In terms of degree of difficulty, “trading one of your best starters while in the middle of a playoff race” is like trying to thread a needle during an earthquake. Yet that’s the risk the Indians have embarked upon with their day-before-the-deadline stunner, shipping Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati as part of a three-team deal involving the Padres.
And you know what? Cleveland may have come out ahead with this fascinating, challenging gamble. In reportedly getting outfielders Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, and lefthanded pitcher Logan Allen, the Indians both addressed roster needs and added intriguing pieces for the future. While those issues could’ve been avoided with even an iota of effort in an offseason that Cleveland essentially threw away, this is just about the only sensible return if moving Bauer had to happen.
That’s the big hypothetical, though: whether this was a move the Indians had to make. On one hand, they’re trying to chase down the Twins in the AL Central (where the deficit is now three games) and hold off the A’s, Rays and Red Sox for the wild-card (where their lead over Oakland for the No. 1 spot is 2 ½ games). Even though Bauer has taken a step back from last season’s stellar campaign, he’s still one of the best starters Cleveland has. A rotation of him, Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber and—once healthy—Corey Kluber (and possibly Carlos Carrasco, though that’s a far more uncertain option) is hard for any other contender to beat. In that context, giving up a Cy Young-caliber starter is the height of lunacy.
On the other hand, Bauer was as good as gone once he reached free agency after the 2020 season. What’s more, he’s as divisive a player as exists in MLB—something most recently on display on Sunday, when he decided to see if he could throw a ball over the mountains while getting pulled from what ended up being his last Indians start. To what degree Bauer is a headache for managers and teammates—or if he is at all—is something I don’t know, but presumably it’s a factor. Unwillingness to sign an extension or not, most clubs don’t give up a 28-year-old starter who has top-of-the-rotation stuff during a postseason run unless there’s something happening behind the scenes.
And yet here Cleveland is, having made the choice to go forward without Bauer and betting instead that the new guys will have a bigger impact. In that sense, the Indians may not be wrong, if only because Puig and Reyes represent potentially massive upgrades on what’s one of the worst outfield/DH situations in baseball. Per Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Average by position stat, the Indians rank 17th in outfield production, with only rightfield—a combination of Tyler Naquin and Jordan Luplow—grading out positively, and barely at that. Designated hitter is even worse: Only the Yankees, A's, Tigers and White Sox have gotten less from that position. What’s more, Cleveland's new hitters bring plenty of power to a lineup that, aside from Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and, uh, Roberto Perez, seriously needs it. Allen, meanwhile, is a useful arm for the back of the rotation, and some needed depth with Bauer gone.
That’s the key here, because Cleveland likely could’ve improved its outfield without sacrificing Bauer. (Puig will be a free agent after the season and probably would’ve cost next to nothing on his own, to say nothing of other options. He also was in the midst of a massive brawl in the Pirates-Reds game Tuesday night.) How far the Indians go rests not only on what Puig and Reyes and Allen do for the next two months, but also in how they fill the space left by Bauer. That requires Clevinger and Bieber to continue to be excellent. It puts a lot of faith in Kluber not only coming back healthy but also turning around what’s been a dismal season to date (a 5.80 ERA in 35 2/3 innings). It places a lot of hope in Carrasco returning fit and functional from leukemia treatment. It assumes that Allen and Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko can provide quality innings as rookies. It (maybe) figures that Danny Salazar, who’s been a non-factor since 2017 due to injury, can actually contribute.
That’s a lot of hypotheticals to worry about, but that was always going to be the case if the Indians traded Bauer. What mattered was getting a return that helped now and going forward as opposed to this being a preemptive salary dump by a team that is seemingly allergic to spending. (Here’s where I note, again, that the Indians wouldn’t have needed to flip Bauer for outfield help had they simply spent any money at all over the winter to add a free-agent bat or two.) Ultimately, this is the best the Indians could have done in terms of moving Bauer. Now the question will be whether it was a stroke of genius or a terrible mistake to make the move at all.