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Making Sense of a Potential Shane Bieber Trade for the Guardians

Could Cleveland trade Bieber without sacrificing competitiveness in 2024?

Atlanta Braves v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In the doldrums before the Winter Meeting’s storm begins, Jon Morosi of MLB Network likes to spew rumors to get things brewing. Guardians fans were the latest to get swept up when Morosi tweeted that the Cubs and Reds were involved in pursuing a trade for Guardians’ pitcher, Shane Bieber:

Morosi followed it up with a TV hit saying the market for Bieber is “strong.”

Now, all due respect to Morosi, but he is not a selective rumors reporter. If he wakes up in the morning and hears a Justin Bieber song on the radio while wearing red pajamas and drinking from a Cubs’ blue coffee mug, he might count that as a rumor that the Reds and Cubs are in on Bieber talks. He’s very much a volume shooter in tweeting trade rumblings. I would not take ANYTHING he said as a sign that something is likely to happen let alone imminently taking place.

In summary, the rumors might be and probably are nothing. We know that Cleveland will listen on any player. We also know that whatever Morosi has heard very likely didn’t come from the Guardians’ tight-lipped front office, so this means a Cubs or Reds official may have dropped the news to try to get leverage in a potential Tyler Glasnow deal (who seems very much confirmed to be a guy the Rays are shopping in potential trades).

So why this article? There’s not a lot going on in Guardians’ news or in MLB rumors right now, so analyzing a potential Shane Bieber trade is, at the least, an interesting thought exercise and, at the most, a good way to arm our cognitive dissonance resolution receptors to rationally process a move when it happens. Below, I will examine potential ways the Guardians could approach a Shane Bieber trade and offer opinions on which approaches I find the most potentially valid. I want to begin by clarifying that I am not of the opinion that Bieber SHOULD be traded; I think the team is probably better suited to keep him for 2024 from where I sit. But, I am also not of the opinion that a Bieber trade would end the Guardians’ chances to compete for a World Series title in 2024.

First, we should acknowledge the reasons that a Shane Bieber trade might make sense:

1. The Guardians are being asked by ownership to operate on a limited budget due to concerns over the collapse of Bally Sports and the regional sports networks, and Shane Bieber is due approximately $12 million in arbitration in 2024.

2. Shane Bieber is coming off of multiple seasons of injury issues, the latest being a flare up of elbow inflammation. Elbow inflammation isn’t unusual for pitchers and not necessarily a cause to fear imminent Tommy John, but anything connected to the elbow is, obviously, not ideal. He will turn 29 next year, which is not old, but also past player peak which is 27 years old. Since 2021, his average on his fastball has declined by 2 mph, which leaves his margins for error quite slim.

3. Obviously, Bieber is only under team control through 2024 and, as he has not reached an extension with the team, he will be testing free agency (barring a trade and a lucrative extension with a new team). Any team that retains Bieber’s services prior to the start of the 2024 season can offer him a qualifying offer and if, as expected, Bieber declines that offer, recoup some value with a late first/early second round compensatory pick in the 2025 draft. (If traded during the season, Bieber would no longer have a compensation pick attached). If the Guardians trade a healthy Bieber this offseason, they will receive better value than they would at a midseason move (also a risk due to his health issues).

Now, let’s review why trading Bieber is problematic for the Guardians:

1. I would argue that the Guardians and Guardians’ fans should see the 2024 AL Central division as up for grabs. Neither the Twins or Tigers have rosters that are clearly superior to the Guardians and neither seem set to spend immense amounts of money to significantly widen any talent gap that might or might not exist. With the franchise player, Jose Ramirez, entering his age 31 season, they can’t expect more than potentially one or two years of peak performance from their perennial all-star, so it would be good to capitalize on the 5-6 WAR Ramirez is likely to put up by making a playoff run in 2024. Additionally, with a new manager on board, stripping the roster to the studs by trading your veteran ace is a rough look no matter how you slice it.

2. Speaking of the term ace, there are only 15 pitchers in baseball projected by Steamer for .5 or more fWAR in 2024 than Shane Bieber. Since Opening Day 2021, despite dealing with injuries, Bieber is 24th in fWAR among all MLB pitchers (only three pitchers ranked above him have thrown fewer innings than Bieber has in that time period). If healthy, Shane Bieber is projected to be the Guardians’ best pitcher in 2024 by a healthy margin.

