Trevor Bauer's stature as the top pitcher available in free agency is very clear. What remains unclear is how much the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner is worth on the open market.
It's unclear precisely what type of contract Bauer is seeking, though it has been reported that he's aiming for the highest average annual value in history, which would mean matching or topping Yankees ace Gerrit Cole's $36 million per year deal.
At first glance, that sounds crazy, doesn't it? A closer look reveals that it might not be so outlandish after all.
Cole signed a nine-year deal worth $324 million with the Yankees in December 2019, marking both the biggest overall pitching contract in history as well as the highest AAV for any player.
That same month, Stephen Strasburg -- fresh off a World Series MVP performance -- inked a seven-year, $245 million pact to return to the Nationals, a $35 million AAV.
Bauer compares admirably to both Cole and Strasburg as a free agent, and while some will immediately argue that his Cy Young Award season -- something neither of the other two have had in their careers -- came during a pandemic-shortened 60-game campaign, Bauer's three-year stretch heading into free agency puts him right there with his two peers.
Bauer has a 3.18 ERA since the start of the 2018 season, while Cole's was 3.20 and Strasburg's 3.15 in their respective three-year stretches entering free agency. Bauer's 144 ERA+ tops Strasburg (140) and Cole (136) during that same three-year lead-in.
A look at Bauer's record shows a Cy Young Award-caliber 2018 season (2.21 ERA over 175 1/3 innings for the Indians) during which he made his first All-Star team, followed by a dip in '19 (4.48 ERA with the Indians and Reds) caused in part by a lingering right ankle injury that he pitched through. Then came '20, when Bauer was the best pitcher in the NL, resulting in a landslide win in the Cy Young Award vote.
"The biggest difference is that he has really struggled at times at the MLB level," an NL executive said, noting Bauer's inconsistency during the first three full years of his career. "But he's been durable and he's on the upswing."
Strasburg's deal marked his second big contract after he opted out of the final four years of the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed with Washington in 2016. When he signed his big deal on Dec. 9, 2019, Strasburg was already 31 years old and had spent parts of 10 seasons in the Majors -- including 426 days on the injured list.
The Nationals star had never posted an ERA higher than 3.74 in his first 10 years, though that personal high came in 2018, one year before he became a free agent. He rebounded with a strong '19, pitching to a 3.32 ERA while leading the NL with 209 innings, then he cashed in with his huge contract following a stellar postseason.
Like Bauer, Cole was 29 when he reached free agency, throwing a similar number of starts and innings to that point.
Cole had actually been on a downward trajectory prior to the 2018 season; after posting a 2.60 ERA in '15, he pitched to a 3.88 ERA in '16 and a 4.26 ERA in '17, all with the Pirates. Cole's '16 season was interrupted twice by right elbow injuries, causing him to throw just 116 innings over 21 starts. He has spent 143 days on the IL during his career -- more than three times as many as Bauer (40).
A trade to Houston rejuvenated Cole, who posted a pair of Cy Young Award-caliber seasons in 2018-19, putting him on track to land the richest pitching contract in history.
Bauer's ability to take the ball every five days -- or every four days, if he has his way -- has been one of his greatest attributes. He's spent a minimal amount of time on the IL during his career, though had he sat out and allowed his ankle to heal after injuring it in late-April 2019, he might not have that bloated ERA on the back of his baseball card. Bauer had a 1.99 ERA in his first six starts that season, then posted a 5.07 mark after the injury.
Even taking the shortened season into account, Bauer's 2020 run puts him in the company of his two accomplished counterparts at the peak of their respective free-agent seasons.
Best 11-start stretch during their walk year
Cole (2019): 1.51 ERA, 77 2/3 IP, 122 K's, .141/.180/.267
Strasburg (2019): 2.83 ERA, 70 IP, 91 K's, .204/.261/.331
Bauer: (2020): 1.73 ERA, 73 IP, 100 K's, .159/.219/.302
There will be those who note that Bauer's free-agent season consisted of just 11 starts, while both Cole and Strasburg pitched complete traditional seasons in their respective walk year.
But a look at the 90 starts for each pitcher leading into free agency shows how similar their performances were.
Final 90 starts heading into free agency
Strasburg: 3.40 ERA, 547 1/3 IP, 656 K's
Cole: 3.21 ERA, 565 2/3 IP, 751 K's
Bauer: 3.15 ERA, 556 1/3 IP, 677 K's
"I love his intellectual curiosity and the fact that he's willing to think differently in order to improve," an NL executive said. "But it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for him at the MLB level. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have him, but I think there's some risk there. I suppose that's always the case with pitchers, though."
Bauer is unlikely to land a contract near the total value that Cole received, but he doesn't appear to be seeking a deal as lengthy as the nine-year pact the Yankees gave Cole. Bauer may not even be looking for the seven years the Nationals gave Strasburg, who was 18 months older than Bauer is now.
Is a five- or six-year deal for $36 million a year a realistic goal for Bauer? Based on his performance heading into free agency, he might have a legitimate case.