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Assessing Trevor Bauer’s Pact With The Dodgers

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2020 was an incredible season for Trevor Bauer as well as the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite its shortened campaign. For the Dodgers, they traded for 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts who led them to a 2020 World Championship, finally getting over the hump as they took the Fall Classic in six games over the Tampa Bay Rays. For Bauer, the 29 (now 30) year old finally broke out, posting a marvelous 1.73 ERA in 11 starts, finishing first in the voting for the American League Cy Young award.

Hitting free agency for the first time in his career, Trevor Bauer made bank as the premiere starter in the pitching market. In a starting pitching market with middle of the rotation caliber arms, the other pitchers on the market included an older Charlie Morton, an injury prone James Paxton as well as Jake Odorizzi. With a reigning Cy Young recipient on the market and many teams in search of a frontline starter, Bauer was the only strong option. Today, he inked a 3-year, $102M pact with the Los Angeles Dodgers. This contract left a number around the league scratching their head. At first glance, I hated the deal and thought the contract was absolutely ridiculous. The more I’ve had time to ponder it, the more I see its sheer brilliance.

Bauer, who has pitched in the Majors for the Diamondbacks, Indians and Reds, has pitched in parts of nine seasons so far and posted a pedestrian 3.90 ERA overall. If you remove his scintillating 2020 campaign, his lifetime ERA is just over 4. He’s not a bad starting pitcher, but he isn’t on par with the Max Scherzer’s of the world.

Since 2016, as you can see, Bauer at his best has ranked 17th as a starting pitcher, behind multiple of his own teammates on the Indians. Three of those teammates ahead of him on this list have been traded from the Indians, much like Bauer. Kluber, who was also a free agent this year and a 2x AL Cy Young, signed a one year deal with the Yankees worth $11M. Carlos Carrasco was dealt to the Mets, who were the runner-ups in the Bauer sweepstakes, as a throw-in player in the Francisco Lindor blockbuster. Carrasco is set to make $12M in 2021. Directly in front of Bauer is Charlie Morton who signed with the Braves in November for $15M. The Dodgers and Bauer will see a lot of the Padres in 2021, a rotation that includes Bauer’s former teammate Mike Clevinger (albeit, he will likely miss a majority of the season), Blake Snell and Darvish. Two of these pitchers are ahead of Bauer on the above list, while Yu Darvish is just below him coming in at number 20. Of pitchers who are likely to be healthy on Opening Day, the Padres are paying Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack and Joe Musgrove an estimated $39.225M as opposed to the Dodgers paying $40M to Bauer alone.

Comparatively to recent contracts, Jacob deGrom’s extension with the Mets was valued at $27.5M AAV (average annual value) while Bauer’s former college teammate Gerrit Cole’s free agency deal with the Yankees was valued at $36M per year. Bauer, despite being so far behind both in every statistical category, is set to make $40M in 2021 and a whopping $45M in 2022.

Another question is regarding what Trevor Bauer the Dodgers will receive. Bauer spent the first eight seasons of his career being a league-average starting pitcher from a cumulative statistical standpoint, then enters a shortened season where he faces an above-average MLB offense in only one start in a contract year and balled out. Is he going to be worth an average of $34M over the next three seasons, with up to $45M in a single campaign? Mike Trout makes $37M a year, is a younger, every day player and a generational talent who has won three MVP awards. Trout has finished top five in MVP voting in nine consecutive seasons. Bauer’s newest teammate, Mookie Betts, is one of the players who beat out Trout for an AL MVP and he’s set to make around $74M during the duration of Bauer’s $102M contract. Bauer will be the highest paid player in MLB history in terms of single season salary. He will make more in 2021 than three MLB teams are currently spending, including his former club in Cleveland whose payroll is $36.5M.

