How could the Betts trade influence Indians, Francisco Lindor?

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Does the Mookie Betts trade help shed light on which direction the Cleveland Indians should go with shortstop Francisco Lindor?

Three months into an offseason dominated by some of baseball’s biggest names hovering in trade rumor purgatory, two recent World Series foes finally worked up the gumption to make one such rumor a reality.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox nearly crashed Twitter on Tuesday night when they agreed to the long-awaited Mookie Betts deal. There was also a brief period of further pandemonium following the initial report, as mentions of a mysterious “third team” began to surface. That third team turned out to be the Minnesota Twins, resulting in the following moving parts.

Depending on the angle from which you unpack this trade, the takeaways are naturally going to differ. The Dodgers will now have two of the five best position players in baseball standing next to each other in the outfield, and what they gave up is hardly irreplaceable in the short or long term.

The Red Sox traded a future Cooperstown inductee for a significantly smaller haul than he’d have been worth in a vacuum, but received two high-ceiling youngsters as opposed to letting Betts walk in free agency next fall.

But what about the teams not involved in Tuesday night’s blockbuster? A trade of this magnitude has ripple effects throughout the league, and its impact will be felt by teams in no way associated with the deal. In addition to the rest of the American League’s playoff hopefuls, the Cleveland Indians are among these clubs.

Setting aside the possibility that the Red Sox just traded their way out of the 2020 postseason hunt, there is a far more intangible element of the fallout as it pertains to the Indians. And as every other facet of this offseason has seemingly done, what’s left in the wake of the Betts trade will inevitably circle back to the future of Francisco Lindor.

It’s difficult to shield one’s eyes from the blindingly minimal return the Red Sox received for their best homegrown position player since Ted Williams.

Maybe Verdugo and Graterol go on to be perennial All-Stars. If so, great. But to look at this trade on Day One and contend that the Red Sox got fair value for a player of Betts’ caliber is only halfway true. The financial undertones and team-control timelines of this deal were well-documented, and greatly influenced what Boston was able to recoup for its prized outfielder.

Had this trade been based entirely on the player Betts is, and not his impending free agency or salary, or the remaining financial commitment to Price, there is an argument that no prospect package would have been sufficient. Thus, one has to wonder how the Indians view this development.

Cleveland is one season away from finding itself in a position frighteningly similar to that of the Red Sox. Lindor’s name has been bandied about in trade talks just as often as Betts’ this winter, and one of the arguments in favor of keeping the shortstop in Cleveland for another season has been that the Indians will still be able to demand a haul for him at this time next year.

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After seeing what Boston got back for Betts, it’s worth asking how confident the Indians should be that they can do better under the same circumstances. Betts will make $27 million this year, his final year of arbitration. Lindor might come up short of that exact number, but something in the neighborhood of $25 million seems like a fair estimate for his final turn in arbitration.

Any team that enters into negotiations with the Tribe for Lindor next offseason will be able to leverage the same financial and team-control concerns expressed over Betts this offseason. What’s more, as great of a baseball player as Lindor is, Betts has been markedly better.

The Dodgers are, and have been for some time now, an absolute powerhouse in the National League. They are one of maybe three teams in baseball who have earned the right to set their sights at a World Series title and be legitimately disappointed with anything less. They have one of the most loaded farm systems in the league, and all the incentive to trade some of that prospect depth in return for the best established players on the market.

Yet even the Dodgers drew the line at players like Gavin Lux and Dustin May. Even Betts, the second-best position player in all the land, wasn’t enough to make them budge. What’s to say the Dodgers or any other team are going to meet or exceed what the Red Sox got for Betts in a trade for Lindor at this time next year?

It might never be fully known how much Price’s inclusion in the deal impacted what the Red Sox ultimately got back, and it’s also possible that this was a situation in which the Dodgers were largely bidding against themselves. But it has to be somewhat alarming from the Indians’ perspective that Boston couldn’t engineer a more favorable return.

Further backing the Indians into a corner is that the Red Sox had their own form of leverage: market size. Would the departure of Betts via free agency likely have been followed swiftly by some frustrating years at Fenway? Sure. But does an organization like the Red Sox also possess the financial resources to offset, or even potentially avoid, such a downturn? Absolutely.

No matter what path the Red Sox took with Betts, this was never a franchise in danger of going in the tank for half a decade.

The Indians can claim no such advantage. If they hold onto Lindor for the duration of his guaranteed years in Cleveland and he leaves for nothing in free agency, it will compromise their future in a way the Red Sox never really had to worry about. Regardless of which teams sit down at the table with the Indians from here on out, they’ll know this. And they’ll know the Indians know it, too.

If the Indians get to next winter with Lindor on their roster, they admittedly won’t have a David Price-level contract they’ll be looking to offload in a deal for their franchise shortstop. Maybe that wrinkle truly was the anchor that prevented the Red Sox from getting the best possible value in return for Betts, and maybe they refused to do any deal that didn’t free them of a chunk of the money still owed to Price.

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But from where the Indians stand, the Betts trade quite possibly simplifies the Tribe’s options regarding Lindor. Either trade him now, because two years of team control are more valuable on the trade market than one. Or maybe–and this is just a wild, unfounded idea–the Indians could do everything in their power to, I don’t know, try to win a World Series while he’s still in Cleveland.