Guardians righty Shane Bieber is one of the more prominent names on the offseason trade market, with the Cubs and Reds among the many teams to check in thus far. Bieber is slated to become a free agent next offseason and projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $12.2MM this coming season, giving him the look of an affordable one-year rental for a team on the lookout for rotation upgrades. However, Jon Heyman of the New York Post writes that Bieber is at least open to the idea of signing an extension with a team that acquires him. Presumably, that’d mean he’s open to a long-term deal in Cleveland as well, although it’s not clear that the generally frugal Guardians would be amenable to that after already hammering out nine-figure extensions with Jose Ramirez and Andres Gimenez in recent years.
One could argue that it’s natural for Bieber to take this approach, given that he missed more than two months late in the 2023 season with elbow inflammation. He made it back to the mound and looked healthy in a pair of late-season starts, but he’s seen his velocity dip by about three miles per hour since its peak and has a number of red flags in his profile, including strikeout, walk, swinging-strike, chase and ground-ball rates that have all trended in the wrong direction. There’s some logic to taking the risk-averse approach and locking in a long-term deal this offseason.
On the other hand, it’s far more common for players to spurn extension overtures at this stage of their original club control window — particularly following a trade. Players often want to get a feel for their new organization (coaching staff, teammates, competitive outlook).
Furthermore, while Bieber might not command the type of deal he once looked destined for when he was taking home AL Cy Young honors in 2020, he’s still clearly a talented pitcher. The market for even third/fourth starters has progressed over the past couple years, too, evidenced by contracts like the four-year deals awarded to Taijuan Walker ($72MM) and Jameson Taillon ($68MM). Bieber is only 28 (29 in May) and would turn 30 in the first year of a theoretical free-agent deal (or extension). With any form of bounceback season in terms of health, if not performance, he’d have a case for at least a four-year deal.
It’s rare, although not unprecedented for teams to grant extension windows as a conditional element of a trade. Most recently, the Reds simultaneously acquired and extended Sonny Gray in a trade with the Yankees, although that was four years ago. More likely is a scenario where Bieber is simply traded to another club and the two parties spend the remainder of the offseason discussing a potential long-term deal.
Bieber’s openness to an extension might improve his trade value a bit, but one would imagine that openness would ultimately depend on where he’s traded. Using a pair of teams to which he’s already been connected, it’s easier to see a big-payroll team like the Cubs pony up on a long-term pact than it would be a smaller-payroll club like the Reds, who’ve shied away from long-term deals over the past few offseasons. Cincinnati did extend Hunter Greene, but was was a pre-arb deal that isn’t really comparable to Bieber when he’s at five-plus years of service.
While it’s interesting to hear that any prominent player who’s only a year from the open market is amenable to forgoing that right, it’s simultaneously difficult to imagine it happening. Bieber made only two starts in his return from that months-long stay on the injured list, which isn’t much for a new club to go off of when weighing whether to sign him for on a long-term arrangement. From Bieber’s vantage point, it’d be a surprise to see him sign for anything less than those aforementioned Taillon and Walker deals, given his track record. Prior to the 2023 season, he looked like a candidate for a $100MM+ deal in free agency.
The 2023 season tells another story, though. Bieber’s 3.80 ERA, 20.1% strikeout rate, 6.4% walk rate, 47.2% grounder rate, 91.6 mph average fastball and career-low swinging-strike and chase rates (10.5% and 30.6%) all have the look of a mid-rotation arm rather than an ace and are are all reasons to exercise caution. An uptick in velocity or reversal of course in some combination of those declining rate stats next season would go a long ways toward bolstering his stock. Perhaps Bieber and a new team (or the Guardians themselves) could find some kind of middle ground, but his recent injury troubles — he also missed two months with a shoulder strain in 2021 — and diminished performance might make it particularly difficult to find a middle ground.