Free agency season comes storming in accompanied by weather that gets colder by the day. Frigid temperatures serve as a reminder to fans of upper echelon major league baseball clubs that Christmas has arrived a few weeks early. With their deep pockets in tow, these members of the privileged class are entitled to an annual post-Thanksgiving free for all in which they feast on the owner’s checkbook to supplement their current rosters. In addition to being in play for all the large names that bless the free agent class, the rich clubs can snipe controlled players from smaller markets due to impending contract hikes or even cost unpredictability.
Fans of teams with lower payrolls are conditioned to believe that their club cannot compete on an even playing field. Without diverting into a diatribe about the merit of such beliefs, the harsh reality remains that the Cleveland Indians have a much tighter budget than that of the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers. If these market limitations were nonexistent, current trade rumors wouldn’t feature the name of a two-time Cy Young winner. Alas, as December nears, the Indians are discussing dealing a top end starter to reallocate resources in their quest for a fourth consecutive American League Central title.
To the dismay of their fanbase, Indians executives have made it known that they are willing to discuss a deal involving their trio of ace-caliber righties that would fit right in at the top of any rotation. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer are all in play. Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber are off limits. There are a variety of reasons for this distinction, most importantly that Clevinger and Bieber make next to nothing while Kluber, Carrasco, and Bauer will each make more than ten million in 2019.
Let us assume that Indians’ ownership is truly cash-strapped and simply cannot afford to increase payroll in any manner. In that world, it makes sense to survey the landscape of a Kluber, Carrasco, or Bauer trade. The outfield is a mess. The bullpen is a cloud of uncertainty. The next few years of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez cannot go to waste. Dealing from the plethora of starting arms makes sense, especially considering the value that can be attained in such a deal.
In terms of the potential deals, it is imperative that the Indians choose the right asset to package and send elsewhere. Choosing the right asset is a two-fold venture. First, one must be chosen that can net a significant return. All three of the Indians options – Kluber, Carrasco, and Bauer – should net a considerable asset package in return if chosen. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Indians front office personnel must walk the tightrope of extracting value from the one they deem will be least prohibitive in terms of gaining future value. Simply, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff are tasked with identifying which pitcher’s absence will hurt the least over the next couple years. This is far from an easy task, as other teams are privy to the same data and have eliminated the analytical gap, but that is the job for a small market front office executive.
In order to identify whether Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, or Carlos Carrasco wearing another uniform will hurt the most, there are many data points to consider. Among these data points, the two that appear most important are projections and contract.
All three pitchers were quite effective in 2018 – in varying ways. Corey Kluber demonstrated an ability to get hitters out without an elite strikeout rate. Carlos Carrasco shielded a slight velocity drop by optimizing breaking ball usage. Trevor Bauer finally took that leap into stardom. A glass half full perspective yields reasons to believe in any of the three.
There are, however, concerns. Kluber’s strikeout rate decline didn’t hurt his overall numbers as one might expect, but the velocity drop was real and is a legitimate concern. The 2017 Cy Young winner is at peak effectiveness when his fastball velocity lies in the 93 to 94 miles per hour neighborhood, while in late 2018 we saw that number dwindle to career lows a couple ticks lower on the radar gun. The slider follows the same pattern. Carrasco saw a similar velocity drop but was able to supplement it with enough breaking balls to mitigate strikeout losses. Inexplicably, Kluber ventured away from his best weapon, the curveball, in the same time frame.
Steamer projections view Kluber as the consistent favorite as far as 2019 wins above replacement, which is hard to argue given the last few years of data. The most recent data points, though, are difficult to ignore, and featured a Trevor Bauer that flirted with being unhittable most frequently. As the youngest of the trio, it is hard to objectively look at the next two years and determine that the aging Kluber or Carrasco will provide more value in a playoff race.
Corey Kluber’s main selling point is an extra year of control, albeit at a steeper cost than the other two. Kluber is locked up through 2021 and is owed 46.5 million over those three seasons. Carrasco is signed through 2020 and owed 19.25 million for the two years. Bauer will also become a free agent following the 2020 season, with escalating costs pending performance. MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Trevor Bauer will earn around 11 million in 2019 and that number likely ascends to around 15 million in 2020, accumulating to 26 million for two years of work.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say that each starter will accumulate four WAR in each of the remaining years on their contracts. While that is conservative, I’d say Trevor Bauer is more likely to exceed that than either of the other two but keeping it at four provides a stable foundation. Under these circumstances, Kluber would be owed 46.5 million for 12 WAR, amounting to 3.9 million dollars per WAR. Carrasco would be owed 19.25 million for 8 WAR, totaling 2.4 million dollars per WAR. Bauer checks in around 26 million for 8 WAR, adding up to 3.25 million dollars per WAR.
Kluber is the most expensive, provided you believe the other two can compete at his level. The extra year of control could even entice a bigger return. Dealing Kluber would theoretically be less inhibitive from a future win and dollar standpoint, which is the name of the game for the Indians front office this winter. The one they must hold onto, though, is Carlos Carrasco. His value is not something that can be replicated, from a cost and future output standpoint. Personally, I believe it would be tough to justify parting ways with Trevor Bauer, as well. His ceiling seems to be the highest of the trio over the next couple years.
Whatever decision is made, it will be an important one. Shedding salary of relatively cheap players is not an easy task to sell to a fanbase that is rightfully skeptical of any move made primarily to save money – and let’s not get this wrong, any Kluber, Carrasco, or Bauer trade is first and foremost centered around unloading aging salary.