You can never have enough pitching. Coming into 2019 the Cleveland Indians were willing to meet that statement with a “hold my beer” – prompting subsequent trade rumors for both Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer throughout the entire off-season. Boasting five high caliber starting pitchers allows the luxury of at least testing the waters – you never know what might arise from those discussions. However, the resulting moves were nil and both found their way back with the good guys for the start of the 2019 season. But the outcome of those rumors is not lost on even the casual Indians fan. As reported, Tribe brass asked for the moon for both – a sentiment that has cascaded to this point in the season.
Fast forward four months. Speculation surrounding a Bauer trade still looms. The Tribe starter has 1.5 years of control remaining with 2020 being his final year of arbitration. Based on his arbitration trajectory he is expected to earn anywhere from $18mm – $22mm – no doubt a red flag to the front office who spent the 2018 off-season shedding payroll. Bauer’s trade value is also at a higher point now than will be after this season based on the fact that he will be available for two postseasons.
I truly believe that Trevor Bauer will leave the Indians via trade – but not now. The Tribe cannot trade him now. And among all of the reasons, but the biggest one is probably one that you would not expect.
1 – We no longer have the overflow of riches at starting pitcher
Heading into last off-season, the Tribe had what nearly anyone paying attention would describe as the best rotation in baseball. That luxury is at least temporarily lost. The big five has now dwindled to the big three – Bauer, Bieber and Mike Clevinger fresh off of a stint on the 60-day IL. A rotation that was sure to lead all of baseball in nearly every statistical category still finds itself in the top third of baseball. But that rotation has trotted out ten different starters (not counting Tyler Clippard’s “opener”), only two of which have eclipsed 100 innings on the year and only a total of three have over 50 innings pitched. Bauer leads the team in innings pitched at 138 and is second in WAR with 2.2 behind Bieber (116 IP/3.2 WAR). Clevinger has yet to pitch 30 innings this season and Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco’s remaining 2019 contributions are unknown. Cleveland has relied on Jefry Rodriguez, Zack Plesac, Adam Plutko, and Aaron Civale to help plug holes; but it remains to be seen whether or not they can help carry this team to the postseason.
2 – We are still in a divisional and wild-card race
Just in case you missed it, the Indians have dwindled what once was an 11.5 game deficit down to four games. They are also deadlocked with Oakland for the second wild-card spot, trailing wild card leader Tampa Bay by only one game. This team appears far improved from the squad which floundered through May. Selling from what is now a fragile area of strength would be a mistake. Depth at starting pitcher has been drained. It is still undetermined whether players like Plesac and Plutko can carry the weight of a full season. And do the Tribe really want to force Plutko and his 6.86 FIP to be a mandatory mainstay in the rotation? Keeping Bauer in the fold is a must for this squad to overcome the arduous task of supplanting the Minnesota Twins atop the AL Central.
3 – What is Trevor Bauer’s true market? The elephant in the room
Trevor Bauer has worked his way into the hearts of many Indians fans. From the drone incident on through to his Cy Young worthy 2018, his star has risen in the eyes of most. The front office places a great deal of value and would require a king’s ransom to move him. But if we cast aside every other reason to not trade him, what would his true value in the market be? Will he garner the return that most Tribe fans would expect? For starters, we need to see who else is known to be available.
The table above includes the top end of starting pitchers known as being shopped before July 31st. Five pitchers, all around the same age with varying contractual obligations (asterisk denotes arbitration estimates). First, note that Trevor Bauer is the highest paid of the bunch in 2019 coming in at $13mm to Madison Bumgarner’s $12mm. With the exception of Bumgarner, whose price tag is unknown at this point, he is sure to be the highest-paid of this group in 2020. While years of control have been a premium in recent years, it is possible for the estimated price on Bauer to be a detriment to teams looking to add an arm for a postseason run. When juxtaposing Bauer and Marcus Stroman, for instance, the value placed on the latter would be expected to be much higher than the former based on similar years of control with less current and expected future monetary obligation. Similarly, Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler come with less control but also lack the future obligation component which may appeal to some teams. Wheeler is currently dealing with shoulder fatigue, so it’s possible his name is erased from this list. Matthew Boyd is an outlier as he still has three years of arbitration remaining. Other pitchers such as Noah Syndergaard have been tossed into the mix so there may be a few surprises who are not listed. Monetary value aside, their 2019 performances are sure to help lend some clarity to their overall value on the field.
Based on the metrics above, one could argue that Trevor Bauer is at the bottom of the list as far as performance is concerned this season. In fact, his FIP is nearly 1/2 point higher than the next highest. His strikeout totals are there, but the metrics do not necessarily support his 3.65 earned run average. Based on this information, coupled with the price tag, it is safe to say that there are at least better options on the market if not multiple better options.
A quick check of career numbers to look for outliers shows that Boyd is over performing his historical numbers in 2019 while Bumgarner is underperforming them. Both Wheeler and Stroman are locked into what has been an expected FIP level based on their career numbers. Bauer falls into the category of underperformance with regard to FIP while his WAR is tracking right with his pace. The WAR rate illustrated is expected WAR per 150 innings pitched. As can be seen, Bauer is middle of the pack with this rate trailing Stroman and Bumgarner while edging out Wheeler (barely) and Boyd. Suffice it to say, there is nothing historically that makes Trevor Bauer clearly more appealing than the other players on this list.
Finally, we have to look at the potential trade partners with which the Tribe must match up. Above is a list of the 13 teams whose postseason odds exceed 20%. Teams such as the Dodgers, Nationals, and Rays can be immediately excluded from this list as they boast ample starting pitching for their pursuits. The remaining nine teams come with a mixed bag of opportunity. Teams like the Astros, Yankees, and Braves are near locks to make the postseason and have been reported as seeking starting pitchers and show vulnerability in their current rotations. The Twins have also been tied to starting pitchers but to date have been less vulnerable as have the Cubs and Red Sox. The Brewers, Phillies, and Cardinals round out the list with both the highest need for starting pitchers and also the lowest odds to reach the postseason. Nine teams possibly vying for starting pitching and five who need it. The likelihood of all five making a large splash to acquire it seems very faint given the postseason odds which accompany some of that list. If we place Bauer at the top of the “available” list, he would garner a handsome return. But if teams value him toward the bottom, we can expect to get far less than we would have received last off-season.
This was a long-winded way of saying that the Indians cannot trade Trevor Bauer. Without the supporting complement of starters, this team would be left depleted for what is shaping up to be an intense march to the finish. Beyond that, the market does not appear to be shaping up for the Herculean return that most Tribe fans would expect. The days of Alex Verdugo, Kyle Tucker and Clint Frazier are all but gone. Bauer’s 2018 season appears to be an exceptional outlier in a still solid career. The $20mm price tag could be considered a barrier to trade given the ripeness of the market. Expectations on what Trevor Bauer will bring back should be tempered and as such, the front office will refrain moving their workhorse amidst a postseason push. Like it or not, for 2019 at least, it’s Bauer or bust.