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MLB teams want to trade away homegrown superstars, and that’s a problem

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Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians

The one known quantity on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot is Derek Jeter. The longtime Yankees shortstop will be inducted into Cooperstown in July, with the only question whether his vote will be unanimous. This will be the fourth straight year at least one player voted into the pantheon of baseball greats spent their entire career with just one team.

A single-team star might seem anachronistic, the very kind of fuel that stokes “back in my day” fires the most. But it’s still very cool. Edgar Martinez never won a championship with the Mariners, his only team — unlike Jeter, who won five with New York — but he’ll be beloved in Seattle forever.

Getting a Jeter or Martinez is the absolute ideal for amateur scouts, as are Mariano Rivera, Chipper Jones, and Jeff Bagwell, all one-team Hall of Famers elected in the last four years. Homegrown stars who play a long time for the team that drafted or first signed them. It’s what baseball should be.

But this offseason has been full of disturbing reports that several of baseball’s biggest stars — still in their prime, mind you — are being discussed in trade talks. It’s important to note that rumors don’t matter much until a trade actually happens, but there’s enough smoke here to be worried about a fire.

All Betts are off

Mookie Betts is one of the top five players in baseball, and won the AL MVP in 2018 while leading the Red Sox to a World Series win. By definition, Betts is the exact kind of player any team should try to keep long term, especially a financial behemoth like Boston.

Keeping good players has already wreaked havoc with the Red Sox financial plans this offseason, with J.D. Martinez opting to remain in Boston rather than test free agency. With Martinez and all the expected arbitration salaries, the Red Sox payroll in 2020 is projected over $226 million, well above the competitive balance tax threshold of $208 million.

That number includes $27.5 million for Betts, who has one year remaining before free agency. That’s why his name comes up in trade rumors, especially since Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said in September of keeping both Betts and Martinez, “Yes, there is a way but obviously it will be difficult given the nature of the agreements and the contracts that we have in place.”

Thank you for your service (time)

There’s another former MVP who is the subject of trade rumors this winter, and is perhaps the most likely to be dealt. Kris Bryant was the NL MVP in 2016, a season more remembered for his Cubs snapping a 108-year championship drought. Bryant, who turns 28 Saturday, should never have to pay for a meal on the north side of Chicago again.

Instead, Bryant is the subject of trade rumors, because the Cubs are becoming too expensive in the eyes of their billionaire owners. This has an interesting wrinkle because the Cubs’ own mishandling of their superstar may come back to bite them twice. You see, the Cubs waited until the ninth game of the season in 2015 to call Bryant up to the majors. He ended the season one day shy of a full year of service time, which should have delayed his free agency by a year.

But Bryant filed a grievance against the Cubs for their service time manipulation, a grievance that has been going on forever but could be reaching a conclusion soon. That the result is still pending is reportedly throwing a wrench into trade talks with the Cubs, with teams unsure if they would get Bryant for one or two years.

That, like the Cubs owners, is rich.

Cleveland rocks?

If you’ve noticed a theme with these first two superstar trade rumors, it comes from teams in two of the largest markets in baseball. But there is a theme that transcends market strength. Per Forbes in 2019, here are some franchise valuations compared to the price paid by the current owners:

Even a medium market like Cleveland has been a money-making endeavor for the Dolans, owners of the Indians. Which is why you should roll your eyes when seeing something like this.

The Indians very much have a shot at signing Francisco Lindor to a long-term contract. Their owners have seen their franchise nearly quadruple in value in two decades, and could absolutely afford it. That such a decision is being framed as something forced upon the Indians rather than a conscious, money-saving choice by the team.

Lindor has two years until free agency, and is projected to make $16.7 million through salary arbitration in 2020. In other words, he’s getting expensive. But as a switch-hitting shortstop with excellent defense and averages of 42 doubles and 34 home runs the last three years, he’s exactly the type of rare talent a team should back up the Brinks truck for.

The Indians won 93 games in 2019 but still missed the playoffs after three straight division titles. They should be doing everything possible to squeeze as many extra wins as possible to get back in the postseason, but their big move this offseason was trading away two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, a move that will benefit Cleveland in the bottom line more than the standings.

Hot corner, hot rumors

Nolan Arenado has a Gold Glove for each of his seven seasons with the Rockies, to go with five all-star selections and top-eight MVP finishes in the last five years. In theory, Colorado already kept their man, signing the wonderful third baseman to an eight-year, $260 million contract before the 2019 season. But still:

That’s four stars with their original teams, at ages 26-29 in 2020. All-stars in their prime, the exact type of players every team should want to hold onto and never let go.

Major League Baseball in the last few collective bargaining agreements neutered spending on amateur talent, first with draft slot values with penalties for going over, then with a hard cap on international spending. We’re seeing now, with the trade rumors involving Betts, Bryant, and Lindor, that even arbitration salaries are giving teams pause. Arbitration projections also hastened the jettisoning of non-stars yet productive players like Jonathan Villar, Yolmer Sanchez, and Kevin Pillar, to name a few.

These are all cost cutting measures. It extends to minor league baseball, too, with MLB’s proposed response to minor leaguers getting substandard pay is to eliminate a quarter of the minors altogether.

Major League Baseball had another record year for revenue in 2019, bringing in a reported $10.7 billion. Remember that if one or more of these stars get traded. When an owner says how hard they would have liked to keep said star in their city but they just couldn’t afford it. Just know that the owner is lying, and trading the popular star was a choice. A cost-cutting one at that.