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Dealing Shane Bieber would not be an easy task

A difficult decision might be necessary if the Guardians and Bieber don’t agree to a long-term deal, but probably not anytime soon

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Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Guardians - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Should Shane Bieber be traded?

If you polled a random subset of Guardians fans and asked just that one question, I imagine the answers would vary a lot depending on the date of the poll. Any time prior to the 2021 season, anything less than 9/10 fans saying “No” would have been surprising. After injuries limited his playing time in 2021, perhaps a few more fans would be willing to see what Bieber could fetch in the trade market — after all, pitching injuries are common and commonly devastating (ask a Mets fan).

Now, after weeks of diminished velocity and effectiveness and reports that Bieber has rejected an extension offer from the Guardians ... I’m not sure there’s still a majority among the fanbase saying “No” to trading Bieber.

Like Francisco Lindor and many others before him, Bieber is interested in exercising his right to test the free market. You can’t blame the guy, because in any profession besides athletics workers are encouraged to “bet on themselves” and maximize their earning potential. In cases like this, the ‘Dians have always sought to maximize the potential of the players they control as well, most often by dealing the last few controlled years in exchange for less-expensive prospects. This kind of dealing is smart from a business sense, and some writers are already thinking a Bieber deal might be in the cards, whether or not fans are clamoring for it.

But is now really the best time for a deal? Bieber hasn’t been as dominant this year as he has previously, with his velocity down 3 mph from 2020; his K/9 rate down 5% from 2020; and 1.7% more balls being barreled against him than in 2020. So, if the thinking is to get what you can now while there is value in the return, why do it now?

Graph of Shane Bieber’s ERA- and FIP- with trends moving downward.

Well, if Bieber has not been as dominant as usual, he has not been that far off. Currently, his 2.79 FIP is 10th among qualified starting pitchers in MLB; his 1.5 fWAR is 14th; his 6.8% HR/FB rate is 14th; his 0.59 HR/9 rate is 14th; his 9.2 K/9 rate is 23rd; and his 2.37 BB/9 rate is 29th. Those aren’t Cy Young numbers, but they’re certainly top-tier numbers among MLB pitchers.

Chart showing Shane Bieber’s xwOBA against by game for individual pitches with trend lines pointing downward.

And in just about every metric, Bieber seems to be improving. In his last two games, Bieber has posted his best game scores (70 and 75, respectively) of the season, and the trend lines on everything are going in the right direction — including velocity.

Chart showing Shane Bieber’s velocity per game with trends starting to point up for all pitches.

Bieber may not be back to his 2020 fastball velocity, and seemingly never will be again, but that does not mean he’s not an incredibly valuable member of the Guardians’ rotation. In last year’s trade value rankings, FanGraphs rated Bieber as the 12th most valuable player in MLB while noting his injury concerns and the fact that he only throws his fastball 33% of the time and that his breaking stuff is some of the nastiest in the game. Regardless, velocity concerns and one less year of control will diminish that ranking a bit, but it’s hard to imagine him falling out of the top 50 in trade value.

A close comparison to a deal for Bieber is likely the deal that swapped the color of Chris Sale’s Sox. After five straight All-Star nods and four straight top-five Cy Young finishes, Sale netted the White Sox four prospects (including Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech) from the Red Sox. That trade, however, came when Sale had five years of service time – Bieber has just over three. Additionally, it came when the White Sox were ready to enter full-on rebuilding mode, something Cleveland is not doing and does not do as a rule.

Perhaps an even closer comparison would be the deal that sent Chris Archer from Tampa to Pittsburgh. At the time of the deal, Archer had just over three years of service time and a couple All-Star nods and a fifth-place Cy Young finish. The only problem with this as a comp is that Archer was never the pitcher for Pittsburgh he was for Tampa and the Rays look like the clear winner for getting three MLB players (Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz) out of the deal. That deal is a big part of what cost Neal Huntington his job as Pirates’ GM, so how many other GMs around the league would like to tempt fate in a Bieber deal?

Besides the difficulty in finding someone who is willing to risk repeating Huntington’s mistakes, Cleveland is not where the White Sox or Rays are when they made those deals. In their most recent power rankings, FanGraphs put the Guardians in the “Solid Contenders” tier, noting the underlying quality of the team and its 20% playoff odds as of June 6. Just a game under .500 and with expanded playoffs looming, Cleveland is a team that should be looking to add rather than subtract.

Although any deal involving Bieber would certainly provide the Guardians with assets for long-term success, the team should seek to maximize the window with him rather than plan for life without him. Bieber might not be his 2020 self ever again, but as the elder statesman in a rotation that has not been up to its recent standards, he has a valuable role to play yet. That role, perhaps more than simply trying to find a team willing to offer a too-good-to-refuse package, makes a deal for Bieber seem out of reach. At least for now.