Trevor Bauer’s name has continued to be kicked around the rumor mill even as the Indians have narrowed the gap with the division-leading Twins. Zack Meisel of The Athletic chatted with Cleveland GM Mike Chernoff this week (subscription required) about the possibility of a Bauer trade and the delicate balance of trying to win in 2019 while also maintaining a competitive long-term core.
Chernoff spoke frequently about the “future sustainability” of Cleveland’s competitiveness, and while he understandably didn’t make any direct mention of Bauer’s availability (or lack thereof), the GM implied that the club will have to make some tough decisions.
“I also think we’re at a different point organizationally, like we were in the offseason, where a lot more of our guys are maturing on their contracts and so, regardless of our competitive position, you explore different things than you otherwise would have,” said Chernoff. (Cleveland, of course, cut substantial payroll this past offseason and reportedly even discussed moving Bauer and Corey Kluber over the winter.) Chernoff went on to acknowledge the need for “creative” ways to help the organization and a possible “continuation of the offseason plan.”
None of that is a declaration that Bauer will be traded to the highest bidder, but it also doesn’t sound as if such a move is expressly being ruled out. The Indians recently welcomed Mike Clevinger back from the injured list, and they’ve received strong work from sophomore Shane Bieber as well. Rookie Zach Plesac has been a pleasant surprise, too, although fielding-independent metrics suggest that he’s unlikely to sustain his solid ERA.
Beyond Bauer and that trio, Cleveland’s options have been questionable. Adam Plutko and Jefry Rodriguez have pitched poorly. Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia, and while his prognosis is thankfully positive, there’s no telling when or if he’ll return in 2019. As such, Bauer is functioning as a vital member of the Cleveland rotation at present, and dealing him away would thin out a rotation that is already shaky after its top few spots.
That said, the Indians could soon welcome a two-time Cy Young winner back into the fold. Manager Terry Francona told reporters today that Kluber will throw a 20-pitch bullpen session tomorrow — his first since sustaining a fractured right forearm upon being struck by a comebacker earlier this season (Twitter link via Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon-Journal). Kluber will be limited to all fastballs and will have some extra rest baked in between his first few ’pen sessions, but it’s a decidedly encouraging update for the Indians and their fans.
What isn’t clear and may not become clear until the final hours leading up to the deadline is whether the potential return of Kluber will make Cleveland more willing to part with Bauer or more aggressive in pursuing a division title. The Indians dropped two of three games to the Twins over the weekend, failing to further close the gap between the two teams. Chernoff, though, pointed out to Meisel that his club still has 10 more meetings with the Twins in 2019 — albeit none before July 31. The play of both AL Central clubs over the next two weeks could go a long way in determining Cleveland’s approach as well.
For those still befuddled at the notion of trading Bauer at all when Cleveland is viable postseason contender, the decision seems to boil down to a long-term dilemma. Bauer’s salary is already at $13MM in 2019 and will rise to $18-20MM via arbitration this offseason. He’ll be a free agent after the 2020 campaign and has been open about his plans to play out his career on a series of one-year deals. In other words: he’s expensive, and the Indians have no hope of extending him.
If Cleveland had a wide-open payroll outlook, that might not be a major issue. However, Cleveland ownership seemingly mandated some offseason payroll deductions last winter, prompting the front office to work to get the club’s financial obligations down to the current ~$125MM level. The Indians only have about $48.4MM in guaranteed salary on next year’s books, but that number will balloon quickly with the current roster construction. Kluber’s $17.5MM option figures to be exercised, and Francisco Lindor will see a massive raise to this year’s $10.55MM salary. Add in Bauer’s raise, Clevinger’s first-year arbitration salary and a swath of pre-arb deals, and Cleveland will already be approaching this year’s payroll numbers despite the fact that they’re on pace for an attendance drop.
Trading Bauer would be a painful move for Chernoff and president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti to make, but not one that would be tantamount to forfeiting the season. Cleveland could possibly add a young, MLB-ready piece in that deal and could also turn to the rental market to add a more affordable arm to help patch the hole left by Bauer. That’s just one very hypothetical scenario, of course, but that type of scenario is precisely the kind of “creative” roster juggling the Indians will have to consider in the coming weeks — regardless of eventual outcome.