Reds right-hander Trevor Bauer was already the top pitcher on MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings back in February — well before the league shut down for several months, giving way to what felt like interminable negotiations between the league and MLBPA on a way to safely return to play. That was also before other projected top pitchers (e.g. Robbie Ray, Mike Minor) struggled immensely in 2020’s 60-game slate. It was before Marcus Stroman opted out of the season.
It was also before the 29-year-old Bauer absolutely obliterated opposing lineups en route to what is currently an MLB-best 1.71 ERA and a ninth-ranked 2.83 FIP. Bauer has struck out 37.4 percent of the hitters he’s faced this season against just a 6.8 percent walk rate. The resulting 30.6 K-BB% trails only Shane Bieber for the MLB lead. Per Statcast, Bauer ranks in the 96th percentile or better in each of expected batting average against, expected slugging percentage again and expected weighted on-base average. He ranks at the very top of the league in terms of fastball spin rate and expected ERA.
Bauer might not be the clear favorite for the NL Cy Young, thanks largely to sub-2.00 showings from each of Yu Darvish, Max Fried and Corbin Burnes — plus yet another dominant campaign from reigning, two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. But Bauer is squarely in the mix with at least two remaining starts on the schedule. The performance of all those names down the stretch will prove pivotal in determining who takes home that hardware.
Cy Young or not, Bauer has only furthered his standing as this winter’s most desirable free-agent starter. It’s not particularly close. Take a look through this year’s free-agent class and it’s clear that he is in his own tier.
With that in mind, it’s of particular note that Bauer took some time this week to discuss his forthcoming trip to the open market in an appearance on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (Twitter link, with audio). Asked about his priorities in free agency, Bauer replied:
I want to win. I want to be with a team that has a winning culture. I want to be there in the playoffs. I want a chance at a World Series. That’s one thing that really drives me. I want a chance to pitch every fourth day instead of every fifth. That really drives me. Going along with that: how’s the medical staff? How’s the technology — the information that’s available on the coaching staff? What’s the culture of the organization like?
Most top free agents prioritize signing with contending clubs or expected contenders, of course. But Bauer has spoken in the past about his desire to pitch every fourth day instead of every fifth, and that’s a more or less unheard-of concession for teams to make in today’s era of constantly evolving pitcher usage. Pitching every fourth day would be a throwback to rotations of a generation past, at a time when more teams are leaning toward increased rest and limiting trips through the batting order.
The technology component of Bauer’s decision is also a key factor to consider. Bauer himself takes an extremely analytical approach to pitching, so it stands to reason that he’d want a more progressive, data-forward team in that regard. The Reds’ hiring of Driveline head Kyle Boddy, with whom Bauer had already worked in the past, was surely a welcome addition for Bauer. There are still more analytically inclined clubs out there, of course, and Bauer will garner interest from virtually every hopeful contender.
The most notable portion of Bauer’s interview wasn’t the generally expected traits he hoped to see with a new club (or in a return to the Reds), but rather his softening of a long-voiced preference to sign one-year deals. Bauer has previously been vocal about playing out his career in mercenary fashion — only signing one-year arrangements. Doing so would not only give him annual control of where he pitches (thus ensuring regular work with contending teams) but could also increase his earning power.
There’s inherent risk in that approach, of course; a potential injury or decline would leave him without the safety net of a guaranteed multi-year salary. But teams are also much more willing to pay a premium on shorter-term deals — one-year deals in particular.
Just 18 months ago, Bauer again stated his intent to “go year-to-year my entire career.” He added, rhetorically: “Why would you lock yourself in a situation that may not make you happy? I think that’s highly inefficient.”
Now? Bauer makes clear that he’s open to one-year deals but wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a longer-term pact.
Again, I think it comes back to I just want a chance to win every year. I want to be in a situation where I feel valued and I have the chance to conduct my career the way I want to conduct it. So, pitch every fourth day, and stuff like that. I want to challenge myself and have a chance to do those things. So if there’s a situation where it presents itself where it is a four-year or five-year deal, and I feel confident that’s going to be a situation that’s good for me, I would consider it. I do think that in order to do the things that I want to do, I think I’m going to have to take on a little more risk than normal in those long-term contracts. …I’m not afraid of the one-year deals. I’m not afraid of the longer deals. It’s just going to be a case-by-case basis, and we’ll see what the situations look like.
Perhaps those comments were made more as a negotiating tactic that’ll allow Bauer to point back to them over the winter as he seeks to improve one-year offers. Perhaps he’s had a genuine change of heart and is now more open to the idea of a multi-year deal if it’s put forth by the right team. Other factors, such as opt-out clauses, could give him the opportunity to thread the needle and enjoy the best of both worlds. Every year tacked onto the deal and every opt-out clause included, however, figures to come at the expense of the overall annual value of the pact. Ultimately, whether it’s on a one-year deal or a multi-year deal, Bauer should earn the largest annual salary of any free-agent starter this winter.