To say that the Cleveland Indians season "hinges on Trevor Bauer" would be a little too hyperbolic, but the club will greatly benefit from him finally approaching his talent ceiling, and they will really feel the negative effects if he does not. If the Indians ever hope to recoup the value lost when they traded away Shin-Soo Choo three years ago, Bauer needs to prove himself a great No. 4 starter or a valuable trade piece -- fast.
A 25-year-old that throws several pitches is already valuable, of course, but if Bauer cannot elevate himself to be a sub-4.00 ERA pitcher, that value may start dropping quickly. Additionally, even if the Indians have no intention of dealing him, several talented pitchers capable of being a No. 4 starter are waiting in the wings, and even more are coming through the farm system that could threaten his place in the Indians rotation.
Bauer took a step backward in his second full season as a starter last year. He finished 2015 with a 4.55 ERA, a 4.33 FIP and a 10.6 percent walk rate in 31 games (30 starts), compared to 2014 when he seemed to be heading in the right direction with a 4.18 ERA, 4.01 FIP and a 9.1 percent walk rate. That kind of performance might be fine for a home-grown prospect who comes out of nowhere to be a club's fifth starter, but it probably is not the "potential ace" the Indians envisioned when they traded All-Star outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 2013 season, netting Bauer and Drew Stubbs in a three-team deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
When trade offers were flying fast and frequently for Indians starting pitchers this offseason, not a lot of rumors leaked out that involved Bauer. In fact, unless I am missing one, I cannot think of any solid sources that claimed Bauer was a target for other teams. There was a strong fan theory that the Indians should trade Bauer for Miami Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna, but that looks to be a near impossibility at this point. The tiff between Ozuna and the Marlins organization that could have made him easier to pry away from the sunshine state is now gone while Bauer's own value still remains in the basement.
Obviously, if Bauer turns around this year it would be great news for the Indians. Either they have their solid No. 4 starter in Trevor, or he builds his value enough to be a tradable asset for a bat mid-season. If that is the case, the argument could be made that the Indians would be just fine with some mix of T.J. House, Cody Anderson, Josh Tomlin, or Mike Clevinger handling the back-end of the rotation, depending on what kind of production from Bauer they are needing to replace.
If Bauer continues to be a pitcher that allows too many home runs, walks too many batters, and does not strike enough guys out, how much time do the Indians give him? At worst, he will be 26 by the time next season rolls around with almost no trade viability unless a team wants to a take flier on a pitcher who might rebound in a new system. But if that's the case, it makes more sense for the Indians to hold onto him and have that chance themselves.
Bauer has always had an offbeat approach to pitch preparation, whether it's throwing extended forms of long toss before games or heavy use of weighted balls, so we know he is open to experiment when it comes to making himself better. As someone who is a fan of Bauer -- both on the field, and his willingness to be himself off the field -- I hope he figures something out sooner rather than later. If he can't, it will leave the Indians in the tough situation of having dealt an All-Star outfielder for essentially nothing.