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Demolition in Cleveland?

Making sense of a potential Indians rebuild

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians
It’s increasingly likely that Lindor and Ramírez will be next popping champagne not with Cleveland, but on other clubs.
Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Cleveland is one of the most notoriously cheapskate teams in the majors. A 90s powerhouse and one of the more successful teams of the 2010s, Cleveland fans have grown disenchanted with a front office that routinely refuses to bring in free agents to build around exceptional young talent. Despite coming frustratingly close to a World Series title in 2016 and winning 102 games in 2017, the front office failed to build a winner around arguably the best rotation of the last five years. Having practically advertised that their star players are destined for other teams for purely financial reasons, looking at their current roster one has to wonder if they see a situation similar to the one the White Sox faced after 2016.

Now first, the obvious difference: the 2016 White Sox team was not very good, failing to even finish .500, while the 2020 Indians were second in the highly-competitive AL Central and had the look of a potentially serious postseason threat based on their elite pitching staff before the Yankees put a stake in the heart of that dream. While White Sox GM Rick Hahn had to concede that what he was doing was not working, Cleveland GM Mike Chernoff can only point to a period of significant success, even if he does not have a World Series title to show for it (and if your bar for defining success exceeds a pennant, three division crowns, and four playoff appearances in five seasons, please delete your Yelp account).

So the question then becomes, given this period of success, and considering star players Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, and Shane Bieber are all returning along with other excellent pieces like closer Brad Hand, starters Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac, and young potential studs Franmil Reyes, Cal Quantrill, and Triston McKenzie, why would Chernoff hit the reset button now? The answer, as it was with the White Sox, comes down to financials and the opportunities available now.

For 2021, assuming Cleveland does not pick up the options on first baseman Carlos Santana, right fielder Domingo Santana, and catcher Roberto Perez, the Tribe should have around $33 million coming off their approximate $90 million payroll. While that might seem like a decent amount of room to play with, it’s quite likely the penny-pinching Indians will slash payroll even more in 2021. For a team that barely draws two million fans coming off of a World Series appearance, it’s just impossible to see them investing after the fanless COVID season that was 2020. Also, when you consider that around half of the payroll will be eaten up by contractual and arbitration raises for the remaining players (particularly Lindor), the likelihood that the team could acquire an actual impact player on even a steady budget is pretty minimal.

Now sure, there is a good deal of young talent that, should it develop further in the coming year, could continue its run of dominance, but that would mean passing on current opportunities to invest in the near future. Hahn famously had Chris Sale, José Quintana, Adam Eaton, and José Abreu locked up to team-friendly deals for three years or more, but was faced with the choice of trying to fill in the gaps around them with minimal financial investment or trading them while their contracts had top value. Taking the latter approach rebuilt the White Sox farm system overnight, and Cleveland could do much the same. While Cleveland’s farm system is not quite as weak as the South Side system was at that point, it is somewhat lacking in high-end talent.

The biggest impetus for going this route is superstar shortstop Lindor, who is entering his final year of arbitration. Never mind that he is likely to make in the neighborhood of $25 million in his final arbitration year — there is simply no way the team is signing him to an extension or bringing him back as a free agent in 2022. That makes 2021 a do-or-die year, because once Lindor walks, they lose an irreplaceable asset. However, that one season of Lindor would bring an absolute haul of prospects in return, not entirely dissimilar to what Mookie Betts commanded (and criticize that trade all you want, Alex Verdugo is a damn fine player in his own right). Turning one year of a superstar into five-plus years of a potential All-Star is the only way the Indians can even stay in business, and after trading three control years of Mike Clevinger at midseason, one has to think an expiring asset like Lindor has to be on the table.

Lindor is the headline reason for a teardown, but other significant trade assets remain. All-Star third baseman Ramírez could command an even greater return, being a similar star-caliber player who has three remaining seasons of control, with two of them being options. At a potential three years and $33.4 million, he would command a Sale-like haul, with few currently competing teams capable of meeting the likely asking price (Tampa Bay seems the best fit). Carrasco has three years and $38 million remaining on his contract and is coming off of an excellent 2020 season. While interest will be somewhat tempered due to Carrasco entering his age-34 season, he’s a proven performer at a reasonable cost who would command a respectable return. Like Lindor, Hand is entering his final year of control, but at $10 million he is cheaper than what the White Sox paid Alex Colomé in 2020 and is a better performer overall. While he might not bring an elite prospect back, they would do a lot better than an Omar Narváez in return.

What’s remarkable about Cleveland’s potential teardown is that what remains is still probably not an entirely terrible squad. The pitching depth remains, with Bieber, McKenzie, Aaron Civale, Quantrill, James Karinchak, and Plesac still pre-arb. This would provide the core around which they would build, filling in the positional holes with their prospect returns and trying to get more development out of holdovers like Reyes, Christian Arroyo, Bradley Zimmer, and Josh Naylor. While a 2021 season with just that core is unlikely to be competitive, the team would have significant financial flexibility (even with its limited payroll) to add some mid-level veterans who could carry them as their prospects develop.

So what does this mean for us? Well, obviously, if Cleveland goes this route, that’s one less hurdle for the White Sox in 2021 and probably 2022. But unlike the White Sox, a Cleveland rebuild would not be liable to extend far beyond that if their trade returns pan out similarly given the sheer talent they would still have in their organization. That could make the White Sox window we had been hoping for perhaps shorter than we might have expected; a horrifying thought for those of us who endured years of being mired in mediocrity with the expectation of sustained success. I’d almost prefer they hold onto Lindor and Ramírez, if only because they would not really look appreciably better than the White Sox in 2021 and have a much worse outlook for 2022 and beyond.