If the Red Sox decide to trade Mookie Betts this winter, what are the cases for and against the Indians pushing all their chips into the middle?
The Indians were an easy-to-latch-onto national story in 2016 and 2017, but after sleepwalking their way through the AL Central in a boring 2018 season and falling behind the Minnesota Twins in 2019, the national baseball media seems ready to move on from the idea that the Tribe can win a World Series with the core they have in place.
As such, the narrative has become: The Indians should trade their franchise player.
But what if they added one of the very few players in the game who could be fairly argued as “better” than Lindor, while also keeping their franchise shortstop? How would that change the outlook?
That player, of course, is Mookie Betts. The Indians aren’t the only club facing the trade-him-or-let-him-walk-for-nothing dilemma; Boston finds itself in a similar yet definitely self-inflicted situation with Betts.
Chris Sale, David Price, and Nathan Eovaldi will tie the Red Sox up for nearly $240 million through 2022. Sale is on the books for three years longer than that, but it’s the immediate financial future that is of primary concern to Boston. All three endured injury-plagued 2019 seasons that render their respective price tags as hurdles to overcome for the time being.
Unless he does something like break the single-season home run record in 2020, 32-year-old designated hitter J.D. Martinez is probably not going to opt out of a deal that will pay him more than $62 million over the next three seasons.
Xander Bogaerts will also make $20 million a year through at least 2025 if he doesn’t opt out of his contract in 2023. While that looks like a sound investment as of this writing, it certainly detracts from the flexibility the Red Sox would ideally need to extend Betts.
Betts is set to become a free agent after the 2020 season, and is projected to make about $28 million via arbitration in his final guaranteed year with Boston. He’s a near lock to get a similar (or higher) AAV in a long-term deal next winter.
Long story short: there are few junctures in the fiscal cycle of a franchise that make for worse circumstances than the Red Sox are in with their former MVP right fielder. Consequently, trading Betts is a realistic possibility for Boston if there are teams out there willing to pony up what is sure to be an (appropriately) astronomical asking price.
If the Indians truly wanted to turn the tables and change the conversation, there are worse ways to push all their chips into the middle than to trade for Betts this offseason. Slotting him into a lineup that already features Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, and Franmil Reyes on a team with one of baseball’s best starting rotations would catapult the Indians to no lower than the second-best team in the American League.
Gauging where the Indians stand in their proverbial “championship window,” the club’s primary goal at the moment should be to win a World Series while Lindor is still on the team. That is admittedly the only positive of this hypothetical, dream-scenario trade: that acquiring Betts would give the Indians their best Opening Day odds at a championship since at least the 1990’s. While that’s a pretty humongous positive, there are undeniable drawbacks.
The first of these is financial. Assuming the Indians would inherit the entirety of Betts’ arbitration salary, they’d be left with virtually nothing else to spend on the rest of the roster. Not that the Indians need to spend excessively on their infield or bullpen depth regardless, but having no resources to push toward these position groups would likely hurt the club overall during the long grind of what could be a seven-month season if it goes the distance.
The second and infinitely more risky negative to acquiring Betts is what it would mean for Cleveland’s long-term future. Nobody within the organization would lament Betts’ salary if it brought the club a World Series. Even if it only got the Indians close to a championship, they’d only be paying him for one year anyway.
Where Cleveland could truly wind up crippling itself is in what it would have to give up to acquire Betts. The Red Sox are in a tricky position with his salary and the fact that he only has one year left of club control, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to ship him off for anything short of a haul.
For the Indians, the conversation would start with players like Nolan Jones, Tyler Freeman, and Triston McKenzie. Boston certainly isn’t lacking on the left side of its infield with Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, but Jones and Freeman could quite easily find homes in its future lineups or be used as trade chips in future deals. McKenzie is the Tribe’s top pitching prospect, and would naturally factor into future Red Sox rotations.
Of course, the Red Sox will be asking for an established MLB player or two in addition to prospects. Considering how hamstrung the Red Sox are with the contracts their starting pitchers are under, a proven and inexpensive arm would almost certainly be part of their asking price for Betts. This brings Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber into the discussion for the Tribe.
It is reasonable to assume that any deal for Betts would involve some combination of the following on Cleveland’s side: one of McKenzie, Jones, or Freeman; another top-10 prospect; one of Clevinger or Bieber; one MLB-ready position player; and one additional lower-level prospect. Is this a sacrifice the Indians can afford to make?
Even if (when) they lose Lindor after the 2021 season (at the latest), the Indians are still pretty well set to contend down the road with the farm system and young rotation arms they currently have in place. Should they mortgage that future for one incredibly enticing shot at a World Series in 2020?
One element that should not be ignored in this currently nonexistent scenario is that the Indians could then turn around and trade Lindor after the 2020 season, replenishing at least some of what they gave up for Betts and not entirely derailing their ability to compete in the future. Lindor would command a similar haul in a deal under the same timeline as what Boston is looking at with Betts this winter.
Given the Indians’ historical tendency not to spend more than $20 million on one player for any amount of time, this is a nail-biting decision the Tribe almost certainly will not have to make. Still, it sure is fun to daydream about Betts and Lindor leading off games together at Progressive Field in 2020.