3. There is something to be said for veteran leadership and the ability to throw significant innings. Since the Guardians dealt Cal Quantrill this offseason, they are short on both of those characteristics, and Bieber would seem to be the clear veteran leader of the starting rotation as things stand. Now, Triston McKenzie and Tanner Bibee certainly give off the appearances of being vocal leaders and all of the Guardians’ starters certainly seem like very hard workers, but it’s hard to replace the value of someone who has “been there.”

Now that we’ve got that base of knowledge, let’s evaluate some general categories of Shane Bieber trades:

Trade Scenario 1: Trade Bieber for prospects who are not ready to help in 2024 yet but may be soon or should be helpful down the road.

Analysis: This is the easiest kind of trade to pull off. Many, many MLB teams looking to compete in 2024 will gladly risk some interesting 45 Future Value or even 50 Future Value prospects in Double-A or lower to take a chance on a 3-4 WAR season from Shane Bieber in 2024. However, this is the kind of move one might expect if, as an example of a team in similar circumstances, the Milwaukee Brewers decide to extend Jackson Chourio and trade Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and/or Devin Williams. That kind of activity would be a sign from Milwaukee that fans should prepare for a rough 2024, but brighter days are ahead in 2025 and beyond. In contrast to Milwaukee, Cleveland has Jose Ramirez and is looking to replace a franchise legend at manager, while building on their strongest attendance in 5 years as they remodel the ballpark and convince the city to invest in the area around the ballpark, I think selling 2024 as a rebuild/step-back season is untenable. It would be, rightly, perceived by fans as being cheap and I think there would be noticeable consequences in ticket sales and even TV rights purchases (if that becomes a factor), so I don’t think this kind of trade is likely.

I will offer a caveat here: the Guardians could pull off a three-team deal in which the prospects they acquire for Shane Bieber can be used to trade for someone to help replace Bieber at a cheaper rate. There are creative ways to pull this off, but it’s obviously very complicated.

Trade Scenario 2: Find the Goldilocks trade in which the Guardians deal Shane Bieber and get a young, controllable outfield bat.

Analysis: The Cubs and Reds are useful teams to include in this kind of scenario, deserved skepticism on Morosi aside, as both teams have several exciting, young hitters. IF the Guardians believe that Christian Encarnacion-Strand is viable as an outfield defender, and IF the Cubs are willing to include Christopher Morel in a Bieber return, than I think this deal could be mutually beneficial for both clubs. The problem, of course, is that both Encarnacion-Strand and Morel have a lot more overall value to a team than Bieber does with only one year of control remaining. So, in this case, the deal would likely have to be expanded, with Cleveland including prospects, or perhaps a useful relief arm, that the other team likes WITH Bieber to sweeten the deal. I do say “likely,” however, because I think there is a scenario where a team is willing to overpay for a pitcher like Bieber. If I was a Cubs fan, and Chicago traded Christopher Morel for Shane Bieber, straight-up, I would, first, want my team to extend him (reasonable possibility), recognize that Morel hasn’t looked good defensively and looks to be a guy who will hit homers but strikeout 30% of the time while we’ve still got Patrick Wisdom to slide into his spot and say “Justin Steele and Shane Bieber anchoring our playoff rotation sounds like a good bet to make.” Meanwhile, the Guardians would get a player who is scouted to be average-good in the outfield and seems set to be a 120 wRC+ hitter who will handle lefties well as a right-hander.

Morel, here, is just an example of the kind of hitter I’d ideally want the Guardians to target in a Shane Bieber deal. I think if the Guardians make this kind of deal, I would have very little complaints. I would expect them to make a play for at LEAST someone like Wade Miley in free agency, later, or maybe someone like Mitch Keller in a trade, but I will trade a year of Shane Bieber for a guy I think is 2-3 win outfielder they can bat in the middle of your order for the next 5-6 years. It does not hurt your team in the present, it simply creates a problem you have to try to solve over the next two months in terms of the rotation.

