I regret to inform you that the discourse has now shifted to trading José Ramírez.
Nobody wants to think about trading the team’s best position player of the decade — and yes I’m including Francisco Lindor in that comparison — but it’s hard to ignore the reality that José Ramírez is as good as gone either after 2021 or at the 2022 trade deadline. And based on what we saw with Lindor’s trade value, sooner is more likely than later.
Ramírez, unlike that greedy fellow Lindor, decided to show loyalty to the Cleveland franchise and signed a five-year, $26 million contract in early 2017. This bought out all three of his arbitration years and would cut into two years of free agency, theoretically keeping him in Cleveland through the 2023 season.
At the time he signed the deal, he was not quite yet the perennial MVP candidate we know him as now. He was merely coming off a breakout season in which he slashed .312/.363/.462, 11 home runs, and was worth 4.7 wins to a team who came within one swing of winning the World Series. Not bad for a utility player.
Since then, Ramírez has been worth 21.2 fWAR and hit 108 home runs, been an All-Star twice, won three silver sluggers, stole 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in a single season, and finished second in MVP voting. For all of that, he has been paid around $9 million in total. He’ll virtually double his lifetime earnings in 2021 when he makes another $9 million. He is due $12 million and $14 million in a pair of team options for 2022 and 2023, respectively.
Evaluated at a fair market equivalent of roughly $8 million per win, José Ramírez has provided Cleveland somewhere around $170 million worth of production since he signed in 2017, or a $161 million surplus.
In exchange for his loyalty, for vastly over-performing the contract he signed when he was a bright-eyed 24-year-old looking at life-changing money, Cleveland has stripped away all but two of the teammates he had in that 2017 season. They took all the surplus-value he provided — the infinite roster flexibility — spit on it, and sank the budget from its $134.35 million peak in 2018 to the $23 million it stands at today (don’t worry, it’ll rocket close to $40 million after arbitration).
They have wasted some of his best years, and as he enters his prime and nears the dreaded age of 30, he will be dumped to the wayside in exchange for some prospects in the name of efficiency. Like they did before Carlos Carrasco reached his 10-5 rights and the right to decline a trade (thus lowering his trade value), they will find the opportune time to ship José Ramírez for the maximum return.
The current state of Cleveland’s roster can optimistically be called retooling. It’s not a full-blown rebuild — they still feature one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and with José Ramírez still on the roster, they have an MVP candidate capable of carrying a lineup over short bursts. They have an outstanding defensive catcher behind the plate, a couple of promising players brought over from the Mets, and Nolan Jones on the verge of getting his shot.
This is not a team completely void of talent. Nowhere near where they should be if they were willing to put forth even a little bit of money to maintain it — but not completely void.
Still, they are in a situation more akin to the pre-2016 years than the years of success after it. The slow burn of their farm system, which has been swelling since they started getting aggressive in the international market and stopped drafting bad outfielders in the first round, is inching towards the majors.
The majority of their top prospects — George Valera, Tyler Freeman, Bryan Rocchio, Bo Naylor, Gabriel Arias just to name a few from FanGraphs’ rankings — have an ETA of 2023 or earlier. Cleveland clearly knows this, and they are doing their best to patchwork a team together until those young players come up and hopefully produce. By they’re acclimated enough to contribute to another run at the World Series, José Ramírez will most likely to be gone or in his final team option year where ownership will have to decide if a generational talent is worth paying $14 million for. A difficult decision, to be sure.
Given what we saw with Lindor’s plummeting trade value with only a year left on his deal, it would be surprising to see Cleveland go down that road again with Ramírez. They now have the cover of a clear retooling to trade him, unlike with Lindor where they still interested in racking up as many regular-season as possible.
Trading Ramírez before 2022 is the logical thing to do at this point. Keeping him until the very end of his contract would mean his age-31 season, and even if he wanted to sign on longer than that, it’s a legitimate question about how much Cleveland — or any team — should be willing to dish out in the hopes that he can defy age.
But make no mistake about it, Cleveland put themselves in this situation by penny-pinching and refusing to build up around the excellent core they had for almost half a decade. They had every chance to be sitting comfortably in José’s final two years, pushing for another World Series title. There is no reason for José to be the final cog of the 2016 machine being dismantled for its bare parts, but it’s where they are and it’s what has to be done.
Because, like a car driven off the lot, the longer Cleveland holds onto José Ramírez and any semblance of a soul they have, the less their precious asset is worth. In the end, that's all that really matters.