The talent is there, the Cleveland Indians just waiting on the payoff
There is nothing more frustrating than watching a good pitcher struggle. There are dozens of lousy pitchers in the major leagues, and all that can be done about them is to hope that as many as possible sign with Detroit or Kansas City. With a guy like Trevor Bauer, though, you know that the ability is there to be a capable–possibly even dominant–major league pitcher. So when he pitches like he did Sunday, the desire to throw objects and scream indecipherable obscenities can become overwhelming.
Unless Bauer’s last four or so starts show significant improvement (odds are there will be one masterpiece, one outing where he struggles with command but gets enough key strikeouts to avoid the big inning until his pitch count knocks him out of the game, and two duds where he doesn’t get past the fourth inning. That’s not a wild guess, just the sequence of his entire season), the offseason will be devoted to wondering what to do with him. Not only among bloggers like me but, more importantly, among the movers and shakers in the Indians’ front office.
We all know that the rotation is the heart and soul of this franchise. It is reasonable to expect that, as long as Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Bauer remain effective and affordable, that the Indians will have a shot at the playoffs. This season should serve as proof of that. With the 11th ranked offense in the American League and a fifth starter spot that was a dumpster fire until the All-Star break, the Indians still find themselves on the fringes of contention. Now that the defense has seemingly been fixed, Francisco Lindor will be around for a full season, and the Swisher-Bourn millstone is off their back (couldn’t help noticing that the Braves are 6-28 since the trade. 6-28!), it seems logical to expect 2016 to be better.
That assumes, though, that Bauer will be something better than a 4.71 ERA. Anyone claiming to know whether that will happen or not is either full of crap or way smarter than me. There is ample evidence pointing in both directions. In nine starts this year, Bauer has given up five or more earned runs. With all the tools we have to analyze performance, there are none that can make that sound good. However, in sixteen starts, Bauer has gone at least six innings and given up two or fewer runs. That’s two less than Felix Hernandez. Hernandez is pretty good.
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I started this blog intending to do an analysis of what happens to cause Bauer to lose it so often, but there’s no real pattern. He walks guys and throws lots of pitches in every start, good or bad. His ground ball/fly ball ratio doesn’t show any trend like he gets the ball up when he’s getting drilled. The only pattern is that when Bauer doesn’t have it, you usually know by the second inning. There’s no Salazar issue here, where you can have a perfect game for four innings and then suddenly turn into crap. If Bauer can get through an inning or two, it’s usually smooth sailing, but if there’s a couple of hits in the first inning, you might as well get Austin Adams warmed up.
So there’s a possibility that we have the second coming of Ubaldo, and maybe we just have to live with that. But Bauer is still only 24, and he’s much better than Kluber or Carrasco were at that age. While their late-blooming success may counsel patience, we don’t want to still be having this debate in 2018. It is especially pressing to get it right in 2016, because there will be a huge temptation to use the rotation as a trade chip to boost the offense. Bauer may be that chip, in which case they would be selling low to some extent, and risking that he finds his consistency with another team. Or they may move Carrasco, which would net a better return because of his contract and performance, but that would mean you are counting on Bauer to be your second or third starter. If your number three guy has a 4.71 ERA, your rotation is no longer a strength, so if you trade Carrasco you better hope Bauer figures it out.
Personally, I would leave the rotation alone. Moving Bauer now would be selling low, always a bad idea. And having four good starters is so much better than having three. If a starter gets traded, you are banking on Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin pitching as well as they have over the last couple of weeks, and neither has enough of a long-term track record to make that a safe bet. Plus, if both Anderson and Tomlin are in the major league rotation, what does that leave in Columbus in case someone gets hurt? T.J. House? Do we even know if he will be healthy? Don’t bother looking at the prospect list, either – all of the top guys are at least a year away.
If a starter gets traded, the likely next step would be signing a free agent for depth. In a market where Rick Porcello gets more than twenty million a year, the starters in the Indians’ price range will either long on risk or short on talent. That may turn out to be Scott Kazmir, or it may turn out to be Brett Myers. The past two years the free agent gambles have been John Axford and Gavin Floyd. Think about that the next time someone tells you the Indians should trade a pitcher.