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There are few things better than watching a curveball buckle the knees of an opposing hitter. Or a Will Smith at-bat in which he fouls off a number of two-strike pitches to deliver a go-ahead home run. Or a player like Lucas Giolito going from one of the worst pitchers in the game to a perennial Cy Young candidate.
On the field, there’s plenty to love about baseball. Step away from that, however, and it becomes much harder to enjoy anything about the sport.
There’s no better example of this than what the Cleveland Indians did Thursday. The team traded franchise player Francisco Lindor and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets in exchange for four players, only one of which rated as a top-100 prospect — and barely — last season. The deal was so egregious one rival executive said Cleveland executives “should be fired” over the move.
The motivation behind the deal was obvious. Cleveland, like so many other franchises, has prioritized the bottom line so much that the team opted to deal the face of its franchise, and a consensus top-10 player in baseball, to save $44 million. Oh, and they threw in Carrasco — who put up a 2.91 ERA last season — because his far below-market $47 million extension was suddenly too much for Cleveland to handle.
Francisco Lindor trade is nothing new in baseball
What’s particularly galling about the deal — if you can look past Cleveland’s laughable return — is that its far from the first of its kind. Just over a week ago, the Tampa Bay Rays traded ace Blake Snell to the San Diego Padres for prospects. The team that came within two wins of a World Series championship looked at its success and decided trading away its best player was preferable to spending money to get the team over the hump. A day later, the Chicago Cubs did the same thing, trading away Yu Darvish for four prospects who couldn’t break the Padres’ top-10 prospect list in 2020.
Go even further back and you’ll see nearly every team has engaged in a similar money-saving strategy over the last decade. The Boston Red Sox traded away Mookie Betts, the New York Yankees reset the luxury tax and every team cried poor when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — two generational talents — hit the free agent market.
What’s been obvious about the game for years was accentuated with a fine point Thursday: Baseball teams care far more about saving money than winning championships. How else can any of these decisions be explained?
Sure, you’ll still get a portion of fans who cape for billionaire owners and tell you the team had to make the move for financial reasons. Or that this is a rebuild and you’re too stupid to account for how these cheaper players will help down the road. That excuse might have worked in 2008, when a half season of CC Sabathia was worth a top-30 prospect. It rings hollow in 2020, when a full season of Lindor fetches the 90th-best prospect in the game.
Baseball can’t afford to keep losing its fans
For many other fans, these moves spark further frustration. Cleveland fans have supported a team that hasn’t won the World Series in over 70 years. Every time the team gets close to being a sustainable winner, it sells off stars to cut payroll. At what point do fans decide it’s not worth it? If the team’s owner is consistently sending the message he won’t try, why should the fans?
This sentiment isn’t just being felt by fans in Cleveland. Attendance has been on the decline for over a decade, suggesting fans are either fed up with how their teams have operated or have been priced out of the ballpark. Meanwhile, revenue was at an all-time high in the sport following the 2019 season. Any way you try to justify that makes it look like MLB only cares about money and catering to the elite.
The regular fan is actively being pushed away by both the league and its teams. It’s reached a point where simply acquiring good players is enough to earn teams like the Mets and Padres a week of praise. Competing has become so rare around the game that merely trying is a cause for celebration.
None of this bodes well for what’s coming. Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expires in December, and a lengthy work stoppage is possible. A number of issues — including, but not limited to, cost-cutting moves like the Lindor trade, glacial free agent markets and various rule changes — have created a deep animosity between the players and owners. Given the contentiousness of these topics, it could take months before players and owners can negotiate a common ground.
While a strike or lockout could force the parties to tackle some of baseball’s biggest problems, even those who believe the game is irrevocably broken right now realize the damage a lengthy absence would do. Fans are already eager to walk away from the game. An extended stoppage — even one some fans might view as necessary considering the current state of the game — could be enough to push them away forever.
The line between what happens on and away from the field has already started to blur. That knee-buckling curveball stops bringing enjoyment when it comes from a nameless, faceless prospect you know your team will trade away in three years. It’s much harder to celebrate Giolito’s turnaround when it’s accompanied by the thought the Chicago White Sox could use it as a selling point in trade talks during their next teardown.
Once that ability to be awed by the game gets stripped away, there aren’t many other reasons for fans to care about baseball.
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