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Has Francisco Lindor played his last game in an Indians uniform?  The shortstop’s fate is the biggest of several questions facing the Tribe this winter.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Carlos Carrasco, SP: $27MM through 2022 (including $3MM buyout of $14MM club/vesting option for 2022 season)
  • Jose Ramirez, 3B: $11MM through 2021 (includes $2MM buyout of $11MM club option for 2022; also has a $13MM club option for 2023)

Arbitration-Eligible Players

Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.

Option Decisions

  • Carlos Santana, 1B: $17.5MM club option ($500K buyout)
  • Brad Hand, RP: $10MM club option ($1MM buyout)
  • Roberto Perez, C: $5.5MM club option ($450K buyout)(deal also has $7MM club option for the 2022 season)
  • Domingo Santana, OF: $5MM club option ($250 buyout)

Free Agents

After winning 93 games but missing the postseason in 2019, the Tribe got back to the playoffs this year before being unceremoniously swept by the Yankees in the best-of-three wild card series.  Despite a .588 winning percentage since the start of the 2017 season, the Indians haven’t won a single postseason series in those four years, making one of the more successful stretches in franchise history seem like something of a disappointment.

Cleveland has both stretched and tried to manage its payroll to sustain this competitive window, trading such high-salaried notables as Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber in 2019 to save some money and add some younger talent.  Even before the COVID-19 pandemic reduced revenues around baseball, the 2020-21 offseason was always projecting to be a transformative one for the Indians given how many key players (and key salaries) could be moved off the books.

We’ll begin with Lindor, who is entering his final year under team control.  Though neither side has ruled out the possibility of a contract extension, the writing has long been on the wall that the Indians won’t be able to afford the $200MM+ it would take to retain Lindor over the long term.  As such, this offseason represents the last and best opportunity for the Tribe to deal Lindor for a significant trade return, since waiting until next year’s trade deadline would greatly reduce the Indians’ asking price (and increases the risk of Lindor getting hurt or having a bad season).  Moving Lindor prior to Opening Day would also allow Cleveland to save at least $17.5MM in payroll, depending on how his arbitration number is figured.

There are several teams who figure to check in on Lindor’s services, if they haven’t already over the last couple of seasons.  Marcus Semien, Didi Gregorius, and Andrelton Simmons headline this winter’s free agent shortstop class, so Lindor could be seen as a preferable upgrade to that trio for shortstop-needy teams.

Is there a case to be made for keeping Lindor?  Certainly.  Looking at the finances first, Carlos Santana is likely to have his $17.5MM club option declined in the wake of a career-worst season for the veteran first baseman.  With Santana’s money coming off the books anyway, Lindor’s salary might not be seen as onerous for a club that has so little in the way of future contractual commitments.

Plus, trading Lindor for an acceptable return might not be quite so easy for Cleveland.  We’re only a year away from a potentially epic free agent shortstop class that could include Lindor himself along with Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Trevor Story, and Corey Seager, so rival teams might prefer to acquire a one-year stopgap for 2021 before making the big splash at the position next year.  Trading for Lindor now would cost a team both young talent and money in the form of Lindor’s salary, whereas signing any of Semien, Gregorius, or Simmons costs only money, and less than Lindor’s projected arbitration cost.  Lindor is also coming off a down year by his standards (.258/.335/.415 with eight home runs over 266 plate appearances), which could make teams wary if they don’t write that performance off as a by-product of 2020’s unusual circumstances.

Cleveland doesn’t seem to have any inclination to rebuild, so having Lindor in the lineup would go a long way towards getting them back to the playoffs.  His average numbers in 2020 notwithstanding, Lindor is still one of baseball’s better players, and he has a particular importance on an offensively-challenged Cleveland team.  Part of the reason the Indians were willing to deal Bauer, Kluber, and Mike Clevinger was because of the club’s impressive ability to find and develop big league-ready pitching to restock the rotation, but Lindor is a much tougher player to replace.

