While the sight of two of the better pitchers in the league reporting to relative non-contenders at the trade deadline was curious, the conversation going forward will be of the Cleveland Indians and their clever attempt to contend and restructure simultaneously.
In a narrow market thinned further when the New York Mets struck a deal for Toronto’s Marcus Stroman three days ahead of the trade deadline, the finest starting pitcher available into the deadline’s final hours might have been Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer. He, by Tuesday night, was headed to Cincinnati in a three-way, seven-player deal that brought five players to the Indians, two of whom — Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes — should help an offense at best average in the areas of scoring and power. Puig and Reyes combined to hit 49 home runs in the first four months of the season.
At 28, in this his sixth full season, Bauer has thrown more innings than any pitcher in the game and struck out nearly 11 batters per nine. He also is under contract through the 2020 season, a factor that separated him from, for one, San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner. While statistically he has not been as productive as the pitcher who finished last season with a 2.21 ERA with a WHIP barely over 1 and was sixth in the Cy Young Award voting, Bauer is an edgy competitor who also has pitched reasonably well in the postseason, when healthy.
Even as the Indians make their own midseason move in the AL Central and toward the playoffs, Bauer’s salary had grown beyond their stated means, and therefore they engaged in conversations that would have Bauer pitching elsewhere for the final two months of the regular season. In this model, the Indians — team president Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff — are attempting to honor the club that has lifted itself from 11 games behind the Minnesota Twins in mid-June to two back in late July, while also tending to the inevitability of the coming winter.
Starter Mike Clevinger is pitching well again after spending two-and-a-half months on the injured list and Corey Kluber, who suffered a broken arm on the first day of May, is expected to return in the coming weeks, developments that could cover for Bauer’s innings.
Shane Bieber has a 2.57 ERA (and 70 strikeouts in 56 innings) in his past eight starts. Rookie Zach Plesac has a July ERA of 1.93. Adam Plutko has been effective in spots. Danny Salazar, who’d not thrown a major league pitch since 2017 because of shoulder issues, was activated before Tuesday night’s game in Cleveland. Salazar was an All-Star in 2016.
Suddenly, the Indians were dealing from depth in a pitching-starved league and in a sellers’ market while they — the Indians — sought offensive upgrades at several positions. For that reason, Bauer could be had.
It would be no surprise, then, when pitching-needy teams lined up for a chance at Bauer, among them American League powerhouses such as the New York Yankees and Houston Astros and, ultimately, the dark-horse Reds. This was where the market would get interesting for a wholly talented and occasionally divisive player.
To have formed an opinion on Bauer because of Sunday’s tantrum, in which he heaved a ball over the center-field wall in Kansas City, was to have missed his first six years in the league. Teammates generally like Bauer. There is no doubting his work ethic, his ability or his belief in himself and his preparation practices. In his final year of salary arbitration, Bauer also would have drawn a salary of at least $18 million, and probably more.
And, so, ultimately, the Indians banked on the return of two starting pitchers, believed in the return of another, and made a play to get better ahead of the inevitable, which was to trade Bauer this winter. It was a bold move, a possible sledgehammer as they drew nearer the Twins, and at the same time delightfully clever at a time when it seems most everyone else holds themselves to the options of win now or tear down.
The Indians managed a little of both.
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