FOR SIX YEARS, Francisco Lindor was the smiling face of the Cleveland Guardians, helping the team reach the World Series in 2016, making four All-Star teams, hitting 30-plus home runs three times, winning two Gold Glove awards and finishing in the top 10 of MVP voting three times. Even now, in the third season since the Guardians traded Lindor to the New York Mets, Cleveland’s Chris Antonetti reiterates how difficult it was to trade away their superstar shortstop.

“Our clear preference all along was to have Francisco play a really long time in Cleveland and we made substantial efforts to make it happen, but in the end that wasn’t going to be our reality,” the Guardians’ president of baseball operations said recently from the dugout at Fenway Park as his team took batting practice.

The Mets’ side of the trade has been well publicized: They acquired Lindor and pitcher Carlos Carrasco before the 2021 season for young infielders Amed Rosario, Andres Gimenez and two prospects, then signed Lindor to a 10-year, $341 million contract extension right before Opening Day.

Lindor’s first season with the Mets was mostly a disaster as he hit under .200 the first two months. Then, while the Mets were collapsing out of the playoff race in August, Lindor and teammate Javier Baez, upset with booing Mets fans, delivered their infamous “thumbs down” to the home crowd.

Last season went much better. The Mets won 101 games as Lindor hit .270 with 26 home runs and 107 RBIs, good for 5.5 bWAR, and finished ninth in the MVP voting (Carrasco chipped in with 15 wins, after winning just one game in 2021). The performance was right in line with what Lindor did from 2016 to 2019, when he averaged 5.7 WAR per season, and he won back Mets fans in the process.

It was not, however, the best season from a player involved in the trade.

While the initial reactions to the Lindor trade heavily favored the Mets, what nobody foresaw was the kind of season Gimenez had in 2022, as he helped lead a young Guardians team to a surprising ALDS berth (while the Mets were upset in the wild-card round). Gimenez hit .297/.371/.466 on the season for a 141 OPS+, won a Gold Glove at second base and finished sixth in the MVP voting. Baseball-Reference put his total value at 7.4 WAR, higher than Lindor’s career high of 7.2.

The deal was panned as a salary dump for Cleveland by many as soon as it was made, but add up the value of the players involved in the trade since 2021, and we get this:

Gimenez/Rosario: 15.8 WAR

Lindor/Carrasco: 9.9 WAR

And that’s before factoring in salaries. Antonetti wouldn’t put it in these terms, but the trade has been a win for the Guardians, even if it hasn’t exactly been a loss for the Mets.

With the Mets hosting the Guardians on Sunday Night Baseball (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) — Cleveland’s first visit to Citi Field since the trade — let’s look back at the blockbuster deal, focusing on why it has worked out for the Guardians, especially when so many similar trades — dealing a franchise player heading into free agency — don’t go well.

ANTONETTI IS NO stranger to the way Cleveland has operated over the past couple of decades.

This may be hard to believe from the perspective of 2023, but Cleveland ran top-five payrolls in 2000 and 2001. After years of futility, the franchise had become a playoff regular that routinely drew sold-out crowds to see a powerful lineup filled with stars like Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Roberto Alomar. But, coinciding with a change in ownership, that spending dropped to 12th in 2002 — and all of those players were gone by the start of the following season. Other than a three-year span from 2017 to 2019, it hasn’t ranked above 20th since.

If you’re not spending to retain your own players or bring in big free agents, a franchise like Cleveland must keep the talent churning to win. You can’t afford to keep losing stars like Belle, Ramirez and Thome, who all left via free agency, without getting young talent in return.

Under this new philosophy, Cleveland fared better when it traded ace pitcher Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos in 2002, acquiring prospects Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips, plus major league first baseman Lee Stevens. Antonetti was then a young executive with the club.

“I remember the headlines: ‘Indians acquire Stevens and three minor leaguers,'” Antonetti recalled, mentioning that trade as a reminder that initial reactions to big deals are often wrong — or at least premature.

Lee went on to win a Cy Young Award with Cleveland while Sizemore became one of the best all-around players in the game before injuries shortened his career. (Cleveland traded Phillips to Cincinnati, where he became an All-Star second baseman.)

