GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Jake Bauers was a candidate to be the starting first baseman for the Rays in 2019 when he learned that he was being traded to Cleveland. At first, it made sense for the Indians, who were looking for a first baseman at the time, but when it was revealed that the trade was a three-team deal, including Carlos Santana from Seattle, Bauers was suddenly the odd man out.
So, he shifted to the outfield.
Bauers struggled with the transition, even though he played 20 games in the grass for the Rays. The flashes of solid offensive numbers he showed in 2018 disappeared in ’19 when he hit .226 with a .683 OPS. Although he hit for the cycle against the Tigers that June, he couldn’t find the consistency he needed to stay up on the big league roster for the whole year, and he spent the entire 2020 season at the Tribe’s alternate training site.
Now, with first base back open, the Indians have made it clear that Bauers will only be evaluated as a first baseman, at least for the start of camp.
“In the past, we've moved him from left to first -- and for obvious reasons," Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Right now, we just told him to play first. Be the best first baseman you can be, and then if we need to communicate something to him as camp goes on, we will.”
It wasn’t easy for any of the players who had to miss a full year of games at the alternate training site. Indians top prospect Nolan Jones and outfield Oscar Mercado have each talked about the mental hurdles they had to overcome last year. It was no different for Bauers.
“I kind of found myself in a very negative headspace overall. In anything,” Bauers said. “Driving down the street and noticing catching a red light instead of the four green lights you caught before. Stuff like that. I really put into practice this offseason just being positive and noticing the positive things day-to-day. I found a lot of peace and consistency.”
Instead of playing in a competitive setting for 60 games, Bauers, like the rest of the team’s player pool, was limited to intrasquad scrimmages in Lake County. But he used the opportunity to his own advantage by stepping in the box against some of the club’s best up-and-coming arms (like Sam Hentges, he mentioned) to improve the quality of his at-bats.
“There were two different ways I could have gone,” Bauers said. “I could have grown from it, as cliché as it sounds, kind of put it behind me and decided that I'm going to use it to make me better, or gone the other way, which is not somewhere that I want to go. I used it as a good opportunity to figure out a little bit about myself mentally, physically, on the baseball field, off the baseball field, all of the above.”
Francona meets with each player individually every spring, and he admitted that he can feel nervous before he talks with players who had to receive less-than-ideal news from the team the year prior. But when Bauers came in with an open mind, ready to talk through the situation and show that he’s improved since last year, Francona was pleased.
“The last year and a half or so we've had some pretty tough conversations with Jake where he's getting news that he didn't necessarily want to hear,” Francona said. “To his credit, he kind of took stock, came to camp in a good frame of mind. Once we hear that, it's like OK man, the slate is clean. Nobody is going to care [what happened last year] if you're playing first base and you're hitting the ball the way you do. Let alone us, on top of that.”
After his work at Lake County, Bauers spent over an hour each day of the offseason hitting off of a machine, and he said he’s seen his results translating onto the field as he transitions into live batting practice sessions at camp.
“I'm locked in right now,” Bauers said. “I feel the best I've ever felt on February 26th, that's for sure. … The swing is the same, and the results are more than you could ask for at this point.”