The Cleveland Indians’ first base opening was never as up for grabs as initially portrayed.
It might’ve been, had Jake Bauers not been fresh out of minor league options. But the 25-year-old would’ve been released had he not landed on Cleveland’s opening day roster, providing him an insurmountable edge over prospect Bobby Bradley.
This essentially made the team’s decision to open the upcoming season with Bauers at first anticlimactic. Barring completely unforeseen circumstances, Bradley missing the cut was always the most likely outcome.
However, in tabbing Bauers as the opening day first baseman, Cleveland also needs to determine how long he’ll get to prove this was about more than a fortunate combo of age and contract status. On the surface, those factors seem to be the only way to explain the decision.
They’re significant considerations, sure. It’s far too early to close the book on Bauers. He has logged a combined 213 big league games to date with two separate teams, not nearly enough to write a complete evaluation on his MLB career. To cut him despite that could’ve been arguably shortsighted.
Yet, now that he'll be receiving everyday at-bats, Bauers needs to show more than what we’ve seen from him so far.
His time in Cleveland has been both inconsistent and underwhelming. He finished 2019 with a wRC+ 20% below league average, bouncing back and forth from the minors while reportedly resisting coaching advice.
The following season was spent entirely at the team’s offsite camp, where he stayed despite Cleveland’s willingness to give just about anybody on the roster a shot in the outfield.
Bauers simply hasn’t looked the same since bursting onto the scene for Tampa in 2018. He opened his rookie campaign with an .864 OPS over his first 36 games. In the 177 since, that number dropped to .651.
When you pair that with Bauers’ subpar .200/.429/.280 spring slash line, which was buoyed mostly by his nine walks, it’s hard to deny how much weight his age and lack of options carried in Cleveland’s decision at first base.
Both he and the team surely know his numbers need to improve. What remains to be determined is how long the latter is willing to wait for that to happen.
Two months? Until the All-Star break? The entire season?
What happens if Bauers remains hot and cold at the plate? Will continued inconsistency extend or expedite this trial? Should Bradley impress at the offsite camp or in Triple A, will the team still stick with Bauers if he’s struggling?
These are the questions that accompany the call Cleveland made at first base. The team is putting its money on a player who has yet to hit his potential, and whom it’d have to move on from should it decide he’s not able to do so.
This all becomes moot if Bauers finally hits his stride in the upcoming season. If he can tap into the hitting ability that once made him one of baseball's top 100 prospects, Cleveland can spend the summer scoffing at those who are criticizing Friday’s roster decision.
If Bauers can’t do that, if what he’s shown so far truly is all he’s able to offer in the majors, the team has to decide when it's time to move on. Especially in a season where the winter departure of Francisco Lindor will make holes in the offense far more pronounced.
Bauers’ contract situation is a big reason why he opens the year as Cleveland’s first baseman. It can’t be the reason he remains there if the struggles he’s displayed to date carry deep into the season.