Trade Scenario 3: Trade Shane Bieber for an expiring contract for a major league player and a young pitcher the Guardians believe they can make the next Shane Bieber.

Analysis: This is a complicated scenario to describe, so I will use a specific example to help us imagine how this could happen. The St. Louis Cardinals have a 23 year-old pitcher named Michael McGreevy who walked only 2.48 batters per 9 and struck out 7.17 batters per 9 in 134 innings at Triple-A last year. McGreevy has never been a high strikeout pitcher because of 30-grade fastball, but he has great command of his secondary stuff. A deal for Tyler O’Neill and Michael McGreevy checks out as the kind of slight overpay the Guardians could expect to get for Bieber and suddenly the Cleveland rotation moves McKenzie, Bibee, Williams and Allen up and gets McGreevy for the 5th spot in the rotation once they feel they’ve got him at his maximum value. The Cardinals, also, have tended to lag a bit from the rest of the league in maximizing pitcher value, so there’s reason to believe that the Guardians’ pitcher factory may find some significant value left to be revealed in a pitcher like this who is still young for the level at which he has pitched.

Again, I’m not saying this is the exact deal that is going to happen, but you can see the ways that Cleveland could go about addressing their rotation depth with a young player who should be projectable for 150-180 innings in 2024 as well as adding a player who can hit in the middle of their lineup and hold down an outfield spot until they sort out folks like George Valera, Johnathan Rodriguez, Oscar Gonzalez, Will Brennan and Juan Brito. This scenario, however, relies on an immense amount of confidence in the health of Triston McKenzie’s elbow ligament, something I’m not sure how the Guardians’ can have barring an existence of a newly acquired palantir that shows Chris Antonetti the future of the young players with which he’s stocked the system.

I will note that I’m not a fan of the oft-suggested Anthony Santander for Shane Bieber trade. I would want an additional, noteworthy prospect who can potentially help in 2024 or it’s not enough for me to give up the value Bieber provides to the Guardians this coming year.

Trade Scenario 4: Trade Shane Bieber for the best return possible, with the knowledge that you’ve got a trade for a cheaper, superior replacement for him lined up.

Analysis: I have no idea why the Milwaukee Brewers would trade Freddy Peralta or why the Miami Marlins would trade Jesus Luzardo. But, these are names that get rumored as potentially available on social media platforms. If the Guardians have a trade lined up to get some great prospects for Bieber and a secondary trade lined up for a pitcher like Peralta or Luzardo, sign me up TOMORROW. But, before we go and run with an idea like that, understand that getting either of those kind of pitchers probably requires trading someone like Steven Kwan, Josh Naylor, Kyle Manzardo or Chase DeLauter. I don’t think this scenario is likely, but it’s within the realm of possibility, so I’m listing it.

Alternatively, I could see the Guardians looking at a Jack Flaherty and thinking “We can fix him” and signing him to a one-year pillow deal. His price is going to AT least be similar to what Bieber is owed, even on a one-year deal, but rather than paying Bieber that price and seeing his value diminish with the loss of a comp pick once the season starts, the Guardians could get the value for trading Bieber now, help Flaherty get on track and then either ride his rediscovered success to the playoffs or trade him midseason for additional value. There are other pitchers who may fit this category (Tyler Mahle who won’t be available for a while, Guardians’ legend Lucas Giolito, Sean Manea, Luis Severino, etc).

Conclusion: It’s a big risk to trade Shane Bieber. It’s also, admittedly, a certain level of risk to keep him and let him walk at the end of 2023 for simply a comp pick. However, in the latter scenario, you hopefully receive the 3-4 fWAR Bieber will provide before he leaves while making a playoff push, and you still give yourself a chance to receive some value for him in a mid-year trade if things really fall apart.

Guardians fans should not panic if Shane Bieber is traded because there are a variety of ways the team can still succeed while moving him. However, the team should also be very mindful of the need to capitalize on the remnants of 2022’s momentum, the hiring of a new manager and the decision of potential hall of famer Jose Ramirez to accept a huge discount to stay in Cleveland when deciding whether or not to trade the player projected to be the best pitcher on their 2024 staff.