How about this for a championship-team-building strategy: Identify a superstar who is approaching free agency and whose team seems uninterested in guaranteeing him the money he inevitably will get. Trade for him. Sign him to a massive contract extension, setting him down the path of potentially wearing his new club’s cap in Cooperstown if he continues his early-career Hall of Fame trajectory for another 10-15 years.
That is what the Dodgers did this year with Mookie Betts, who got dumped by the Red Sox and has helped Los Angeles to the World Series.
And it is what the Mets, among others, have an opportunity to do this offseason with Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor.
Change is coming to the Mets in the form of hedge-fund mega-billionaire Steve Cohen, whose purchase of the franchise is pending approval by MLB and other team owners. That is expected to happen in the next couple of weeks. It is not clear yet what alterations he will make or how much money he wants to spend immediately, but his financial might — with an estimated net worth of $14 billion — is far greater than what the Mets are used to.
A quick primer on Lindor’s resume: In four full major-league seasons, he is a four-time All-Star with two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. He averaged 30 homers and 20 steals per year during that stretch. After relative down numbers in an abbreviated 2020, he has a career .285 average, .346 OBP and .488 slugging percentage. The switch hitter from Puerto Rico turns 27 next month.
It is worth noting that several top free agents play positions where the Mets are needy (or at least can stand to upgrade). That includes catcher J.T. Realmuto, starting pitcher Trevor Bauer and centerfielder George Springer.
But Lindor, perhaps better than any of the above, represents a tantalizing trade opportunity — one the Mets already have pursued. Last offseason, sources said at the time, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and his front office engaged Cleveland about their franchise player. Cleveland asked repeatedly about Jeff McNeil, and those talks never got very far.
A year later, Van Wagenen’s status is unclear — Cohen will need to decide — but so is Lindor’s. He is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2021 season, and Cleveland tends not to retain their best players once they become very expensive.
This month, after the team’s season ended with a wild-card series loss to the Yankees, Lindor admitted that it had crossed his mind that he might have played his final game with the only team he has ever known.
"It's the reputation this organization has," he said.
Lindor added that "of course" Cleveland can afford to give him a new deal. Should the team spend more money? Lindor laughed.
"I would love to say, 'Yes, spend money,'" he said. "But it's (controlling owner Paul) Dolan's money. And (president of baseball operations) Chris Antonetti knows what he's doing. He knows when to spend money and not to spend money. That's a different problem. I don't deal with that."
And thus there is an assumption that Lindor will be dealt — or at least can be had.
Would the Mets be a match? They got through 2020 with Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez at shortstop. Neither is so good that it would prevent them from adding a stud like Lindor. Rosario, 24, has progressed but hasn’t come close to his perceived ceiling as a prospect. Gimenez, 22, had a solid rookie season after being a surprise inclusion on the Opening Day roster. Perhaps Cleveland would want one or the other as part of a trade.
What would the cost be? The Betts blockbuster might be a good approximation (though in that trade the Dodgers also took on David Price’s three years and $96 million). He was a five-tool star who had one season of team control left (like Lindor does now). The Red Sox received one young major-league contributor (Alex Verdugo), one top-100 prospect (Jeter Downs) and one other decent prospect (Connor Wong). The Mets have the personnel to check those boxes without dooming their future.
The key, of course, would be to turn that one year of club control into a long career with his new team without letting Lindor hit the open market. That would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Under Cohen, that sort of move will be more realistic than ever for the Mets.