Bauer Blossoming Into Top Starter He Was Projected To Be

It seems that Trevor Bauer may have grown up before our very eyes during the second half of last season.

The 26-year-old, who will be 27 on January 17, was a villain on the team during the season’s first three months as he got off to a rocky start. That, combined with his now infamous drone incident during the 2016 playoffs, had draw the ire of Tribe fans.

On July 16, Bauer was 7-8 with a 5.59 ERA. He had just allowed four earned runs and recorded just two outs in a forgettable start against the weak-hitting Oakland Athletics. Calls for Bauer to be demoted to the bullpen or sent to Triple-A Columbus were intensifying. Bauer was the last guy many fans wanted to see take the mound at that point.

Then Bauer began to turn things around. In 2015 and even more in 2016 Bauer had come into his own as a pretty solid end-of-the-rotation starter with double-digit wins in each of those seasons. He went above and beyond that during the final two and a half months of 2017.

Down the stretch of last season, Bauer was every bit as good as two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Cy contender Carlos Carrasco. Over his final 14 outings of the season, Bauer was an impressive 10-1 with a sterling 2.54 ERA. It took his season total to 17-9 with a 4.19 ERA. The victory total was his career best, topping his 12 of 2016. The ERA was just a tick off of the 4.18 he posted in 2014 in 26 starts that year.

Bauer spent the final couple months pitching like the prodigy that he once was back when the Arizona Diamondbacks tabbed him with third overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft. He pitched like the guy the Indians clamored for when they sent off Shin-Soo Choo in a blockbuster December 11, 2012, trade that netted the Tribe Bauer and the recently departed Bryan Shaw.

The work Bauer did down the stretch of last season allowed manager Terry Francona to give Kluber an extra day of rest during the American League Division Series and to unflinchingly name Bauer his Game 1 starter. He was tremendous in that outing, not giving up a run in 6 2/3 frames. His rags-to-riches run of success only ended in Game 4 against the Yankees as he could not come through on short rest.

Still, Bauer clearly seemed to turn a corner last season, both as a pitcher and perhaps between his head. Sometimes as one of the “smartest men in the room” types, Bauer could get in his own way on the mound, and seemed to overthink things. It seemed he simply pitched and did it well during his late-season surge.

Now, as 2018 hits and the report date for pitcher and catchers to spring training draws ever nearer, the question is – can Bauer keep the good times rolling? Was his excellence over the final 14 games of 2017 a mirage or were they a breakout?

With Bauer’s age, signs do point to possible breakout rather than mirage. He may seem like a veteran on the surface, but that is because he was in the big leagues at such an early age and stage of his career. The age-27 or -28 season is often when a player will really start hitting his stride. Bauer’s age-26 season, in which he took huge steps forward, seems to put him right on that pace.

Bauer is not a 30-plus-year-old who all-of-a-sudden came on. He is a guy with a pedigree who was highly thought of as a kid coming out of the UCLA. It seems that he is just now putting it all together. On the plus side, he now has three straight seasons of eleven or more wins. That shows some level of consistency. He has continuously gotten better and has shown the ability to shine on a big stage and when the pressure is mounting. He is also as durable as a pitcher can be, never spending time on the disabled list.

With all of this in mind, it may be time for the Indians to do what could have been deemed unthinkable as recently as June and try to give Bauer a contract extension. He is under team control through the 2020 season. This offseason marked his first year of being arbitration eligible. Last year he made $3.55 million. That price tag is only going to go up (MLB Trade Rumors projects a figure around $7.7 million for next season).

It may take a little more to keep Bauer than it did when the Tribe locked up Carrasco before the 2015 season. That spring, the Tribe gave Carrasco four years and a guaranteed $22 million. He has option years in 2019 and 2020 at $9 million and $9.5 million. He was coming off a strong ending to a 2014 season that saw him struggle more in the first half than Bauer did in 2017. Bauer also has a longer track record as a quality starter than Carrasco had at that time.

Also before the 2015 season, the Indians locked up Kluber to a guaranteed five years and at least $38.5 million (with option years in 2020 and 2021 that can reach nearly a combined $36 million, depending on incentives being reached). That contract is becoming a steal as it was strong signing by the Tribe the spring after Kluber’s breakout season of 2014 when he won his first Cy Young award. Kluber, who seemingly came out of nowhere that season, took the comfort of guaranteed money in case he did not continue on a path of being one of the game’s top starters. We know how that worked out – pretty well for Cleveland.

A Bauer contract would probably have to be close to Kluber’s. It would probably need to be five years, buying his first two free agent years and in the $35-$40 million guaranteed range. Perhaps a team option year or two would be good as well.

Locking up Bauer would help ease the pain of possibly losing Carrasco after the 2020 campaign, though that is pretty far down the road to look right now.

Simply put, extending Bauer would guarantee three 17-or-more-game winners in one rotation for at least three more years and pair Bauer with Kluber for at least four more summers. By 2022, the Indians could be looking at Bauer as the ace of the staff as Kluber could be gone and/or starting to slow as he will be in his mid-30s by then.

Bauer has gown each of the past three seasons. From a pitcher with a great deal of potential to a guy who seems like he may finally be starting to hit that expectation, Bauer has blossomed right before the eyes of Cleveland fans. Signing him to a big contract would be taking a risk, but those risks have paid off many times for the Indians. This seems like a lower risk, higher reward deal, if the Indians can swing it.

The Tribe has made a habit of locking up its own players in past offseasons. Bauer should be on the short list, or at the top of any list, to be the next player Cleveland fully buys into.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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