Cleveland chose to trade Francisco Lindor, they did not have to

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The Cleveland Indians finally made the trade that we’ve known was coming for years, and dealt star shortstop Francisco Lindor. That it was to the Mets is the only real surprise here, but their ownership recently changed from the Wilpons to Steve Cohen, who is looking to make splashes and reinvigorate a fan base that at this point mostly associates sports with feeling first- and second-hand embarrassment.

As you can imagine was going to happen, this is being framed in some corners as a trade that just Had To Be Made by Cleveland, because they are a poor small-market team that just can’t operate like those mean old teams in large markets that swoop in and force the little guys to trade their best players. Buster Olney, the longtime ESPN reporter who has over one million followers and plenty of TV time to boot, tweeted that Cleveland “had to dump money” in response to the trade. “Had to.” Is any proof offered for this? Of course not: that’s Olney either assuming this is the case because it’s what Cleveland has been insinuating about their finances for years, or it’s what whomever his source in Cleveland told him was the case, and Olney rolled with it instead of questioning it.

Sure, Cleveland, like every other franchise, didn’t pull in as much money in 2020 as they normally would have, since there was no gate in the pandemic-shortened campaign and therefore 40 percent of MLB’s annual revenues weren’t collected. The thing is, they also only paid their players for 37 percent of a season, so again we’re left to wonder whether teams saying they lost money on 2020 mean it put them in the red or if they mean they are mourning the money they could have made had the season gone the full 162 with fans in attendance. They want you to believe it’s the former, but a little bit of critical thinking and the realization that MLB teams won’t attempt to actually prove their claims with evidence should make you realize it’s the latter.

Where is the proof that Cleveland “had to” trade away payroll? Is it because they can’t afford Lindor as a free agent? Again, where is the proof of that? As has been said before in this space, “can’t” and “won’t” mean different things and aren’t interchangeable. Cleveland won’t attempt to re-sign Lindor, so they are trading him away now, but they would like to believe that they are trading him because they can’t keep him, as that elicits sympathy for their imagined plight, rather than scorn for what is obviously a decision being made with Cleveland’s investors’ in mind.

Cleveland’s principal owner is Paul Dolan, whose net worth is $4.6 billion. That’s twice as much as the net worth of “large-market” Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts, whose team is also shedding payroll because of supposed financial troubles. Are you trying to tell me that Paul Dolan, for the good of his team, couldn’t dip into his personal funds to make sure that Cleveland keeps the most important and best player they’ve developed in decades? That the guy who spent just over $300 million 21 years ago to purchase the team and has seen its valuation skyrocket 256 percent has nothing lying around with which to keep Lindor around? It would be a rounding error to pay Lindor what he’s worth over the course of a decade, but you’re not going to see Dolan make any kind of move like that. And it isn’t because Cleveland’s operating expenses would be in the red each year Lindor stuck around, either.

Did you know Cleveland had a higher operating income in 2019 than the Yankees? That they’re on par with the recently free-spending Padres in that regard? Dolan’s club isn’t in any danger of having to pay luxury tax penalties if they retained Lindor and built around him a bit — their 2019 salary, for CBT purposes, was $129 million at the end of the year, while the luxury tax threshold was $206 million. Sure, their franchise value and profits aren’t as high as some clubs in the league, but they are certainly capable of investing further into the team in a way that boosts local revenues and helps make up for what they’ve spent. The thing is that they’re not interested in that: Cleveland’s baseball team under Paul Dolan exists to make him more money. The Lindor trade was inevitable because it’s the kind of thing that happens under the kind of business philosophy Paul Dolan uses — not because it was necessary from a baseball point of view.

I do wonder how much the activity of the Padres annoys the Dolans of the MLB world. They aren’t considered a financial juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, but spent $142 million against the CBT in 2019 and are in line to spend $160 million against it in 2021. They began their rebuild process by spending money on major free agents in the hopes it would help them compete while they built up their farm system, and then when they didn’t compete, traded away those players for prospects to further bolster the farm. Now, the fruits of those trades and signings are in the majors, or being dealt away as well in order to fill holes that spending on free agency and internal promotions could not.

The Padres are actually attempting to… deliver on the promise of rebuilding? While putting together a watchable product with players who cost money even before The Perfect Competitive Moment is reached? That can’t be right, that’s against the rules. Rebuilding is just supposed to be a cover story for most teams — teams like Cleveland, which comfortably settled in to their status as the default best club in a horrible division, satisfied with pulling in as much revenue for as little effort as possible even though it meant a first-round exit was all but guaranteed each October. Now that the AL Central isn’t such a joke and the expanded postseason is no sure thing, it’s time to pivot to a more overt “woe is us” plan that involves slashing payroll until it’s the lowest in the American League.

And so, Lindor is a Met. Cleveland can blame economics for it, even if it’s not true, and will never deliver evidence that proves them right in part because it doesn’t exist, but also because showing your work isn’t how MLB teams operate on the business side of things. The Olneys of the world are right about one thing: everyone knew Lindor was going to be traded. But they’re wrong to just repeat the lie Cleveland tells, that they “had to” do it. They chose to do this, just like they and the teams that think like them choose to make trades like this every time.

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