Members of the NBA's superstar class are showing more and more willingness to wield their undeniable power. This week, James Harden is pushing the Houston Rockets to trade him to the Brooklyn Nets. It’s not just “trade me.” It’s “trade me to this particular team.”
And it has a pretty high success rate!
Basketball examples roll off the tongue — Anthony Davis famously pulled this off just last year — despite the NBA’s relatively complicated salary cap and trade restrictions. Baseball, meanwhile, where no trade machine need be consulted, has seen nothing approximating the tactic since Ken Griffey Jr. asked out of Seattle after the 1999 season. (And even then, Sports Illustrated reported he gave the Mariners a list of four teams.)
Once held up as the strongest union in American sports, MLB’s players have fallen behind, bleeding a significant amount of sway over the game and its dealings. Whether it is cultural or structural or a nod toward the reality that no one baseball player can morph a team into a contender, this inclination against leveraging star power seems to run deep. There’s no rule or apparent reason a baseball player couldn’t go full NBA style and dictate where his talents are deployed.
One of them could and should do it tomorrow. Francisco Lindor is baseball’s best candidate in recent memory to give the Harden method (or some version of it) a spin. A four-time All-Star and beaming face of the game, the Cleveland Indians shortstop is all but certain to be traded this winter, as the Dolan family ownership group and the Cleveland front office will choose savings over attaching a potentially iconic career to their franchise (oh, and winning).
Lindor has been the fifth-best position player in baseball over the past five years by Baseball-Reference’s WAR model, and is younger than all but one player in the top 10, having just turned 27 years old. He is due to reach free agency after the 2021 season. If his brethren on the WAR leaderboard are any indication — and they are — he’d likely be due a windfall in the $200 million range, and have the opportunity to choose where to spend the rest of his prime and leave his legacy.
Why not go ahead and make that choice now? The New York Yankees need a shortstop, and they have the money.
Why Lindor can make demands
Harden’s request, however public, doesn’t compel the Rockets to acquiesce. Still, the substantive downside is minimal beyond the two-year, $103 million extension he already turned down. He’s a superstar, he has an existing contract, and can smooth things over with the incoming Houston regime if push comes to shove … because he’s a superstar.
Lindor would also face the very real chance the team simply refuses to comply, but his position is even stronger. If hurting teammates’ feelings and souring public sentiment are the (theoretical) drawbacks for Harden, well, the Cleveland front office already volunteered to take those punches.
They have reportedly told other clubs they intend to trade Lindor. This despite the unfailingly sunny shortstop’s open desire to stay.
Yes, there will always be the brigade of idiots in the comments, upset that they don’t have talent to make millions as a professional athlete, who bash Blake Snell for wanting his contract honored if he was going to play in a pandemic, or rage against Mookie Betts for not being sufficiently infatuated with Boston to accept a below-market offer more than a year out from free agency. But the case of Lindor and Cleveland has drawn on long enough that most halfway reasonable fans know the deal here. He’s worth a king’s ransom and Cleveland will trade anyone approaching even a minor payday for a bag of balls, or their 11th fifth outfielder.
When he broke off the latest round of negotiations in March, Lindor said, “The city of Cleveland has been nothing but good to me. Why would I want to leave?” He also sounded a realistic tone, nodding at the fact of the matter: Cleveland’s ownership group keeps the front office on a short leash and does not seem willing to budge, even for him.
“The team is not broke. The league is not broke. There’s money,” Lindor said. “However, if it makes sense for both sides, it’s going to happen. If not, it’s not going to happen.”
Almost a year later, it’s clear they will ship him off for whatever they can get instead of paying the projected $19.5 million salary for his final year of team control.
No one, at this point, would blame Lindor for attempting to take some control over his future.
The Mookie Betts plan, but on purpose
Baseball’s last offseason, approximately one eon ago, featured a jewel franchise dealing away the game’s consensus second-best player, Mookie Betts. That was something like the polar opposite of a trade demand — a “No one asked for this” deal.
It was sickening at the time because of who was pulling the strings, but stripped of that context, the results came out pretty OK for Betts. He turned the Los Angeles Dodgers into a superteam, signed a 12-year, $365 million extension without the rigamarole of free agency and won a World Series.
As teams show less and less regard for the bond between their fans and the stars they market right up until they cut into the profit margins, why shouldn’t players also exercise the freedom afforded them? Teams are acknowledging the reality that stars will move on after about six years, so players and the fans who follow them should be just as untethered to any faux expectations of loyalty. The best thing for Lindor, presumably, would be to orchestrate a Cleveland exit that drops him in his long-term home.
That comfortable landing spot would seem to be in the Bronx. Even a 60-game sample of Gleyber Torres at shortstop reportedly has the Yankees engaging with slicker defenders. Lindor carries a superlative glove at short, and despite middling 2020 offensive numbers (a career-worst .415 slugging percentage), he’s the most reliably great player who will hit the market in the next three years.
Trading for Lindor doesn’t require signing him to an extension, of course, but it’s hard to imagine any potential suitor not using their year of exclusive negotiation rights to make a serious attempt. The Yankees are a) the Yankees, and b) going to be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend a couple hundred million dollars than on Lindor, his elite production and his exuberant personality.
Whether he has a secret text thread with Aaron Judge or not, Lindor can see that writing on the wall. If he tries to make it so, he could show a generation of baseball stars that it is possible to wrestle back at least some control over their career paths.
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