It’s certainly fitting for Trevor Bauer to hit free agency amid one of the strangest offseasons in recent memory. MLB’s resident iconoclast enters a market with significant uncertainty, with the game’s finances in question for both 2021 and much of the next decade. Will Bauer stick to his guns and chase the highest bidder in a one-year deal? Or will he pivot to a more conventional contract given baseball's financial landscape? Either way, the NL Cy Young award winner's free agency is poised to be MLB’s most intriguing story in the coming months.
So who will actually sign Bauer when the dust is settled? Let’s assess the most likely contenders.
New York Mets
Not only has new owner Steve Cohen signaled a potential spending spree in free agency, but he’s also gone out of his way to name Bauer as a potential target. Cohen said Bauer “would be a great personality in New York,” correctly noting Bauer’s penchant for delivering in key moments. The stage is never too big for Bauer. We just saw him mow down Atlanta’s impressive lineup last month. It’s easy to imagine him toeing the rubber for Game 2 of the NLDS next October.
Cohen could theoretically break the bank this offseason and pursue Bauer along with free agents George Springer and J.T. Realmuto. He could also trade for Francisco Lindor. But if he takes a (relatively) modest approach, is Bauer really the free-agent worth pursuing? New York has the National League’s best pitcher in Jacob deGrom, and Marcus Stroman is returning in 2021 after accepting a one-year qualifying offer on Tuesday. An elite backstop or star center fielder could be a better use of Cohen’s cash as the Mets look to build a sustainable contender. But at the moment, there’s no limit in place regarding Cohen’s wallet. If he looks to double down in free agency, don’t be surprised if Bauer is in Queens on opening day.
Los Angeles Angels
Angels owner Arte Moreno has never shied away from signing for marquee talent, most recently signing Anthony Rendon and Mike Trout to a pair of contracts tallying over $600 million. What has Moreno received for his spending spree? A whopping zero playoff wins in the last decade, and just one playoff appearance in Mike Trout’s career. Los Angeles’s accumulation of superstar bats hasn’t led to any discernible success of late. Perhaps the top pitcher on the market can turn the tide.
Bauer appears to be a natural fit considering the current construction of the Angels roster. Dylan Bundy finally lived up to his prospect hype in his first season in Anaheim, but the Angels would be better suited with Bundy as the No. 2 behind Bauer. After pouring countless dollars into the lineup, Moreno should pivot to an investment in the pitching staff.
Chicago White Sox
Imagine the fiasco of Tony La Russa butting heads with Bauer. Whether or not the 76-year-old manager is still with the White Sox by opening day, Bauer would be an exciting addition to one of the best young teams in baseball.
Armed with a fearsome lineup anchored by Tim Anderson and AL MVP José Abreu, Chicago's pitching staff is top heavy. Adding Bauer to a rotation with Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, both of whom received Cy Young votes, would put the White Sox over the top in a crowded AL Central.
San Diego Padres
Like White Sox, the Padres reached the postseason a year ahead of schedule last season. Fernando Tatis Jr. was the talk of the sport for much of 2020, and Dinelson Lamet flashed Cy Young stuff in spurts. The Padres have never been afraid to spend big in free agency, sometimes to the franchise’s detriment. But Bauer could be a worthy splurge as San Diego battles the Dodgers for NL West supremacy.
Bauer’s impact with the Padres should extend past his stat line. Lamet, Mike Clevinger and Chris Paddack could be greatly helped by baseball’s most analytically inclined pitcher, and the sheer innings volume provided by Bauer would help save the young arms for the postseason. San Diego already sports a pair of superstars on the left side of its infield. Adding one to the rotation is a tide that lifts all boats. The Dodgers aren’t a lock to repeat as NL West champions if Bauer heads to San Diego.
Atlanta is no stranger to Bauer’s brilliance after his 12-strikeout performance at Truist Park in the National League Wild Card Series. And after a string of injuries wrecked Braves pitchers in 2020, perhaps Bauer is the durable piece to make Atlanta the NL favorite. Adding Bauer to a rotation with Mike Soroka and Max Fried should send shivers down the spine of every NL East club. If Ian Anderson continues his progression, the 2021 Braves may well mirror the dominance of their 1990s squads. Amid a deep pool of quality arms, Bauer projects to be a true rotation anchor.
Fitting Bauer into Atlanta’s rotation is no problem. Adding him to the salary sheet is a more complicated task. It’s hard to see the Braves committing long-term money to Bauer, especially with a Freddie Freeman contract extension looming on the horizon. But if Bauer truly wants a one-year deal, Atlanta could be the perfect landing spot. After all, the Braves saw great returns for their one-year investments in Josh Donaldson (2019) and Marcell Ozuna (2020).
The Braves can afford to break the bank for Bauer in 2021, compete for the Commissioner’s Trophy, then return their focus to the future in 2022. Soroka, Fried and Anderson are young enough to push extension talks down the road. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies are already signed through much of the next decade. Another long-term commitment is unlikely. But for one year, Bauer could be the perfect piece as the Braves eye their first World Series this century.