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The Curious Case of Trevor Bauer

The Curious Case of Trevor Bauer sounds like something you might find in an old Hardy Boys book. The months-long saga of the market’s top free agent reached its conclusion on Friday, February 5, with Bauer, the 2020 Cy Young award winner, signing a three-year, $102 million dollar contract to play for the 2020 World Series champion Dodgers. While his free agent chapter might have come to a close, there are still many mysterious questions that need to be addressed moving forward.

The Deal

Bauer’s deal is structured such that he’ll make $40 million in year one and $45 million in year two. He has the ability to opt out of his contract and reenter free agency after both the first and second years. Barring an injury or a catastrophic decline in performance, the odds of him exercising that third year of the deal are practically zero. For all intents and purposes, this is essentially a two-year, $85 million dollar deal. The third year only functions as a workaround for the luxury tax, reducing his hit from an unparalleled $42.5 million average to an even still astronomical $34 million. To put this in perspective, the Pirates are projected to have a payroll below $40 million in 2021.

The Questions

I don’t fault the Dodgers for being aggressive as they look to capture back-to-back World Series titles, and this move probably cements them as the favorites in 2021. In a vacuum, that’s probably a good thing for Dodger fans but let’s dive a little deeper. The move is a curious one for several reasons. First and foremost, it makes Bauer the highest paid player in baseball over the next two seasons. Despite his stellar 2020 season, it could be argued quite easily that Bauer isn’t even the best pitcher on the Dodgers staff. Between Dodger legend Clayton Kershaw and up-and-coming ace Walker Buehler, the claim for best of the best remains up for debate. The fact that this deal makes Bauer the league’s highest paid player for 2021-22 (again it’s very, very unlikely he’d return for the third year of this deal) further complicates Kershaw’s pending free agency. With the Dodgers running up against the luxury tax, how much will they be willing to offer Kershaw? Will he be willing to take a major pay cut from his current $31 million per year deal when a less established teammate is making over $40 million. This isn’t even touching on the fact that fan favorite Justin Turner is still a free agent this off-season and playoff hero Corey Seager is scheduled for free agency after this upcoming season. Next, this move likely pushes both Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May (#4 and #5 in Rookie of the Year voting, respectively) into the bullpen. The Dodgers have typically used more than five or six starters throughout a season, but this seems to be a high price to pay for a position of already great depth. Top prospect Josiah Gray is also a starting pitcher. While the Dodgers have been rumored to have offered shorter deals with higher Average Annual Value (AAV) to players such as Bryce Harper in the past, the move seems curious at a position of such depth as starting pitcher.

Jekyll and Hyde

Who are the Dodgers receiving for all their lavish spending? The short answer is a good pitcher. The long answer is it’s complicated. As previously mentioned, Bauer won the 2020 Cy Young as he was able to elevate his game to a new level with a 1.73 ERA during the pandemic-shortened season. Prior to last year, he had managed only a 4.04 career ERA with the Diamondbacks, Indians, and Reds. Hardly a number associated with the highest paid players in the game. Bauer has developed a sort of reputation for having Jekyll and Hyde years. In 2018, he managed a 2.21 ERA and a sixth-place finish in Cy Young voting. In 2019, he plummeted to a 4.48 ERA, including a 6.39 ERA following a mid-season trade from Cleveland all the way to Cincinnati. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is quite in line with his ERA throughout his career meaning he has neither benefited from good nor been hurt by bad defenses behind him. The question remains: Which pitcher are the Dodgers getting? The elite all-star from 2018 and 2020 or the mid-rotation arm from the rest of his career? A few things could point to the latter, a worrying sign for Dodger fans. First, the fact that he had an almost assuredly unsustainable .215 BABIP (league average is around .300) and an elevated strand rate of 90.9%. Those numbers are VERY likely to regress to the mean next year, with the lowest predicted ERA on Fangraphs sitting at 3.60. Furthermore, Bauer also saw a curious uptick in his spin rate in 2020, as several articles have examined. The drastic increase in spin rate could mean he’s getting a little extra help to get out of sticky situations.

On and Off the Field

Bauer has quite a long history in his nearly ten years in the Majors and not all of it is for the right reasons. He’s been aggressive on Twitter with fans who are critical of him. He somewhat infamously sliced his finger while using a drone before a start during the 2016 playoffs.  He’s also well known for an atypical training regimen that includes using high-speed cameras, weighted balls, and unconventional long toss. By his own admission, Bauer does not consider himself an “athlete,” rather someone who has been able to develop and maximize his abilities through the use of technology and understanding not only his body but how to maximize his efforts. He is critical of doing things for the sake of doing them and strives to know the “Why?” and the logic behind the decisions and efforts of players and coaches. The Dodgers are known as one of the more analytical organizations in baseball, a fact that likely appealed to Bauer and his thirst for the latest ways to improve and elevate his game.

Conclusions?

A typical fan would be ecstatic if their team landed the top free agent on the market. However, the Dodgers and Bauer are a curious match given the team’s current pitching depth. This, combined with his price tag, could impact their ability to address other holes in the lineup in the near future. Perhaps the deal is a reaction to the bevy of moves the Padres made this off-season in an effort to chase down the Dodgers. The Dodgers are betting a hefty sum that they’ll be able to get the most out of his talents over the next few seasons. Bauer clearly thinks highly of himself and isn’t afraid to maximize his earnings on a shorter-term deal. It remains to be seen which version of Bauer will ultimately arrive in LA. Will he be the one to vault them back into the promised land? The next chapter in the Curious Case of Trevor Bauer has yet to be written.


Featured Image: @thejdor

Ryan Riffenburgh

Ryan is a lifelong Dodger fan and a recent adopter of the LG Twins. You can follow him on Twitter at @ryanriff36

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