As the 2020 regular season draws to a close, we may also be witnessing Francisco Lindor’s last days in Cleveland. Trade speculation has been rampant for the last year, and Lindor will be the most-discussed name at this year’s Winter Meetings. With that in mind, I’ll attempt to put odds on who Cleveland’s starting shortstop will be on Opening Day 2021.
Lindor’s story is well known. Drafted eighth overall by the Indians in 2012, Lindor took over the shortstop role in mid-2015 and hasn’t looked back. The perennial All Star has racked up two Silver Sluggers, two Gold Gloves and the 2016 Platinum Glove to establish himself as arguably the best shortstop in the game. Lindor and the Indians agreed to a $17.5M contract prior to the 2020 season, and he’ll hit the free agent market after the 2021 season if he doesn’t sign an extension.
The Indians have built a strong stable of middle infield prospects through the draft, trades and international signings in recent years. This year’s first round pick, Carson Tucker, is the first middle infielder the Indians have drafted in the first round since Lindor, but the team has acquired several talented prospects in the first five rounds of recent drafts. Add in several promising international signings and a recent trade acquisition, and the team has set itself up to transition to life after Lindor. The only concern is that most of the middle infield prospects haven’t seen AA or AAA action.
The odds below are mine alone and are based on nothing more than knowledge of the Indians’ front office strategy and the limited information on prospect performance at alternate sites this season.
Francisco Lindor, No Extension
Lindor will be in his final year of arbitration in 2021, so if the Indians choose not to trade him, he’ll be on the field in Cleveland on Opening Day. If the team chooses to make one final World Series push in the Lindor era, his value is highest to the team in Cleveland. That said, the Indians understand Lindor’s trade value will never be higher than it is this winter. The Indians have built a consistently competitive team by trading their high-value impending free agents for high-end prospect packages. The front office has proven to be adept at maximizing returns in trades, and with the glaring need in the outfield, expect to see Lindor in a different uniform in 2021. Odds: 75-1
Francisco Lindor, Extended
Rumors occasionally spring up before every season that Lindor and the Indians have discussed an extension. Nothing has ever come to fruition, but some momentum may be there for the team to break from tradition and sign its biggest star to an extension. The Indians have worked to cut payroll since 2017, and signing Lindor to a long-term deal would be a major break from the norm. Lindor has said he wants to maximize his value on his next contract, so the Indians would have to make him one of the highest-paid players in the league to get him to sign. Don’t expect to see this scenario play out. Odds: 500-1
Freeman may be the most pro-ready prospect in Cleveland’s minor league system. The latest entrant to MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list spent the summer at the team’s alternate site to continue his development, and news from Lake County is that Freeman’s power has significantly improved. Freeman is a career .319/.379/.441 hitter in the minor leagues. While he’s never played above High-A Lynchburg, Freeman’s above average contact and miniscule K% indicate his plate approach is that of a major leaguer. There’s some doubt about whether his arm is strong enough to play shortstop long-term, but Freeman will find a home at the top of the Indians’ lineup soon regardless of his position on the field. If the team decides to go with an internal option, Freeman is the most likely to take over the spot. Odds: 5-1
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 13, 2020
Arias was the key prospect San Diego sent to Cleveland in the Mike Clevinger trade. Prospects1500 Padres correspondent Alex Sanchez had the following to say about Arias: “His defense almost assuredly guarantees he will contribute to the big league club and his bat is starting come around (.302/.339/.463) with more pop than expected at this point.” Another player who hasn’t played above High-A, it’s still possible Arias could be in the running for Opening Day shortstop with a strong showing in Spring Training. Odds: 15-1
Rocchio is Cleveland’s highest-ranked middle infield prospect on my Indians Top 50 prospects list, and I expect him to ultimately be the team’s long-term shortstop. That said, don’t expect to see him in Cleveland in 2021. Rocchio will turn 20 in January, and he hasn’t seen action above Short Season A ball. Rocchio has an advanced glove and the raw talent to succeed at the plate. He has more power to unlock and his OBP needs to improve before he’ll see time with the MLB club, but expect Rocchio to have a major impact in Cleveland in a few years. Odds: 1000-1
#Indians 19yr old SS prospect Brayan Rocchio starting today at 2B vs the DBacks with a 3 run HR of starter RHP Zac Gallen. Rocchio getting a chance to show what the future may hold in the MLB spring training game. #Professor @rocchio_25 pic.twitter.com/7Y7qUPoUZs
— Indians Prospective (@indiansPro) March 1, 2020
Chang is the only prospect on this list with major league experience, but the way Cleveland has treated his playing time is curious. Despite the need for a utility infielder in Cleveland, the team has given the bulk of the utility at bats to Mike Freeman while keeping Chang on the bench. Chang has spent time at third base and shortstop in his career. He’s a power-first hitter, but he makes contact well enough that his bat will play in a major league lineup with consistent use. While he may not be a long-term solution at shortstop, Chang’s major league experience, however limited, makes him another potential in-house option for 2021. The only question is, does the team trust him? Odds: 25-1
Clement profiles as a true utility player, but he may luck into an opportunity to get some at-bats in Cleveland. While he’s been a bit of a light hitter in the minor leagues, Clement’s numbers improved during the 2019 regular season. He also turned in a great performance in last year’s Arizona Fall League, which bumped him up the Top 50 list. Clement spent most of 2019 in AA Akron, so his higher-level experience will work in his favor. He’ll need to have a near perfect spring training to have a shot at the shortstop role, but it could happen. Odds: 1000-1
This is the most likely scenario. With Freddy Galvis, Jose Iglesias, Ehire Adrianza and others set to become free agents after the season, I expect to see the Indians sign a mid-tier player to a one year deal, similar to the Cesar Hernandez signing this season. The Indians are typically very conservative when bringing prospects to Cleveland, and I don’t expect Tyler Freeman or Brayan Rocchio to be treated any different. The team will likely start Freeman in Akron in 2021 and move him to AAA Columbus during the year. A free agent shortstop on a one-year deal will be a stopgap until Freeman (or another shortstop candidate) proves himself ready to take over in Cleveland. Odds: 5-2
Dark Horse Prospect
There are plenty of names in the Indians’ system who are lesser known but still very talented. Young players like Carson Tucker, Christian Cairo and Yordys Valdes are probably still years away from reaching the Major Leagues, but any one of them may be a future star. It’s possible Cleveland could get a top-tier shortstop prospect in return for Lindor, although unlikely due to the glaring needs in the outfield. Several other players further down the Top 50 who have the talent to make it in Cleveland may distinguish themselves in spring training and earn a shot at a roster spot. With all the uncertainty in today’s game, the post-Lindor shortstop spot is wide open. Odds: 1500-1