Ain’t that a Shane: Is Bieber on his way out with the Guardians?

May 7, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Guardians starting pitcher Shane Bieber (57) walks off the field after being relieved during the fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Shane Bieber hasn’t been quite as dominant as usual to start the 2022 season, so is it possible the Guardians could potentially trade him?

It’s no secret that the Cleveland Guardians like to date around when it comes to pitchers.

For a team known for quality pitching, they sure move through aces. Cleveland’s 2018 roster featured four starting pitchers with ERAs under 3.50. None of them are still on the team.

Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger comprised three of the four (Carlos Carrasco was the fourth). Each player in that trio shares a common quality – the team was willing to trade them while they still offered relatively good value. Sure, Kluber was hurt for a year, Clevinger broke COVID-19 protocols, and Bauer threw an infamous temper tantrum on the mound. But if the team really wanted to keep the players, they would have. Consider how Zach Plesac broke COVID-19 protocols alongside Clevinger, yet the club didn’t trade him.

The upshot is that the Guardians are clearly not enamored with superstar pitchers. They rarely overpay to keep them, and they often move them. The Guardians have great faith in their ability to develop pitching, and they’ve often been right – until recently, Aaron Civale and Plesac were both great examples.

So, what does this mean for current ace Shane Bieber?

Bieber clearly offers great value at the moment. He has slumped to start this season, but Bieber’s “slump” has still included a 3.72 ERA and a 1.267 WHIP. He’s coming off a campaign that was solid until injuries derailed it, and just two years ago, he accrued an impressive 3.2 bWAR in only 12 games.

Bieber’s position is reminiscent of Clevinger’s prior to his 2020 trade. Clevinger had an ERA of 3.18 when the club moved him mid-season, and the previous season, he finished with a 2.71 ERA. Clevinger was 29 when Cleveland traded him; Bieber is turning 28 at the end of the month. Clevinger had accrued a similar amount of service time to what Bieber has earned, and Bieber’s salary is only slightly higher than Clevinger’s was when Cleveland traded him.

Does the Clevinger trade indicate that Cleveland is willing to move Bieber, too? That depends. First, it’s unclear whether the Clevinger trade would have happened without Clevinger breaking COVID-19 protocols. That said, the fact that the team kept one offender (Plesac) and traded the other suggests the incident was not the main reason. Cleveland was likely willing to move Clevinger before his actions.

Second, does the club have a different philosophy now? For starters, the franchise made a huge decision in extending third baseman José Ramírez. This was the kind of cash investment the team has refrained from in the past. It might make us think they’re willing to pay more to keep cornerstone players these days. But the problem is that the Guardians haven’t usually seen aces as cornerstone players, and we don’t know if that’s changed.

It could be different now, of course. In 2020, the team was flush with promising pitchers. Among the team’s top ten bWAR producers, four were starting pitchers. The 2022 Guardians have one starting pitcher (Triston McKenzie) in their top ten. They also have seen promising players like Civale regress. It’s not clear that the Guardians have the pitching depth they once had, which might mean they’re less willing to move on from someone with Bieber’s talent.

The Guardians are also suddenly facing brighter offensive prospects. They have the highest team batting average in the American League, a stunning reversal from their pitching-first past. They don’t necessarily need to find more prospects when youngsters like Owen Miller and Josh Naylor (products of the Clevinger trade) are producing.

That doesn’t mean the team will keep Bieber; it only suggests that they probably should. But Bieber is up against a consistent track record, dating back at least to the late 2000s with hurlers like Cliff Lee. I won’t be surprised if the team moves on from Bieber – but I might still be sad when they do.