The Indians have a few more roster spots open heading into 2018 than they have in a few years, giving them some big decisions to make with even more changes ahead in 2018, potentially.
Over the years, we’ve seen the Indians pioneer the idea and continue to sign their young, core pieces to long term deals ahead of their arbitration years to give them financial security for giving up a year or two or free agency.
Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco are not only two of the best 10 pitchers in baseball (maybe even five) but they are also making way, way under market value for their skill level and age thanks to this practice championed by the Indians. While these players not getting paid their market value is a different topic for a different day, they are both reaching portions of their deals where they starting to earn the higher years of their deals.
The next pitcher up on this list to bring some sustainability for the Indians on their payroll and years of control to help secure the future of the rotation as Kluber and Carrasco get into the back end of their deals is Trevor Bauer.
With Kluber and Carrasco signed, Mike Clevinger is two years from his first arbitration year and Danny Salazar not healthy enough or consistent enough to warrant an extension right now, Bauer has been an innings eater of sorts the last two seasons.
Health has been one of Bauer’s biggest strength and risking paying for that as a skill long term isn’t a wise bet. Bauer has never been on the disabled list and has only missed a start due to a self inflicted injury from a hobby last postseason. We know Bauer has a very unique arm care routine and he’s been durable so far, but enough is not widely known about the arm and if these practices are a sure way to keep him healthy. But he’s thrown 175 innings or more the last three seasons (153 in 2014 and 190 last season) and finished the season with a 3.2 fWAR, a career high. His 4.19 ERA was his second lowest in his career (4.18 in 2014).
Bauer will be 27 next year, has proven to be a durable, middle of the rotation starter and has improved from a results stand-point every year. The going rate for him on the open market would be well north of $10 million a year just for his durability and given the pitching starved teams in baseball.
MLB Trade Rumors projects Bauer to earn $7.7 million in arbitration this winter, if the Indians let it get that far, something they’ve only done once since the early 1990’s. He earned $3.6 million last year, so the $4.1 million jump at age 27 and that Bauer has two more arbitration years on tap before he hits free agency could continue to drive his salary up.
Some of the factors that make sense to extend Bauer do come with some caveats to see if they are going to hold up. His strikeout rate jumped to 26.2%, up 4% from his career averages, however, his swinging strike rate was 9.2%, right around his career mark of 9.0%. So will his higher strikeout rate hold up? His 8% walk rate held firm and I checked to see if the extra strikeouts could be explained by more called strike three’s. While more hitters took looking strikes against Bauer than his career (31.2% this year compared to 29.1% for his career) and he still only struck out 68 batters looking, the same rate as last year but he faced less batters in 2017. So, the jump in the strikeout rate seems a bit shaky as far as sustainable improvement.
However, Bauer’s strikeout rate in August and September were over 26% and 28% respectively. Right around that time, Bauer introduced his rediscovered slider into his repertoire and upped the usage of his curveball in September, producing more swings and misses that might explain the small uptick in swinging strike rate even if over the course of the 2017 season, his strikeout rate spiked without the swinging strike rate to match on the surface.
(Bauer’s whiff rate courtesy of BrooksBaseball.com)
The introduction of the slider and upped curveball usage played a big role in hitters results against him.
(Bauer’s slugging against courtesy of BrooksBaseball.com)
The other question about Bauer’s results this year is the amount of hard contact against him (34.4%) was a career high. It took a long time to get his ERA down to 4.19 even though his FIP and xFIP supported lower than the ERA over 5.00 in the first half. A .337 BABIP suggests Bauer may be a little unlucky since BABIP runs between .290 and .310 on league average. But, we know that pitchers have more control over their BABIP based on the quality of contact they allow. Bauer’s xwOBA (expected Weighted On Base Average which weights each offensive outcome differently, higher with the better result and xWOBA judges quality of contact for hitters and against pitchers to determine what their wOBA should look like) was .316, which was 33rd worst among qualified starters, finishing around pitchers like R.A. Dickey, Dylan Bundy and Mike Leake.
Bauer did bring down his hard hit% allowed from 37.6% in the first half to a better 30.8% in the second half, along with a 52% ground ball rate in September and just a 17.5% line drive rate. So Bauer appeared to have better contact management skills and results in the second half and towards the end of the season, which is possibly attributed to a higher usage of his curveball and using the slider.
Going into his age 27 season and coming off a career best year in essentially his fourth full season, Bauer might have even more improvement coming. Given his perceived good arm health, improvement in 2017 and with more room coming, trying to sign him to an extension now might be a good idea for the Indians.
Trying to find a good contract for both sides appears a bit difficult since everyone who finished around Bauer’s 2017 numbers has either hit free agency once and cashed in, but are older. Or the others are simply below his talent level and don’t have his room for improvement.
Jose Quintana finished with similar numbers and he made $6 million in 2017 after signing a 5 year/$21 million deal in 2014. $6 million might be a bit low for Bauer in 2018, but, if the Indians made the back end of the deal a bit better, it may work. Quintana will earn $8.8 million in 2018, a number Bauer could easily surpass in 2019 if he continues to improve especially if he earns near the projected $7.7 million. Quintana has two $10.5 million options following that. The Indians could follow that deal and extend Bauer through 2021, his first free agent year and possibly add in a few more options.
Rick Porcello will turn 29 in December and has never had Bauer’s strikeout numbers but has had less issues with walks and has had similar years in terms of FIP and fWAR aside from a possibly fluky 2016. He is going to earn over $20 million over the next four seasons. Bauer could possibly come that close if he was on the open market this offseason.
Chris Archer is set to earn $33.7 million over the next four seasons should the Tampa Bay Rays pick up his two $9 and $11 million options in 2020 and 2021 (which they likely will) respectively. Archer signed a 6 year/$25.5 million deal in 2014 and had been locked in at lower rates the first three seasons. Bauer likely won’t be signing a six year deal but potentially a four year deal worth $33.7 million with a team option or two beyond that, could be something comparable given Archer’s age and career trajectory when he signed his deal.
Something between the middle-to-back end of Quintana’s or Archer’s deal to sign Bauer on at a guaranteed rate through four seasons (his first free agent year) with an option or two, could be beneficial for both sides. However, it would not surprise me if Bauer bet on himself rather than sign a long term, guaranteed deal. He believes he takes care of his arm and will remain healthy. He’s going to earn good money through arbitration and has an engineering degree from UCLA and has plenty of interests in that area that would be fine outside of baseball where he may not be too worried about needing the guaranteed money. So coming to terms on a contract extension may not be so simple with Bauer, but he has earned the right to guaranteed money and the Indians would be wise to gauge his interest in a contract extension given his improvements, age and durability.