When Trevor Bauer was sent to the bullpen following a tough spring training, he was not very happy about it. To his credit, he took the demotion from the bullpen as a professional and never outwardly complained. It was pretty clear, though, that Bauer longed to be starting games, not entering in the middle or later.
Such is life with a Cleveland Indians roster loaded with starting pitching talent and guys in the minor leagues who have had prior success at the big league level.
Bauer went into this spring as a heavy favorite to break camp as Cleveland’s number four starter. Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin were battling it out for the fifth and final spot in the rotation. Competition did wonders for the latter two, who pitched so well in the Cactus League that Cleveland put Bauer in the bullpen.
Prior to this season, the 25-year-old, with loads of potential, had made just one relief appearance. That was last year when Tribe manager Terry Francona moved a struggling Bauer to the ‘pen to get himself righted. Due to injuries, however, Bauer only stuck long enough to make the one outing in a relief role.
This year, Bauer has made six such showings and never really looked comfortable when relieving. Only once did he get through a relief appearance without allowing a hit. From the get-go of this campaign, Bauer never really seemed to be a true bullpen stopper. In his first appearance of the season, April 5 against Boston, he entered in the ninth inning and allowed two runs on a David Ortiz homer. It turned a manageable 4-2 deficit for the Tribe into a 6-2 hole that Cleveland had no chance to crawl out of in its last at bat.
Bauer made five more relief appearances after that, to mixed results. The final time coming out of the pen, April 24, was a day opportunity struck for him. It was tough for the Tribe as number two starter Carlos Carrasco went down with a left hamstring injury while covering first base on a ground ball. However, the door opened wide for Bauer.
The demoted starter was given the chance to get back into the starting five and resuscitate his starting career. The Sunday afternoon Carrasco went down against Detroit Bauer was actually called into long relief duty. He entered the contest with two outs in the third. While Bauer was not great that day, he pitched well enough for Cleveland to win and complete a three-game sweep against its Central Division rival and a club that has dominated their matchups in past seasons.
Bauer has since made three starts entering his scheduled start Sunday. Each has been better than the last as Bauer is hoping to open some eyes and reclaim a role that he seemed to have a stranglehold on only one year ago. Last year in four April starts, Bauer was 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA. It seemed he was finally fulfilling the promise of being the third overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft. After a decent May, the rest of the season was roller coaster ride for Bauer. It was a ride that continued into Goodyear, Arizona, this season.
Now Bauer appears to be back on a high. He had a rough go in his first start, April 30 in Philadelphia. He gave up three runs in four innings. One can perhaps chalk that up to an arm that was not used to starter’s innings or work. It was almost like a spring training game for Bauer to get his pitching arm re-extended to throw longer amounts of time.
In his second start, the hurler in his third full season came within one out of a quality start against a Tigers offense that, despite some early season struggles, is still dangerous. He tossed five and two-third frames, allowing three runs. He struck out four and walked two. More importantly, Bauer threw 106 pitches, showing he could still handle a starter’s workload.
Bauer followed that up with one of his best outings of his career. On Tuesday, he shut down a Houston Astros team that many pundits pegged as a World Series contender before the season began. Bauer tossed seven shutout innings, surrendering just three hits. He fanned seven batters and walked three. He probably could have pitched the eighth inning. However, Francona decided it best to be cautious with a pitcher who had thrown 104 pitches in just his third start. A long, two-run eighth for the Tribe offense also sealed the deal as Bauer had to sit in the dugout for a while.
That’s three starts down and Bauer has looked better and better in each. Sunday he will get a chance to take on a Twins offense that is 28th of 30 teams in in the majors in runs scored. Bauer has a golden opportunity to follow up his strong outing of last week with another one at Progressive Field. It would go a long way towards reclaiming his starting role long-term.
When Carrasco suffered his hamstring injury, the prognosis had him out of action 4-6 weeks. That was three weeks ago. Cookie could be back in a couple of weeks, meaning every start is big for Bauer.
It is almost as if Bauer is now in a spring training battle of his own. Tomlin is now safe as he has done nothing but win since last August when he returned from shoulder surgery. Bauer is now the new competition for Anderson, who has already made one trip to Triple-A Columbus this year in an attempt to get the struggling starter back to the promising form he showed as a rookie in 2015.
Bauer and Anderson, who starts Monday against Cincinnati, now probably have three or four more starts apiece to try and impress the organization enough to be the guy to stick in the starting five once Carrasco returns.
Right now, thanks to Tuesday’s great showing, Bauer has the leg up. The rotation is clearly where Bauer wants to be and is billed to be as a young player with a lot of upside.
Bauer still has a ways to go to get to the point he was pegged to get to five years ago. Still in his mid-20s, Bauer has not quite hit that standard age of 26 or 27, which are the typical ages for a player to his true five- or six-year prime. Perhaps a trip to the ‘pen was just what he needed to get something of a wake-up call and get back on track. It worked wonders for the aforementioned Carrasco in 2014, who has seen his career springboard to new heights following an early-season demotion to the ‘pen and late-season promotion to the rotation that year.
In reality, Bauer has the stuff to be a successful starter. Now, he has to spend the next couple of weeks proving that, to avoid the frustration of going back to the relief role that he was clearly not fond of when this season began.
Photo: Derik Hamilton/Associated Press