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Tempering Shane Bieber trade expectations

Could Cleveland’s reputation finally bite them?

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MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Oakland Athletics Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Each day brings us closer to the eventual heat death of the universe and the eventual trade of Shane Bieber. You might be cheering for both, you might be cheering for neither, but both seem inevitably on the horizon, however distant.

As a quick recap — not that you, informed reader, need one — Bieber is under team control through the 2024 season and he’s making $10 million this year and will certainly get a raise next year either through arbitration or a one-year deal to avoid that nasty business. His performance is not what it was in his Cy Young-winning 2020 season, but he’s still pretty darn good. His 1.0 fWAR and 4.14 FIP are both 41st out of 69 qualified starters, and though his strikeout rate has fallen this year (16.9%, 63rd) he has maintained a solid walk rate (6.7%, 27th).

Entering the last season-and-a-half of his cost-controlled tenure with Cleveland with little prospect of accepting the cut-rate contract the team claims is the best they can offer, Bieber is in a similar position to Francisco Lindor, Mike Clevinger, or Trevor Bauer before him. However, despite my wishes and the fever dream trades cooked up by umpteen fans on Baseball Trade Values, I do not expect Cleveland to get the same kind of haul they got in those previous deals.

Lindor was dealt in the offseason with one year left on his deal, packaged with Carlos Carrasco in return for Amed Rosario, Andrés Giménez, and minor leaguers. Though the minor league players have stalled in the low minors, this deal was still very good for the Guardians. Rosario is enduring a rough 2022 (to put it charitably), but he’s still created 4.1 fWAR in his two-plus years with the team and, well, you know what Giménez has meant to the team. The Clevinger deal, coming a couple months prior, was even better for Cleveland, returning five players that have already made MLB contributions in Gabriel Arias, Austin Hedges, Owen Miller, Josh Naylor, and Cal Quantrill as well as one who might still be great in Joey Cantillo. The Trevor Bauer trade of 2019 looks duller in retrospect, but the return of Logan Allen, Yasiel Puig, and Franmil Reyes was rated highly for the Guardians at the time.

That Cleveland has extracted such high value for players with limited team control left is something the front office should certainly be proud of, but I’m afraid it has also become a millstone around the team’s neck. In the cases of Bauer, Clevinger, and even Corey Kluber (who was traded in late 2019 for Emmanuel Clase), the Guardians have developed a pattern of parting with their starters at exactly the right moment. Kluber won two Cy Youngs with Cleveland with an ERA of 3.16 And xFIP of 3.07 over eight seasons, but has produced an ERA of 4.49 and xFIP of 4.30 in the three years since. Bauer produced 8.4 fWAR in his last season and a half with Cleveland and is now pitching in the Korean minor leagues. Clevinger has seen his xFIP increase by about three-quarters of a run at each subsequent stop, from 3.85 with Cleveland to 4.58 with the Padres and 5.37 with the White Sox. If you and I know this, MLB front offices know this and much, much more, that much is certain.

Cleveland also received significant major league talent in each of their previous deals (Rosario, Reyes, Hedges, etc.), in addition to prospects, and that no longer seems to be the norm. Recent deals at a level comparable to what might be expected in a Bieber deal include the A’s trading Sean Murphy, the A’s trading Matt Chapman, the Reds trading Luis Castillo, and the Rockies trading Nolan Arenado. In the Murphy deal, the only other players with more than 1 fWAR in their career were 36-year-old Manny Piña and William Contreras (to separate teams), the Chapman and Castillo deals included no other players with at least 1 fWAR, and the Arenado deal included Austin Gomber as the only 1+ fWAR player. The circumstances around these trades are all different, as are the front offices, but the fact that all of these high-profile deals included very little in terms of major league-ready talent certainly seems like an indicator for any Bieber deal.

Even diminished from his 2020 peak, I still rate Bieber pretty highly, which may simply be my bias. But I think the Guardians’ track record is going to make opposing teams think twice when they hear who the team is interested in. Similar to the joke that you should never trade with the Rays, I think teams are going to be hesitant with the Guardians. So, I’m resigning myself to something underwhelming in a Bieber trade right now — best case something like the Twins-Marlins deal that swapped Pablo López and Luis Arraez, and worst case something like the Royals got for Andrew Benintendi (a couple 40-grade and one 45-grade prospect).

Time will tell, and perhaps some team will want Bieber badly enough to give up a good MLB outfielder (cough, Cardinals, cough), but I’m ready to be let down. Unless the heat death of the universe comes first, but I hope not.