Furthermore, if you take a deeper dive into Bauer’s numbers, it’s a tale of two careers, even heading into 2020. A draft bust, he was awful through the 2016 season with a 4.42 lifetime ERA. His turn around came within the time frame he started targeting the Astros and their innovation, pointing out ways that they improved their pitchers, such as their improved spin rate, AI and electromagnetic muscle memory. Bauer is an analytical darling partly in part of him using the analytical information available to him to his adv antage. Following the 2017 All-Star break, he went 10-2 with a 3.03 ERA the rest of the way. In 2018, he became an All-Star for the first time posting a 2.21 ERA and was in the discussion for a Cy Young award prior to a freak injury that resulted from being hit by a line drive. In 2019, he had a 3.79 ERA heading into the All-Star break when he was dealt to the Reds, struggled to assimilate and skewed his season statline after a disastrous final month. Yet, 2020 he finally put it all together while staying healthy, edging out pitchers such as Yu Darvish, Jacob deGrom and Max Fried in Cy Young consideration.

This contract has Bauer set to make an estimated $1.3M per start. The Dodgers being the ideal fit would have left many scratching their head, as it wasn’t a need and shoots them over the luxury tax threshold by a sizable margin. They already have Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher of this generation. They have David Price, the 2012 American League Cy Young during his time as a Tampa Bay Ray. Walker Buehler has been one of the league’s premiere young starters alongside Julio Urias. Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin are two of MLBs brightest young starting pitching prospects who played a pivotal role in LA’s 2020 Championship. To say that the Dodgers needed a starting pitcher is extremely far fetched. That said, the Dodgers were looking to improve the team that was near-perfect with their core locked down long-term. Bauer is an immediate upgrade to an already great staff.

Andrew Friedman, president of the Dodgers, changed the way that teams operate during his time as General Manager on the Rays. His genius may have just struck once again. The contract is even more fascinating when you break down the AAV, as opposed to the years on the deal. Most contracts, using new Cardinal Nolan Arenado as the example, will now feature heavily front-loaded deals with smaller salaries on the back-end. The third baseman signed an eight-year, $260M agreement prior to the 2019 season. Yet, he’s set to earn $35M in 2021 and only a mere $15M in 2027 in the final year of the contract. After the failure of deals such as the Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera contracts, franchises changed the way that they structured payments so that a majority of the money is spent on the players more productive seasons. This contract specifically, should it pan out, is about to alter the course of free agency. This contract gave Bauer so much more per year than he ever would’ve received signing for six or seven years, even up to ten, as we’ve become accustomed to seeing. Yet, should it work out, the Dodgers paid more up front for his best years, aren’t strapped down financially long-term when it comes time to extending key players, and Bauer can get another big, high money deal again in the future, seeing as he’ll be at most 33 the next time he hits free agency. The contract that Bauer and agent, Rachel Luba, a self-made entrepreneur that owns her own sports agency at only 28 years young, garnered today is nothing short of extraordinary.

Bauer’s polarizing personality also makes this amount of money a somewhat shock. Bauer isn’t the most popular player in the union, being outspoken in regards to cheating when it comes to players such as the aforementioned Cole. He went viral after a bad outing in Kansas City, launching a ball over the centerfield wall from the pitchers mound.

Bauer’s personality is a bit strange. Bauer was the pitcher who broke his finger playing with a drone just days before a World Series start in 2016. He is the same player who said that he’d never ink a multi-year deal for a comical bet that he made his rookie season.

That said, Bauer brings a specific, distinguishable moxie to the mound. In a way, he’s baseball’s version of Conor McGregor and a personality such as that in a market such as LA is only going to benefit the game in the long run.

In the above clip, he states the reasons that he wasn’t ever considering a multi-year deal, with the drawback being the money. He found a happy medium, featuring the best of both worlds. He gets to be on a contender the entire contract and still isn’t in one place for too long, while also making bank with the opportunity to make more bank. For Bauer, this was the perfect contract. The verdict is out for the Dodgers, but if the jury comes back and says that it worked, it will change free agency in a major way. Bauer hit free agency at a perfect time where starting pitching was premium and the some fifteen or sixteen starting pitchers that have been superior over the course of the last five seasons either weren’t available or had major question marks surrounding health or age, while Bauer is still in his prime and in relatively good health, making him the most sought after prize of the offseason.

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