In the confinement of one’s home, with not a sporting event to consume it is difficult to contemplate a baseball season which is not even a certainty. Indeed, so much of the personal struggle for sanity in isolation is identifying things that provide hope for our future joy. Yet, without a certainty of baseball in 2020, one can hardly stop oneself from thinking about how a cancelled 2020 would impact organizations over the next few years.
However, for Cleveland professional baseball, a cloud of uncertainty which already hovered over the team in the form of Francisco Lindor, paired with the potential for no 2020 season presents the possibility of damaging the organizations ability to contend in many ways.
Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, among other things agreed that if no season is played: “each player on the major league roster or injured list would receive major league service equaling what that player accrued in 2019.”
What does this mean for the Indians? Nothing positive. A lost season would see Francisco Lindor just one year from free agency, and almost certain to be traded in a Mookie Betts like construct. The Indians offseason provided many roads with Lindor, a trade while significant value remained, an extension, or one more swing with this roster before dealing the young star. The Indians picked the third road, and now may be faced with the paying the opportunity cost they risked.
Losing this season of peak Lindor while the roster still strong but flawed is a punishing outcome for an organization that may soon find itself caught in between a rebuild or a continuing effort to keep the window open.
Beyond the impacts regarding Lindor, the team would be losing pre-arbitration seasons from Cy Young Contender Shane Bieber, Oscar Mercado, Franmil Reyes, Jordan Luplow, and Zach Plesac. The impact of this would be twofold. First, it would limit front end surplus, and second it *may* limit the team’s bargaining power to extend each player if they are credited with their 2019 service time. One could argue that limited player cashflow could create leverage for teams during this time period but that is a messy argument. Alas, Mike Clevinger would also probably be one year closer to free agency.
What is more is that negotiation surrounding the 2022 and beyond CBA will almost certainly center on service time, arbitration, and limiting team control, adding an additional layer of uncertainty.
A central theme in this post is uncertainty, which for a team operating under tight payroll constraints, likely self-imposed, increased uncertainty makes operating especially difficult.
The impacts would not be limited to player cost-control. No, there are other considerations. First, the Indians would be relying, or moving on from players who are aging past their peak be it 34 year old Carlos Santana, or currently 31 year old Roberto Perez. Fortunately, the players would not be adding a season of wear and tear to their bodies but aging in itself has its impacts.
The last two impacts particularly important when discussing uncertainty, it is information and development. The Indians have a handful of players who may or may not be central to their long term contention, and losing a season of information on them creates more uncertainty as other players move closer to free agency. Daniel Johnson, Nolan Jones, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and similarly James Karinchak/Emmanuel Clase are of importance to the organizations future, losing the information this season could provide about their abilities would be a key loss in making determination on other players.
For instance Daniel Johnson playing 90-115 games and demonstrating, albeit in a limited sample that he appears capable to handle at least the Naquin platoon role would allow the Indians to let Naquin walk. Being able to add 80+ big league games of information to a minor league resume and scouting reports is inherently valuable. Of course, these samples would not be binding but merely additional context to making optimal, informed decisions.
As for the development cost, that relates somewhat to the Johnson, Jones, and Plesac types but more, it is a significant cost to the Indians lower minors which are discussed by many some of the deepest in baseball.
Jim Callis of MLB.com and formerly Baseball America wrote in December of 2019:
The organization’s Minor League talent is as strong as it has been since the start of this decade, when Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana were advancing toward Progressive Field.
Much of this hype surrounds the organizations collection of high-end talent which has not as of yet reached AA. This includes Tyler Freeman, George Valera, Brayan Rocchio, Ethan Hankins, Daniel Espino, Luis Oviedo, Jose Fermin, Aaron Bracho, Jean Carlos Mejia, Gabriel Rodriguez, Lenny Torres, Carlos Vargas, and Angel Martinez, just to name a few.
Essentially 2020 was a year in the competitive window where the lower minors would start to sort themselves out and multiple key prospects would be reaching AA by the end of the season, making it possible for a quick retool rather than a rebuild. However, potentially losing all of this development time, and a season of multiple impact players, endangers the potential talent bridge the team had been constructing over the last three years. This certainly would impact other teams as well but the Indians may be one of the most hurt by this loss of development time.
It is also worth noting the potential cascading effects of the intersection of these two risks. That is losing significant development time, and a thinning, uncertain, big league roster could drive the team to not only cash in the Lindor chip but other near term players like Brad Hand, or Mike Clevinger.
None of this is a certainty, the Indians may still play 100 games in 2020, and the small sample may even reward them with a playoff appearance. However, the cost of a lost 2020 season for Cleveland professional baseball could be enormous.