Machado and Mookie Betts before him, Lindor is a star entering his final year of arbitration, thus, team control. If this weren’t Cleveland, talk of Lindor — or a player of his caliber — staying put would make a little more sense.
But, this is Cleveland where shedding payroll and trading good players is ubiquitous. That isn’t a dig at the front office. They have done an admirable job staying competitive despite trading the likes of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and letting veterans like Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana (though they re acquired him!) go as free agents. We are talking about a club that recently won over 100 games, so yeah, they have been in a good spot despite cutting ties with talent when the talent is ready to be paid.
The exception, of course, is Jose Ramirez. They locked up the ultra-talented infielder to a long-term — and team friendly — contract in 2017. That isn’t to say the team couldn’t still do that with Lindor. Some extend guys early — or in this case late — and reap the rewards both on the field and financially. But that ship has sailed and now, Lindor is in a very different situation. He’s set to surpass $20 million annually in his last year of arbitration; a figure that could be too rich for the typically conservative, cash-strapped Cleveland front office.
That’s where the Blue Jays come in.
Google Lindor’s name and you’ll be instantaneously greeted with articles featuring headlines such as “7 fits for Lindor” or “Let’s find a trade partner for Lindor” or “Can *this team* afford trading for Lindor”. It’s everywhere. Even he knows it, too.
“It has crossed my mind because a lot of you guys have mentioned it,” Lindor told reporters in September when he was asked about a potential trade or leaving the Indians.
“But I haven’t really sat back and thought about it. If I say it hasn’t crossed my mind, I’d be lying because on social media that’s what everybody is talking about, and that’s what you have been talking about for the last year. So, yeah, it has crossed my mind, but I haven’t really thought about it deeply enough to say, ‘Wow, this could actually be my last game.’”
Sure, there are other teams that make sense as landing spots for the shortstop, and yes, you’ll find the New York Yankees on any list of potential buyers. But there are so many valid reasons why the Blue Jays ought to seriously pursue this. In his most recent mailbag, Cleveland’s beat writer, Zack Meisel of The Athletic, mentioned the Blue Jays as one of the many logical suitors.
Update: Meisel has since put together another, more in depth article for The Athletic. In it, he spoke to multiple beat writers about the likelihood of a Lindor trade, including Kaitlyn McGrath, who covers the Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays can afford it; at least in terms of prospect and player capital. We’ll get to the finances later. Thanks to a methodical approach, the Blue Jays have steadily improved and re-stacked a farm system that is now widely considered one of the best in baseball. There’s Nate Pearson, who will graduate next year. The likes of Austin Martin; who slipped to the club in the 2020 MLB Draft. There is Jordan Groshans, who likely would have cracked a lot more top-100 prospect lists had it not been for an injury that cut into his production in 2019. Top catching prospect Alejandro Kirk needs no introduction.
I won’t include a bunch of potential trade scenarios because, well, I just won’t. I haven’t the slightest idea what Indians general manager Chris Antonetti will covet in any deal, but the reported ask includes established major-league talent, as well as prospects.
The Blue Jays have that.
So, Groshans. If I had to guess, I would lean towards Cleveland wanting an infielder. Basing it off of the Betts trade, the Dodgers acquired him and the David Price contract for Alex Verdugo, top prospect Jeter Downs and another decent prospect in Connor Wong. Whether the Dodgers got a bargain with this deal or not (keep in mind they ate Price’s contract which factored into the return), that’s a recent comparable and Betts objectively carries more value than Lindor, at least presently.
In looking at the Blue Jays roster, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Pearson are untouchable. The same goes for Martin. They aren’t trading him. Then, things get interesting.
Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. are both coming off productive seasons, albeit in fewer games played. Hernandez was a God for Toronto and has resembled a completely different player since the tailor end of 2019. The plate discipline, the power, the exit velocity and hard hit percentages. It’s all there, and he’s under team control. Despite the log jam in Cleveland’s outfield, there isn’t really anyone that stands out. If the breakout is real, which it appears to be, Hernandez would be a sizeable upgrade over all of them.
