Bauer Looking to Build on Solid 2018 Sunday Versus Mariners

If Trevor Bauer can continue the upward trajectory that he has been on since being traded to the Cleveland Indians in the winter before the 2013 season, big things could soon be in store for the Tribe’s No. 3 starting pitcher.

In his first five years with Cleveland, Bauer has done nothing but improve. He started as a minor league prospect with talent, but possibly too head-strong, and eventually became a good end of the Major League rotation guy. By 2016, he was regarded as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Last season he blossomed, in the second half, as a possible All-Star and Cy Young candidate in the making.

The path Bauer has taken may seem like it has been a long one, but that is only because he made his MLB debut at the tender age of 21. He was 22 when he debuted with the Indians in 2013. The third overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2011 amateur draft, he turned his first team off because he was stuck in his ways and did not want to give up his unique pre-game warmup routines and other ways of training that most MLB pitchers do not undertake.

Cleveland, on the other hand, has embraced the quirks of the talented hurler and it has paid off, slowly but surely.

For a few years, it was fair to wonder if Bauer would ever live up to his highly regarded pre-draft billing. He would show glimpses of being an ace-like pitcher but then regress back to something less than that. At the start of 2016, some Tribe fans were ready to see their team cut ties with Bauer.

Early in 2017, Bauer was doing a lot of tweeting and smack-talking, but was getting smacked around a lot by opposing hitters. Every post-game of a Bauer start seemed to come with a different excuse, such as his pitches where right where he wanted them but the other team was just swinging the bats well. Teams were swinging the bats well often against Bauer through July.

Through his first six starts, Bauer was 2-4 with a 7.36 ERA. After four decent starts, he ended May at 5-4 with a 6.00 ERA. It seemed in June that he was settling back in to being the solid mid-rotation guy that he was in 2016 when he had 3.82 ERA for the season’s third month and toted a 7-6 record and an improved 5.24 ERA into July. It appeared to be fool’s gold as July did not go so well to start. He 1-2 and his ERA ballooned back up to 5.58 in his first three starts of the month. At that point, with the Indians in first place, some wondered if he would even be a part of the postseason roster. It was a steep decline for a guy who entered the 2016 postseason, partly due to injuries, as the club’s second best starting pitcher behind two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.

With one more start in July, Bauer was wearing on people. He was a pitcher who had won 11 games in 2015 and 12 in 2016. He improved his ERA from 4.55 to 4.26 in those two seasons, leading some to believe or hope that he was ready to take that next step toward a top-of-the-rotation pitcher last year. He seemed to be regressing, instead. Then, all of a sudden, it was as if a light turned on. In that last start of July, on the 27th, Bauer mowed down the Angels, allowing one earned run in eight innings. Rather than that being yet another false glimpse of potential, the right-hander built on that start and ended 2017 with his best stretch of MLB pitching to date.

In 12 starts during the season’s final two months, Bauer went a blistering 8-1 with a stellar 2.57 ERA. Combined with Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, he helped to give Cleveland a three-headed starting pitching monster during the stretch run. His efforts were a big reason the club won 22 games in a row and won 102 games. Even in a disappointing five-game ALDS exit against the Yankees, Bauer was superb. He was given the surprising Game 1 start and earned a win with six and two-thirds shutout innings. He pitched on short rest in Game 4 (he allowed four runs but none were earned as the defense let him down in that one).

All-in-all, Bauer’s run from late July into October had the makings of a young pitcher finally figuring out how to not only excel, but be elite at the Major League level. Even with veteran status, due to number of years in the big leagues, Bauer is still only going to be 27 this season. He is really just entering his prime years. This is the time he should be hitting his stride. Last season seemed to be an indication that he was heading to that next level. His 17 wins were tied for fourth in the A.L. Four pitchers in the Majors had more wins, all with 18 (that included rotation mates Kluber and Carrasco). Bauer’s final ERA of 4.19 was just a tick off his career best 4.18 of 2014 and good for 15th best in the A.L. That 2014 season, though, he was only 5-8.

Could Bauer be ready to emerge this season as one of the game’s elite starters? If he can continue his progression that seems to be where he is headed. Imagine if he can start this season the way that he ended last year. He would almost surely find himself in Washington, D.C. as a part of his first All-Star Game. If he can finally put a full season of good baseball together, he could find himself joining Kluber and Carrasco in the Cy Young Award conversation.

Hopes have been high for Bauer ever since he was drafted seven years ago. For once, hopes are high for him entering a season. Indians fans no longer want to see him shipped out. Now they want to see him take the next step toward stardom. He begins his 2018 journey Sunday against the Mariners at Safeco Field. Hopefully that journey will end as a key member of a World Series championship team in late October. There is a long way to go to that, however. Bauer can begin his trek toward an elite level much sooner than that.

Photo: Norm Hall/Getty Images

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