A slow start in Cleveland has fans clamoring for the call-up of top prospect Francisco Lindor. But here's why the Indians are delaying his MLB debut—and why they're wise to do so.
They called it a fitness test, but what the Indians were really conducting one morning early during spring training was baseball’s version of the Hunger Games. The test seemed easy, at first: Every position player in big league camp stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder, then ran 10 yards out, turned around and ran back, in a comfortable 14 seconds or less. After a 10-second rest, they would do it again, and then again, and then again. Gradually, the time they were given to complete their runs decreased—13 seconds, then 12 and then, ultimately, 11—but the diabolical part of the test was that it had no set number of reps to complete, and therefore no prescribed end. It would be over when a single player remained who had willed himself to keep going after the rest of his teammates could not.
“No one threw up,” said general manager Chris Antonetti, “but it was lots of reps—dozens of them.” Eventually, the only runners left were a quartet of minor leaguers, including Erik Gonzalez, Tyler Naquin and Jordan Smith. Then, when those three stopped all together, there was only one. It was the 5’11”, 190-pound Francisco Lindor, the 21-year-old who is either the game’s fourth- or ninth-best prospect, depending on who you ask, and who will be promoted from Triple A to become Cleveland’s everyday shortstop at some point in the foreseeable future.
But is that day rapidly approaching? The Indians—a World Series favorite, according to some—have started the season with an American League-worst record of 6–13. With their current shortstop, Jose Ramirez, batting .186 and posting an AL-worst fielding percentage of .929, the clamoring for Lindor—a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Florida when he was 12 and who has at times been moved to insist on his own mortality—has begun in Cleveland.
The Indians’ leadership has no doubt that Lindor is a special talent, thanks to his quick feet, stellar glove and steadily improving bat, as well as the qualities he showed in winning the fitness test, which took not just athleticism and endurance, but also desire. “It’s really easy to stop,” said manager Terry Francona of the test. “All you do is, you stop. And it wouldn’t be noticed. But it was noticeable that he won.”
“It was great to see that Francisco clearly worked to come into camp in shape and has the competitive desire to come in and win,” said Antonetti during Indians camp in Arizona. “It was another sign that Francisco, he’s really motivated to be the best player he can be. And he doesn’t let all the external accolades affect how he prepares and how he works.”
Recently, though, when reporters asked Antonetti what Lindor had to improve in order to be called up to a club that could use a spark—if not a savior—he essentially deflected the question. “There’s a litany of things,” he said. “Rather than getting into the specifics of those, because it’s something that’s really between the player and us, I can tell you that Francisco is committed to the plan and has worked extraordinarily hard to continue to improve and get better as a player.”
You can read the rest of Antonetti’s remarks in his forthcoming book, “How To Say Something Without Saying Anything At All.”
Just as there is no question that Lindor is the most talented shortstop in the Indians’ organization, there is no doubt that the central reason why he remains in the minors (and, from the sound of it, will for some time) has little to do with his skills or his effort, and a lot to do with his contractual status. Due to issues of both public and labor relations, general managers are compelled to dance around the topic—hence Antonetti’s verbal balletics—but the Indians are likely waiting to promote Lindor this season until they are confident that, two years from now, he will not have accumulated enough service time to qualify for Super Two status, which would make him eligible for arbitration a year early and four times in total (as opposed to the usual three). It is a shame that Antonetti can’t talk about it, because, even for the currently scuffling Indians, it is the prudent decision.
Super Two status is afforded to players who rank in the top 22% in total service time among those who have between two and three years in the big leagues and who spent more than 86 days in the majors in the immediately preceding season. It can make a significant impact on a club’s bottom line, particularly when extremely talented young players are involved. Last winter’s Super Twos, for instance, included the Astros’ Chris Carter, the Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson, the Marlins’ Dee Gordon, the Mets’ Jenrry Mejia, the Angels’ Garrett Richards and the Rays’ Drew Smyly. Were they not Super Twos, those players would have earned a 2015 salary of something close to the league minimum of $507,500, but their arbitration eligibility allowed each of them to command at least $2.5 million for this season; Donaldson will make $4.3 million. More than that, the baseline salary for each of their three subsequent arbitration-eligible seasons has been raised. Super Two status can end up costing a team an extra $10 million or more for a single player.
That sum is relatively insignificant for wealthy clubs, such as the Cubs. Chicago, which has a $122 million payroll and room to expand it, has this season already promoted top prospects—and certain future Super Twos—Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. (Both began the season in the minors in order to ensure that they would not reach free agency a year early, a much bigger deal.) For the Indians, who have the league’s sixth-lowest payroll at $88 million and limited revenue streams, it is a meaningful amount, particularly as they have designs on contending not just next season but also for years to come. “We always have one eye on the short term and one on the longer term,” Antonetti said during spring training. “Not only is this group in place for 2015, but for the foreseeable future. We have the ability to keep our roster intact for the next three or four seasons, which is a unique position to be in.”
Indeed, each member of the Indians’ nucleus of Cody Allen, Trevor Bauer, Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar will be under team control through at least 2018, as will Lindor. The $10 million they would save by keeping Lindor from Super Two status could prove the difference between signing a key free agent to complement that nucleus and not signing one at all.
The avoidance of Super Twos is not a new strategy for the Indians. The cutoff for eligibility usually comes in mid- or late June, and, coincidentally, most of their recent top prospects over the past five years (including Kipnis, Salazar, Lonnie Chisenhall and Carlos Santana) have debuted in either June or July. Fans, understandably, hate it—they want to see their team’s best players as soon as possible, and care little about its finances—and the Indians’ steadfastness has been tested all the more because they have started so poorly. If they were in first place, and if Ramirez were playing well, few Clevelanders would be wistfully calling Lindor’s name.
There is, of course, another consideration, and that is whether Lindor’s presence would have made much of a difference over this season’s first month, or over the next two, the majority of which he will very likely spend in Triple A. He is both talented and driven, but he is also very young—the youngest player in the International League last season. While he briefly raised his Triple A average to over .300 this past Sunday, he did it thanks to a stretch of four games during which he went 10-for-16 at the plate. Just four days earlier, he had been batting .191.
“We’re not looking for him to come to Cleveland,” Antonetti explained during spring training. “We’re looking for him to come to Cleveland to help the team win. We need to do everything we can to make sure he’s ready, as equipped as possible to have success in the major leagues.”
It would be a significant gamble to promote a 21-year-old shortstop under the assumption that he would be immediately productive enough to add more than a couple of wins over the course of three months to the Indians’ bottom line, and one that would likely not be worth the future flexibility, in the form of potentially eight figures in extra salary, that it would cost. Francisco Lindor’s time will come, but the Indians will be wise to continue to delay it.