The same goes for Gurriel. The 27-year-old has found his stride, it seems, both at the plate and in left field. You don’t get a Gold Glove nomination for nothing, right!? The analytics don’t point to an elite defender by any means, but the progress is noticeable. Offensively, Gurriel has averaged 131 wRC+ across 141 games in the majors while accruing 1.2 fWAR in 57 games this past season, which, if measured on a full season, comes in around 3.0 to 3.5 WAR. Not Lindor-like, but it’s good.
A trade package including one of Gurriel and Hernandez, along with Groshans and another prospect, could be enough to, at the very least, peak Cleveland’s interest. We’re talking about acquiring a player that may very well be a ‘one-and-done'. Any team that acquires Lindor is inheriting a player with one year left before free agency. Him leaving is in the cards. We saw Betts do the opposite. He was traded to Los Angeles and a few months later, signed a mega, 12-year contract to stay with the Dodgers.
On the flip side, Manny Machado — formerly of the Orioles — was acquired by the Dodgers mid-July in 2018. He eventually left as a free agent for San Diego. In that deal, Baltimore received a five-player package that included two players now ranked among Baltimore’s top-30 prospects, according to MLB.com.
With that in mind, is Lindor worth the risk? Should the Blue Jays — a team coming off a relatively good season with a cheap core and essentially no long-term commitments on the books — trade for Lindor if it means him testing free agency in a year from now?
I think the answer, either way, is yes.
Lindor is familiar with the Blue Jays brass (you better believe I am going there). When Lindor was selected 8th overall at the 2011 MLB Draft, Ross Atkins was Cleveland’s farm director and Mark Shapiro was the club’s president (Antonetti was promoted to general manager in early Oct., 2010). The trio worked together for several years before Atkins and Shapiro left for their current roles with the Blue Jays.
Whether this matters at all to Lindor and his agent is unclear but familiarity — it can’t hurt. But ultimately, it comes down to cost. Other than recently, with the Blue Jays brass signing Hyun Jin-Ryu and Tanner Roark to multi-year deals, Atkins and Shapiro haven’t landed many big names. Other than Ryu and Roark, Randal Grichuk, Shun Yamaguchi, and Gurriel are the only few players that the front office has committed to on multi-year contracts (in 2016, Justin Smoak was another). It would be very unlike the regime to pony up enough money and commit to a player on a contract in the 10-year range, even if it was for Lindor. But if Atkins and Shapiro truly feel like this team is rounding the corner, going out to acquire Lindor would really signal that they are ready to go for it. Not to mention it makes the team — and its infield — scary good and among baseball’s best.
There is a lot that plays in the Blue Jays favour. Their clubhouse morale seems as healthy as ever, Charlie Montoyo is a likeable manager, and the core is young enough that the window to compete should be open for many years to come. The front office also showed a willingness to ‘go for it’ this past season, acquiring Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray, among others. Any Lindor trade package, though costly, wouldn’t eviscerate a Blue Jays farm system. It would also show the current group that the front office believes they’re ready to win sooner, rather than later.
Because there are so few long-term contracts on Toronto’s payroll, signing Lindor, though uncharacteristic for this front office, likely wouldn’t create a problem. The Blue Jays only have three arbitration-eligible players this winter with Travis Shaw (who could be non-tendered after a so-so first year), Ross Stripling, and Hernandez. Not to mention Bichette, Guerrero, Biggio, Pearson, and Martin have years left of team control. It would also, presumably, help the Blue Jays attract top talent (Lindor’s former teammate, Trevor Bauer, perhaps) and give the club more options in the infield, thus shifting Bichette to second base and Biggio to third, or vice-versa.
It all depends on how eager Atkins and Shapiro are to add after a financially difficult season that resulted in job cuts and low revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also, and this cannot be stressed enough, the unavoidable risk of trading for a player with one year before free agency. Sure, that one year would be fun, but as we saw with Kawhi Leonard, even if it brought the city a championship, the player jumping ship still stings. Committing to Lindor only to see him leave, well, it would suck. But there is an opportunity here for the Blue Jays to make a splash. Not only would Lindor fit in great with the current group, he immediately makes them a better team, fueling a young squad coming off the excitement that was their first postseason appearance together.
Sometimes you have to take that leap of faith. Trading for a player like Francisco Lindor is exactly that.
Statistics courtesy: Baseball Reference, FanGraphs