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If Owners Don’t Want Their Best Players, What’s the Point?

Cleveland's trading of Francisco Lindor to the Mets is the latest example of owners' twisted priorities.

On Thursday, Cleveland’s baseball team announced that it would prefer not to employ All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor anymore. He, along with No. 2 starter Carlos Carrasco, now plays for the Mets. If this is how team owner Paul Dolan thinks he should run his baseball team, perhaps he should consider no longer running a baseball team.

Similar soul-searching could come from Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, who has steadfastly slashed payroll this offseason, and Red Sox owner John Henry, who traded his own franchise icon, right fielder Mookie Betts, last spring. And there are plenty of others who could join them.

Sep 6, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) celebrates after hitting an RBI single against the Minnesota Twins in the eleventh inning at Target Field.

Owners like to remind us that baseball is a business. That’s true, but until children start wearing Goldman Sachs jerseys, owning a sports team is not a standard investment opportunity. Owners of baseball teams should be rich dorks who are mostly in it for the chance to take batting practice on the field and helm a float in the championship parade. Instead, we are saddled with a collection of people who insist on pocketing every available dollar, usually at the expense of fans whose passion makes their teams valuable in the first place.

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Lindor is among the best shortstops in baseball. He is the face of the franchise. He is bilingual, with a grin so enchanting it has earned him the most wholesome nickname in the game: Mr. Smile. He is probably the best player children in Cleveland will ever see up close. And now, because Dolan did not feel like paying him the $250 million or so he is worth, he is gone.

Children in Boston can relate. So can children in Chicago, where the Cubs dealt Yu Darvish, one of the best pitchers in baseball, for a No. 3 starter and none of the Padres’ top prospects. These situations differ slightly in their details—market size, money owed, past success—but the details don’t really matter. This is an entertainment enterprise, and these owners have abdicated their responsibility to entertain fans by assembling good teams.

This summer, Ricketts lamented what he called “biblical” pandemic-induced losses. (This fall, he added that although the Cubs stand to gain as much as $125 million in tax credits because Wrigley Field was designated a landmark, he will not be reinvesting that money in the team.) It’s possible that the situation is as dire as he makes it sound. But we’ll never know, because the teams refuse to open their books.

“Anyone who quotes profits of a baseball club is missing the point,” former Blue Jays president Paul Beeston once said. “Under generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and get every national accounting firm to agree with me."

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Players know the truth. This fall, reporters asked Lindor whether Cleveland could afford to keep him.

“Of course,” he said. “It’s a billion-dollar team.”

Among the sport’s systemic problems is that baseball players reach free agency so late in their careers. Lindor will play 2021 at 27, with some of his best years behind him. Anyone who signs him to a long-term deal now will pay, in part, for past performance. Ideally the league and union would agree to shorten the initial period of club control—say, to four years instead of six (and often seven). But in the meantime: This is the business model. If you don’t like it, get out of the business.

Aug 3, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) reacts after hitting a solo home run against the Cincinnati Reds during the first inning at Great American Ball Park.

Most of the albatross deals owners might cite came in free agency. Extensions signed after a player’s fifth year of service time actually age fairly well: Of the top five in average annual value—third baseman Nolan Arenado and the Rockies for $260 million over eight years, lefty Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers for $215 million over seven, right fielder Mookie Betts and the Dodgers for $365 million over 12, left fielder Yoenis Céspedes and the Mets for four years and $110 million, Adrián González and the Red Sox for $154 million over eight years—the teams probably only regret one, the Céspedes deal, and his was struck as he entered his age-31 season. (Colorado is currently trying to trade Arenado, but not because he isn’t playing well.) And extensions get more team-friendly the earlier they are signed: Lindor and Cleveland could likely have worked something out a year or two ago had Dolan been willing to spend back then.

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Besides the on-field return on investment, extending your young stars signals to players, fans and other teams alike that you plan to contend. And what are we doing here if not trying to contend?

You can try to make the argument that over the long term, Cleveland is more likely to win without Lindor, who would eat a chunk of payroll, than with him. But examine that idea more closely. Five years ago, this team took the Cubs to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Since then, it allowed Michael Brantley to leave in free agency while trading starters Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger for light returns. Despite that, the team still controls All-Star third baseman José Ramírez and reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. Cleveland will surely make some attempt to spend the $49 million it saved on Lindor and Carrasco. But it will not be able to replace their production, or what they meant to their teammates. Carrasco took hometown discounts twice, survived leukemia and had a 2.91 ERA last year. In eight years, it’s possible that the Mets or someone else will be paying Lindor to sit on the bench. But Cleveland had a window. On Thursday, Dolan slammed it shut.

Peter Ueberroth, the sixth MLB commissioner, called the league a public trust. If these owners are not interested in running their teams that way, they should sell them and invest the proceeds in a chain of drugstores.