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Did the Guardians win the Francisco Lindor trade?

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Perhaps the biggest bane of modern baseball is most teams’ aversion to keeping the biggest stars in the game, or even having them in the first place. Only a few teams are willing to pay the best players what they’ve earned, and everyone else is looking for ways to move them along as soon as the players establish themselves as stars. Even teams that come from the league’s biggest markets are only too happy to watch the game’s best move on. The Astros have let George Springer and Carlos Correa just walk. The Yankees have yet to pay Aaron Judge, and will either have to attempt to do so after he sets the American League record for homers, or just give up. I’ve said enough about the Cubs.

So while the Dodgers, Padres, and Mets are happy to collect the best around, players like Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Juan Soto, Manny Machado, and Francisco Lindor eventually have to find new homes. And that’s just some of the list. Of the top-20 players in fWAR according to FanGraphs, only eight are with their original teams. And of those eight, only Jose Altuve and Jose Ramirez have either hit free agency or received contract extensions that lasted into their free agent years. The rest are still in the arb years, and hence haven’t really had the opportunity to max out their dollars yet.

What’s more worrying for any fan outside of the big markets is that there are teams who make this work, and hence teams will point at them while yelling at their front office to work cheaper. May we present the Cleveland Guardians.

You can’t have a more lovable star than Francisco Lindor. Not only does he play a premium position in shortstop and play it with flair and grace, but he’s a magnetic personality that makes the game fun, even through the drudgery of July and August. There isn’t a Guardians fan out there that wouldn’t have wanted Lindor to be in Cleveland for life and get a statue one day.

But Lindor was always going to command more money than Cleveland ownership has ever felt like doling out (Paul Dolan’s estimated worth: $3 billion), and so he was peddled. The thing about trading Lindor is that you can’t ever get a player worth as much in return. The same is true of Juan Soto, Mookie Betts, Goldschmidt, or a host of others who were dealt so teams could avoid paying them.

Except, maybe the Guardians did?

Cleveland currently sits atop the AL Central, an admittedly collection of wayward children where the only contenders are a Twins team that can’t pitch and a Sox team that can’t hit, and then whatever it is the Royals or Tigers pretend to do as their “rebuilds” collapse into lightning sand. But the Guardians weren’t supposed to be anywhere near here, as they entered the season with what looked like one hitter in Ramirez and solid pitching development products but with no sharp end at the top of the rotation with Shane Bieber coming back from injury. And yet, here they are, and a big reason why is the two players currently in the majors they got for Lindor.

Andreas Gimenez has been a star at second base, both with bat and glove. He’s been worth 4.3 fWAR, has a 153 wRC+, and every so often comes up with moments like:

On the other side of second base from Gimenez is Amed Rosario, the shortstop the Mets didn’t feel would ever become Lindor, even after the heavy billing he got coming up through the Mets system. Rosario hasn’t been the dominant offensive force that Gimenez has been, but he’s having his best season in the majors with a 106 wRC+ thanks to cutting down on his Ks and making more contact than he ever has. He’s also having his worst season in the field (in terms of defensive runs saved), which still leaves him “fine” as a shortstop. He’s been worth 2.1 fWAR.

So that’s two players, 23 and 26 years old, worth 6.4 fWAR combined that the Guardians got in return for Lindor.

And Lindor’s been brilliant this season for a dominant Mets team. His power returned this season after getting lost in La Guardia construction last year. Lindor has put up a 129 wRC+, while playing a superlative shortstop (10 outs above average according to Statcast, 11.8 defensive runs saved per FanGraphs, ranking 2nd and 3rd among shortstops). He’s been worth 4.9 fWAR.

This means Gimenez has nearly matched him, and certainly, the combo of Gimenez and Rosario has been worth more. Yes, there’s some air in Gimenez’s numbers, as his BABIP is .368 and his expected average and slugging are way lower than his actual. He’s found more holes than he probably will going forward. But he’s also only 23. Suddenly, we’re starting to see why the Mets got a little gun shy at the deadline.

But, while this style of management can be the way forward for some clubs, it certainly doesn’t capture the imagination of fans. The Guardians have seen huge drops in both local TV ratings and attendance. You can only take away a team’s identifiable stars for so long and so many times before fans just stop looking for things to latch onto (with the caveat that there are plenty of non-baseball reasons that people don’t want to pay for tickets these days, but that’s everywhere). But again, it was only five years ago that Cleveland drew over two million fans off the back of a World Series team that had a fair share of stars that were all brought through the Cleveland system. Only Ramirez remains.

That won’t stop a host of clubs pointing at Gimenez and Rosario, or the Astros as a whole, as reasons to trade their stars a year or two before free agency. And the Guardians will likely trade Gimenez in 2026. The cycle starts over. Sure, on a stat sheet it worked. Even in the standings, it worked. But looking at the swaths of empty seats, did the Guardians really win?

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