Arguably no team needs Trevor Bauer less than the 2021 Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler or the returning David Price would top many rival staffs. Behind them are Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Julio Urías, who all flashed brilliance last year, then a stable of potential next-generation stars like Josiah
Arguably no team needs
The Dodgers’ pitching depth has been the envy of a sport that never has enough pitching. And yet, as the calendar gets closer to February and Bauer remains unsigned, ESPN’s Jeff Passan cited the Dodgers this week as a club that still “could be a player.” Bauer is giving it some thought, too, speaking with Dodgers fans on Monday about why he would play for L.A.
It still seems way likelier that a pitching-starved team like the Angels, Giants or Twins — or maybe even the big-spending Mets or Blue Jays — signs Bauer, and it might take some more creative thinking to make a Dodgers-Bauer pairing work. But the Dodgers aren’t averse to unorthodox ideas and, well, that’s pretty much Bauer’s whole M.O. Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t count out the defending World Series champs just yet.
Why the Dodgers could do it
Well, have you seen what the Padres have been up to? The Dodgers’ biggest National League West threat renovated its rotation, trading for Mike Clevinger last summer (though he’s out until 2022) and then adding both elite talent (Yu Darvish, Blake Snell) and enviable depth pieces (a perhaps overqualified fourth or fifth starter in Joe Musgrove). Los Angeles has watched San Diego take its “you can’t have enough pitching” mindset and run wild with it — vaulting its rotation ahead of the Dodgers’ in FanGraphs’ projections. From a purely competitive standpoint, perhaps there’s an urge to respond.
There are also underlying question marks in the Dodgers’ rotation. Kershaw turns 33 in March, has thrown more than 2,500 combined regular and postseason innings and hits free agency next winter. There’s no guarantee how many innings Price can throw, after he chose not to play last year. Can Gonsolin, May and/or Urías (none of whom have ever thrown 80 innings in a season) really handle a full-season workload in the rotation? And Gray has yet to start a game above Double-A.
But beyond that arms race with the Padres, the Dodgers and Bauer might be a unique match. Bauer had previously stated that he would only sign one-year deals; his stance is obviously more fluid now, considering the leverage he holds, but he and his agent, Rachel Luba, maintain that he is open to “a number of different types of contracts and structures.”
Maybe that’s an encouraging sign for Los Angeles, because apart from Mookie Betts’ 12-year extension, Andrew Friedman’s front office has favored loaded, short-term offers in free agency. MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi reported in 2019 that the Dodgers offered Bryce Harper a four-year contract that would have paid him a record-shattering $45 million a year. They reportedly tried a similar tact by offering Zack Greinke a five-year deal back in 2015, Friedman’s second offseason in charge.
Dodgers have checked in on Trevor Bauer and are believed to have interest on a short-term deal. Word is, he’d love to be in SoCal , and he’s said he’d consider short deals. Dodgers showed short-term interest in Greinke and Harper but stars usually prefer the biggest haul.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 20, 2021
Perhaps Los Angeles goes that route again and offers Bauer both a chance to challenge Gerrit Cole’s record for the largest annual average value and the opportunity to enjoy free agency again. A four-year, $128 million deal — the contract MLB Trade Rumors predicted Bauer would sign with L.A. back in November — still makes sense. Maybe it’s an even shorter deal for, say, two years and $75 million.
But the Dodgers don’t necessarily need to take that approach. Signing Bauer to any realistic contract would push Los Angeles beyond the $210 million competitive balance tax (CBT) threshold (the club already sits roughly $5 million shy of that figure, per Roster Resource) — unless the Dodgers cleared space with a handful of trades. But then, their books open up significantly: Betts is the Dodgers’ only long-term commitment beyond this year, and their projected tax figure for 2022 currently sits at just $80 million.
Maybe Bauer still favors a shorter-term play. But if he suddenly wants long-term security, Los Angeles would have roster flexibility, beginning next year, to make that happen, too. Paying the 2021 CBT penalty could be a worthy pill to swallow if it means the Dodgers can match up with the Padres’ super-rotation down the road.
Why Bauer could do it
There are a few obvious reasons why any free agent would sign with the Dodgers. Betts is a dynamic cornerstone around whom Los Angeles can build for years to come. The Dodgers’ front office is perhaps the model for any franchise. Then there’s the Dodger history and the Los Angeles market — something that could appeal to Bauer in terms of expanding Momentum, his media company.
But Bauer appears more interested in the working relationship with his next team than media markets or growing his brand. As he recently explained on his YouTube page, Bauer wants his next pairing “to be a partnership, first and foremost.”
“I want to be with an organization that values those things and can give me information that I can learn from,” said Bauer. “But I also want an organization that’s open to some of the things that I’m doing, and can learn from me.”
The idea Bauer seems most passionate about: Pitching every fourth day, a radical prospect in 2021, but one that Bauer wants to “have an honest discussion” about with his next team. Bauer has called this his top priority since at least 2018, and as ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle explored Thursday (subscription required), pitching routinely on three days’ rest would require both cooperation by Bauer’s own body (Bauer, citing his own data, claims this would make him a better pitcher) and a total buy-in by the team.
Doolittle simulated Bauer’s idea with the 2020 Reds and found that, with some admittedly idyllic fortune in terms of health and open-mindedness, this could actually work. Bauer’s rotation-mates made a typical number of starts in the simulation, and Bauer put up monster, Cy Young-caliber numbers.
As far as clubs besides the Reds that could pull the experiment off, Doolittle laid out this description:
“Generally speaking, it would be a club with a distinct hierarchy in its rotation, with two or three established veterans at the front of it, but which also has a depth of young starters whose workloads they want to micromanage, or veterans on innings limits who are coming off of injury. That team would also have to be innovative and bold, and it would have to be in the realm of contention, which is another item on Bauer’s want list.”
Doesn’t that sound a little like the 2021 Dodgers? Maybe you don’t mess with Kershaw’s famously rigid routine, but an analytically-inclined club like Los Angeles might still entertain this conversation more than most.
Simply put, Bauer could win with L.A.
Most of all, Bauer has said he wants to re-capture the feeling he had with Cleveland during its run to the 2016 World Series. That’s something the Dodgers could be best-positioned to deliver — and not just in ‘21.
“Winning is super important to me,” he said. “I’ve been in the World Series, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I want a chance to be in the postseason every year. My career is too short to be part of a ‘rebuilding window.’
“I want to be on a team that’s dedicated to going for it,” Bauer added, “not just trying to make the postseason, but trying to win the whole thing.”
If the Dodgers wanted to make their best sales pitch, there’s perhaps nothing better to point to than the track record they’ve already built.