Tribal Council: The Ghosts of Cleveland's Past Return to Haunt Indians
Dan Otero forced Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez into a game-ending groundout 1,433 days ago, on October 29, 2016. That led to the Indians hedging a 3-1 series lead over the Cubs in the World Series. Since then, the Indians are 2-11 in the playoffs. That includes one World Series loss, two series sweeps, and two series losses against the New York Yankees.
A DJ LeMahieu single followed by a towering home run by Aaron Judge off of expected-Cy Young award winner Shane Bieber just four pitches into Game One of the Wild Card Series Tuesday night reminded Cleveland of the ghosts of its past. Much like the Cubs coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the World Series or Greg Bird slapping a go-ahead solo home run off of Andrew Miller in the seventh inning when the Indians were up 2-0 in the series. The Bird home run swung the series in the Yankees favor in 2017. Much like in 2017, a Yankee home run swung the series once again in 2020.
For most franchises, making the postseason is good enough. For Cleveland, however, it does not suffice when the clock is ticking, and it, unfortunately, looks like the time has run out in the Francisco Lindor era.
Lindor made his Major League debut in 2015 at the age of 21. Since then, Lindor, now 26, has blossomed into a superstar shortstop who will garner a lot of money once he is free agent eligible. Both of those things pose issues for the Indians: they likely will not be able to pay Lindor, and he is now one year away from free agency after the Indians 2020 season concluded on Wednesday night.
Lindor will hit the free-agent market in the winter of 2021 at the prime age of 28, and the biggest question that has been looming over this Indians franchise for the past few seasons has now come to fruition. Everybody in the industry expects that the Indians will likely not sign Lindor to an extension, and ESPN baseball insider Buster Onley went as far to say on ESPN programming last week:
“There is no chance he [Lindor] remains there [Cleveland] after 2021, there is a slim chance he is there at the start of 2021,”
A pretty damning statement from one of the most plugged-in people in the entire sport. Although it is not surprising given the Indians' stance on penny-pinching their payroll in recent years. They have sold off a lot of household names in the past 24 months; Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mike Clevinger. Not to mention letting key components walk in free agency; Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana (even though he returned via trade). That leaves the Cleveland Indians franchise and its fans wondering the same thing: when and where does Francisco Lindor get traded?
The Indians are not an incompetent run franchise. They will not let Lindor test the free-agent market on their watch and lose him for nothing. You will hear the same teams in the Francisco Lindor sweepstakes that are usually in on all big-name free agents. The Yankees and Dodgers will be the first teams knocking. The Yankees would be an interesting fit because there’s not a place on the field for him currently seeming how Urshela and Torres have the left side of the infield locked up for the foreseeable future, and how Giancarlo Stanton has practically turned into their everyday designated hitter. The Dodgers are my favorites to try and acquire him. Their own shortstop Corey Seager is a free agent after 2021 as well, so who better to replace him than Lindor? Los Angeles has lacked one thing in their current reign of terror over the National League: they have not been able to land the big fish in free agency. Talking strictly about free agency, not trades, the Dodgers have struck out recently on a lot of big names--Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole, Zach Wheeler, Anthony Rendon, just to name a few. For whatever reason, the biggest names have not signed there. However, Mookie Betts and Manny Machado are two examples of them being big game hunters in the trade market, and I expect them to be active in the Lindor trade market.
However, do not sleep on one team in particular: the New York Mets. The Mets are bringing in an entirely new regime after Steve Cohen bought the team, and assuming current general manager Brodie Van Wagenen does not retain his job title, the new general manager will want to make a big impact immediately. The Mets are going to make a splash in 2020 free agency. Do not be surprised if they take a page out of their crosstown rival's book and do some Evil Empire level spending. I will even give you three names to watch as a potential trio to go to the Mets: pitcher Trevor Bauer, catcher JT Realmuto, and of course, Lindor.
One more team to look out for: The Miami Marlins. They’re ready to take the next step, and Lindor would certainly move the needle of the franchise that made the postseason for the first time since 2003 this season. Did I mention Lindor went to high school just three hours away from Marlins Park? Never leave a tea leaf unturned.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Much will be written about Lindor, rightfully so considering it might be the biggest move in recent franchise history. However, there will be other needs that will need to be addressed this winter.
The Indians 1-2-3-4 in the rotation next year, barring anything unforeseen will be Shane Bieber, Zac Plesac, Carlos Carrasco, and Aaron Civale. Triston McKenzie pitched out of the bullpen late in the year and into the postseason but will likely slot into the fifth spot, if not battle with a free agent acquisition or in-house name (like an Adam Plutko off the top of my head). Once again their rotation will be tops in the league, and will likely carry the Tribe into the postseason once again. Their bullpen has a lot of potential, but it is still very raw potential at this moment in time. James Karnichak might be the next great left-handed strikeout specialist, and Brad Hand will be the closer presumably for at least one more year--assuming the teams pick up his $10M club option.
However, as we have learned for the past three and a half years now, dominant pitching is great, but it can only get you so far. The Indians' biggest need, whether it is via free agency or a potential return for Lindor, will have to be a mixture of major league-level position players who can fill the needs in numerous areas. Shortstop (obviously), outfield, second base (assuming Cesar Hernadez leaves in free agency as well), and perhaps first base--because in all likelihood Carlos Santana will also become a free agent.
Another key to the culture in Cleveland is the future of manager Terry Francona. Francona managed just the first few weeks of the season before being sidelined because of health concerns (non-COVID-related). In 20 seasons, the future Hall of Fame manager has eclipsed a record of 1702-1434 for the Phillies, Red Sox, and Indians, while winning two World Series along the way. Sandy Alomar Jr. showed many, including those in the Indians organization that he is ready to be a full-time manager after the phenomenal job he did in Francona’s absence. If Francona decided he does not want to manage anymore, the search will be quite intriguing, and the result will help shape the future of the team.
What Indians general manager Mike Chernoff does this winter in all aspects will be quite intriguing to watch and will be followed by many in the sport. What does the 2021 Cleveland Indians (if that is still their name) Opening Day roster look like? Who plays shortstop for them? How will they replace Lindor’s offense day-to-day? Will the city of Cleveland ever overcome the ghosts that haunt almost every sports team? I certainly do not have these answers, but we shall know more as the offseason progresses.