But then came 2020 — when, in the midst of a chaotic, fan-free, pandemic-shortened campaign, in what was the final year before he hit free agency, Bauer had a season for the ages, albeit across just 11 starts: a 1.73 ERA, .795 walks plus hits per inning pitched, a rate of 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings and, in a landslide vote, the National League Cy Young Award.
And so, as baseball reaches the week typically reserved for its winter meetings, canceled this year amid the pandemic, the emerging market for Bauer — the most highly valued asset on this offseason’s free agent list — is perhaps the sport’s most fascinating story line, as well as its most difficult to project. Unless, of course, it is the easiest.
Among the major factors shaping Bauer’s marketplace: an economic climate in which teams claim to have suffered massive losses because of the pandemic, the difficulty in evaluating players’ performances across this season’s truncated schedule, a lack of clarity over the shape and economics of the 2021 season, and Bauer’s unusual free agent profile.
The obvious landing spot for Bauer was — and perhaps still is — the New York Mets. Almost alone among the game’s 30 teams, the Mets, under billionaire new owner Steve Cohen, have telegraphed their willingness to spend big this offseason — when many other teams are looking to shed payroll. Snatching up the best starting pitcher, by far, on the free agent market would be a sensible place to start for a big-spending team whose starters posted a collective 5.37 ERA in 2020, fifth-worst in the majors.
The Mets have been publicly flirting with Bauer for a solid month now, with team president Sandy Alderson saying during a radio interview: “I think Bauer would be a great personality in New York. I think he’s the kind of guy that fans would embrace.” That prompted Bauer to post a 17-minute-long video to his popular YouTube channel praising Cohen’s “brilliant” approach.
Bauer, who turns 30 in January, may not be Gerrit Cole — the right-hander (and Bauer’s former UCLA teammate) who signed a record-breaking nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees a year ago — but he stands alone among starting pitchers in this market in earning the “elite” label. The best of the other available starters — Masahiro Tanaka, Jake Odorizzi, José Quintana, James Paxton, Garrett Richards, Taijuan Walker and Japanese import Tomoyuki Sugano — are mostly mid-rotation arms.
The trade market is scattered with potential upgrades — most notably Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell, Cincinnati’s Sonny Gray and Texas’s Lance Lynn — but any of them would come at a cost in young players in addition to future payroll commitments.
The list of teams known to be shopping for starting pitching this offseason, in addition to the Mets, includes large-revenue stalwarts in the Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants, and on-the-rise franchises such as the Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres and Toronto Blue Jays. The Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, because they can, are certain to keep tabs on Bauer’s market and could pounce if they find the price is right.
In other words, if Bauer is adamant about chasing every last dollar, he could still work this market to his advantage, with many in the industry envisioning him commanding a deal of between four and six years at somewhere north of $25 million per year.
But what about Bauer’s vow to sign only one-year deals for the rest of his career? His agent, Rachel Luba, sought to put that to rest last month by tweeting a retraction of sorts, saying Bauer would be “open to” all sorts of deals. Luba, one of the few female agents in baseball, has known Bauer since their undergraduate days at UCLA and has represented him since 2019.
Still, Bauer’s apparent inclination to bet on himself by going year-to-year would greatly expand the field of suitors, perhaps bringing in more risk-averse franchises under the long-standing baseball axiom that there is no such thing as a bad one-year deal. Baseball teams love one-year contracts, which is the length for which free agent pitchers Charlie Morton ($15 million), Drew Smyly ($11 million) and Robbie Ray ($8 million) already signed this offseason.
What if Bauer’s choice comes down to offers of, say, $140 million over five years or $35 million over one? Would he leave those guaranteed dollars on the table and gamble that he can produce another Cy Young-caliber season in 2021, then reenter free agency next offseason when, presumably, the pandemic is over and more teams are ready to spend again?
It is not a question likely to be asked seriously of any other big-name free agent in baseball, past or present. But as everyone in the sport already knows — and especially this winter — Bauer is unlike anyone else.