It was hard not to be a bit cynical earlier this week when Trevor Bauer’s agent, Rachel Luba, felt compelled to declare via Twitter that “We are open to and will be considering ALL types of deals” when free agency opens next month.
As one MLB team executive said to me, “You mean he might take $250 million guaranteed instead of going year-to-year in free agency like he said he would? I’m shocked to hear that.’’
Or to put it another way: Perhaps even iconoclasts have their price.
One thing’s for sure, Bauer’s free agency, which may or may not lead to his pitching for the Mets next season, is shaping up to be a fascinating affair. It’s partly because he will be the best available starter on the market -- and likely the 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner -- but also because he is as brash and unconventional as he is talented.
Bauer is so outspoken at times, in fact, that his personality has to be taken into account by any team pursuing him.
“You have to be willing to accept that he’ll be a distraction at times,” said a source who interacted with Bauer during his years with the Cleveland Indians. “He wants to win and tries to be a team guy for the most part, but he’s going to do things his way and he’s going to speak his mind. He’s just wired that way and there’s bound to be controversy because of it.
“None of that stuff seems to affect him, from a performance standpoint, but it makes his bosses uncomfortable. It might hurt his market as a free agent if he wasn’t coming off such a tremendous season. But his timing is perfect.”
Yes, Bauer is coming off a career year, pitching to a 1.73 ERA over 11 starts in this pandemic-shortened season, plus a brilliant postseason start in which he held the Braves scoreless on two hits with 12 strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings.
Bauer had one other ace-like season, pitching to a 2.21 ERA over 27 starts for the Indians in 2018, when he had a real shot at the Cy Young Award before an injury in September essentially took him out of the mix.
In 2019, meanwhile, he was having a solid season with the Indians but was traded shortly after irritating Terry Francona by whirling and throwing the baseball over the center field wall as the manager was coming to take him out of a game, and Bauer didn’t react well to the deal, pitching poorly for the Reds in August and September.
In general, however, the consensus among scouts and execs I spoke to is that Bauer has blossomed into a dominant starter over the last few years. Most significantly, they say, he’s learned to pitch upstairs with his 94-95 mph fastball for strikeouts, while developing a cutter that gets a high percentage of swings and misses, in addition to his impressive slider and curveball.
“He’s always had great stuff,” said one scout, “but he’s become much more consistent with his command of all of his pitches. He doesn’t make many mistakes, and the cutter has given him a weapon that has made him tougher on left-handed hitters. He knows how to pitch too. He’s not Gerrit Cole, but he’s a legit No. 1.”
Cole, of course, was the prize of last year’s free-agent market, signed by the Yankees to a record-breaking contract of nine years, $324 million.
Will Bauer, who turns 30 in January, come close to that type of money? The people I spoke to think it’s more likely he’ll wind up with something closer to the seven-year, $245 million deal that Stephen Strasburg signed to remain with the Nationals last winter.
“Last year was a perfect storm for Cole with the Yankees desperate for an ace,” one team exec said. “Nobody’s going (to do) nine years for Bauer. He should be in the Strasburg range, but there’s a lot of uncertainty because of the Covid-environment and the revenue teams lost, so it’s hard to say for sure.
“Some teams may see him as the guy who can get them over the top. And then the wild card is Steve Cohen: is he going to throw big money at the top guys to have a major impact right away?”
Indeed it seems the specter of Cohen, the Mets’ new owner if voted in by MLB’s other owners, is very much on the minds of people in baseball. His name came up quickly in every conversation I had this week, all of them watching with great curiosity as to how quickly he’ll spend some of his billions.
“There’s a lot of speculation in the industry,” one exec said. “Bringing in Sandy Alderson makes me think maybe he wants to spend internally to build around scouting and development, but when you look at their roster, what sticks out is (Jacob) deGrom. If you have one of the very best pitchers in the game already in his 30s, your window to win with him is relatively short.
“So if he’s got all this money, and his new team is short on pitching, you’d think he’ll see Bauer as someone he could pair with deGrom at the top of the rotation and take a shot at winning.”
As for who else would be willing to spend big on Bauer, the teams that other execs and scouts speculated on most were the White Sox and the Angels.
The White Sox because they’re loaded with young talent and after making the playoffs in 2020, could see adding Bauer to a rotation with Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel as a final piece to a championship.
The Angels because they have the money and they’re desperate for quality starting pitching to give them at shot at making the postseason and stop wasting the presence of Mike Trout, the best player in baseball.
As for the Yankees, everyone I spoke to offered the usual qualifier that they never count them out on such moves, but the consensus is that they don’t see Hal Steinbrenner spending huge money on Bauer just a year after opening the vault to sign Cole. As SNY reported, the Yankees will be on a tight budget this winter.
“They’re locked into two mega-deals with Cole and (Giancarlo) Stanton, and they need to re-sign (DJ) LeMahieu,” said one exec. “And the owner has to be mad as hell that he lost to a team (the Rays) that has a payroll one-third the size of his. I don’t see any way they’ll be in on Bauer.”
Of course, there’s always the possibility that Bauer could make it more tempting for a team like the Yankees by sticking to the claim he made a few months ago, when he said he would only sign one-year deals as a free agent as a way of maximizing his earning potential and assuring himself that he wouldn’t be stuck in a place where he wasn’t happy.
However, that was before he put himself in such a prime position to cash in this winter.
“Look, with Bauer you never know,” said the source who knows him from his days in Cleveland. “And I could see him wanting to take a one-year deal for more than the $36 million Cole is making so he could say he’s the highest-paid pitcher in the game.
“But he’s no dummy either. He knows he’s never going to have this type of leverage again, coming off a Cy Young season as he’s about to turn 30 in a year when he’s by far the best pitcher on the market.”
Which brings us back to what Bauer’s agent tweeted earlier this week about being open to “ALL types of deals.”
In other words, if the Mets want him, it’s probably going to take something in that Strasburg neighborhood to sign him.