MVP candidate Jose Ramirez and young slugger Franmil Reyes are the only sure things in a lineup that could be completely overhauled.  Beyond Lindor and Santana, Cesar Hernandez performed admirably as the Tribe’s second baseman but is headed for free agency.  Delino DeShields and/or Tyler Naquin could be non-tendered as the outfield continues to be a problem area.  At catcher, the Indians could roll with Roberto Perez and Austin Hedges and let Sandy Leon walk in free agency, or one of Perez or Hedges could be let go.

Keeping Lindor would add more stability to an overall unstable position player mix.  In the event that he is dealt, the Tribe could look internally to Yu Chang, Mike Freeman, or (with an aggressive promotion) prospect Tyler Freeman to fill the shortstop void, or Cleveland could themselves look to add a one-year veteran stopgap.  Chang or Mike Freeman could then be used at second base if Hernandez isn’t re-signed, though Hernandez has expressed interest in returning and might have a palatable enough asking price for the Tribe to explore a reunion.

Josh Naylor, acquired from the Padres as part of the Clevinger trade in August, will factor somewhere into the 2021 lineup, though it remains to be seen if the Canadian will be an everyday player at either left field or first base.  Jake Bauers could also be used at either position while Bobby Bradley is a first base candidate.  Star prospect Nolan Jones could also factor into the first base or corner outfield picture, as Jones is being worked out at other positions since Ramirez is occupies third base.

There are enough in-house candidates to provide the front office with some flexibility in their winter shopping.  If the outfield is a priority over second base, for example, the Indians could put their resources towards adding an outfielder and then making do with a Chang/Freeman platoon at the keystone.  The problem is, of course, that just about all of Cleveland’s internal candidates are either unproven at the MLB level or are coming off dreadful seasons.  (Oscar Mercado, for instance, went from Rookie Of The Year candidate in 2019 to possibly the worst hitter in baseball in 2020.)  While keeping Lindor helps this lineup, the lack of solid position player depth also serves as an argument for dealing him, since a trade might be the best method for the Tribe to acquire at least one younger, cheaper, MLB-ready regular.

Since spending will be a premium, the Tribe will be looking to find veterans at relative bargain prices.  The non-tender market is expected to be enormous, and every other team in baseball will also be hoping to scoop up lower-cost players from that same pool.  In a market where contract offers might be low across the board, the Indians have some attractive selling points for prospective free agents — plenty of opportunity for regular playing time, as well as the chance to play for a consistent contender with an elite pitching staff.

Speaking of that rotation, the Indians have the luxury of being able to focus much of their attention the position player side of the diamond thanks to their collection of arms.  Cleveland is one of the few teams that has the pitching depth to potentially make a starter available in a trade, and as the most expensive of the bunch, Carlos Carrasco might be the most obvious trade chip.  As Zack Meisel of The Athletic recently noted, however, Carrasco is such a clubhouse leader and important veteran voice on the perpetually young pitching staff that the team might see him as too valuable to move.  If the hitting is going to continue to be a question mark, the Tribe might also prioritize keeping their rotation as strong as possible.

Cleveland’s bullpen was almost as impressive as the starting staff in 2020.  Another contract with veteran southpaw Oliver Perez seems like a reasonable proposition, but Brad Hand’s $10MM club option looms as the relief corps’ biggest issue.  With James Karinchak positioned as a closer of the future, the Indians might prefer to install Karinchak now rather than pay $10MM to a reliever, even an outstanding one like Hand.  However, Hand is still such a quality pitcher that letting him go for nothing seems like something of a waste of an asset.

Exercising Hand’s option would at least allow the Indians the flexibility to explore trading him this winter, and if no deal could be found, $10MM for Hand might not be so hard to absorb if other salaries (i.e. Santana, Hernandez, Lindor) are also being moved out.  Cleveland could even explore packaging Lindor and Hand together in one blockbuster trade package, if another team wanted to make a big splash to contend in 2021.

With such a tremendous young rotation, the Indians’ window for a World Series is still open.  This offseason will be spent adding and subtracting from the lineup in search of the combination that will generate enough offense to give the pitching a chance.

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