With this first-hand experience in mind, Antonetti considered multiple offers on Lindor — who was entering his final season before free agency when the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement ahead of the 2021 season. Trading him wasn’t necessarily an automatic decision: The Guardians had won 90-plus games each season from 2016 to 2019 and went 35-25 in 2020 to make their fourth playoff appearance in five seasons. This was a franchise trying to win, not one in the middle of a rebuilding process, and that had some influence on the deal the Guardians ultimately made with the Mets.

Rosario had been the Mets’ regular shortstop since the final two months of the 2017 season. He had been a consensus top-10-overall prospect entering that season and once looked like a potential cornerstone for the Mets. He hadn’t reached those heights, topping out with a solid 3.0-WAR season in 2019, and struggled in the COVID-shortened season as the Mets soured on his defense. Gimenez had made the Opening Day roster in 2020, still a few weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, and served as a utility player that season.

“With Amed, he’d had a number of years already in the majors and it was evident he would continue to contribute at the major league level,” Antonetti said. “With Andres, he had a little bit of a different development path. He skipped over Triple-A entirely. We really liked the set of skills he had and a lot of the information we had about his makeup and the type of worker he is, but I think we were realistic in knowing that he may not be at the point where he was ready to thrive as a major league player yet.”

DESPITE THAT, THE Guardians began the 2021 season with Gimenez as their starting shortstop and the more experienced Rosario spending most of his time in center field — a position he had never played before. This matched what many saw in 2020 and the defensive metrics confirmed it: Gimenez looked like the better shortstop, although Rosario had improved after some struggles early in his Mets tenure.

Antonetti explained: “The thought process was, ‘How do we put the best team on the field?’ And we felt that alignment allowed us to do that. I would give a ton of credit to Amed. He’s an extraordinary teammate. All he cares about is helping the team and finding a way to win, and that’s been evident in his time with us. That allowed us to consider some of those different options.”

Rosario was diplomatic about the move as well, saying, “Center field is still a premium defensive position, so I was fine making the switch.”

Despite Rosario’s plus speed, it wasn’t the smoothest of transitions. When Gimenez struggled at the plate early in 2021, hitting .179 through mid-May, he was sent down to Triple-A and Rosario returned to shortstop on a full-time basis. When Gimenez returned to the majors in August, he was now a second baseman with Rosario remaining at shortstop. The club kept that as the alignment for 2022.

Gimenez’s defensive metrics at second base were outstanding, including 16 defensive runs saved, and the eye test certainly confirmed his outstanding range. Rosario’s metrics were either below average (Statcast’s out above average) or just fine (plus-4 DRS). Either way, the Guardians were content with the arrangement: They allowed the eighth-lowest batting average on grounders and won the American League Central with Gimenez and Rosario combining for 11.6 WAR — the best middle infield combo in the majors, via Baseball-Reference WAR.

At the end of spring training, the Guardians signed Gimenez to a seven-year, $106.5 million contract, a deal that could be worth $130 million if the team picks up a 2030 club option. Gimenez’s offensive numbers are down early on in 2023, and it’s possible that 2022 will prove to be a career year at the plate, but he’s still very young and brings huge value in the field and on the bases. Even hitting .238/.313/.361, he has been worth 1.2 WAR in a quarter of a season — that’s still a 4- to 5-win player, and the Guardians will happily take that for the next eight seasons.

Both teams enter the series at Citi Field scuffling under .500 — the Mets, in particular, have been reeling of late in all phases of the game. The Guardians are struggling for runs, ranking last in the majors in home runs, and Rosario’s numbers at the plate are also down from 2022. Rosario didn’t turn into the star once projected of him, but he’s a solid major leaguer — and Gimenez may turn into the star nobody expected.

Rosario, for one, is looking forward to his return to New York, holding no ill feelings about his time with the Mets or getting traded away. “They’re the organization that gave me my first opportunity, so I’ll always be thankful for that,” he says.

I suspect Mets fans may even give the pair a nice ovation — while quietly wondering if they would like them back.

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