Former American League Cy Young winner Shane Bieber is a year from reaching the open market, and the Guardians have discussed potential trade scenarios involving the 28-year-old righty with the Cubs and Reds, Jon Morosi of MLB.com reports. Other clubs have surely reached out on Bieber’s potential availability as well, and Morosi notes that the Cubs have also inquired on Rays ace Tyler Glasnow, who’s widely known to be available. Cincinnati was also linked to Glasnow on Monday.
Bieber’s 2023 season was arguably his worst since his 2018 rookie season, though that’s a testament to his overall track record more than an indictment on his ’23 output. Forearm and elbow troubles limited him to 128 innings this past season, but he pitched to a solid 3.80 ERA when healthy and averaged better than six frames per start.
That said, it’s worth highlighting that Bieber’s status as a former Cy Young winner probably gives him more name recognition and name value among fans than actual trade value among MLB front offices. Solid as his ’23 results were when he was on the active roster, his performance carried plenty of red flags.
Bieber’s fastball velocity has steadily declined since that 2020 Cy Young win, and last year’s average of 91.6 mph was nearly three miles per hour slower than during his 2020 peak. Bieber fanned a ridiculous 41.1% of opponents during the pandemic shortened season, but that mark dropped to 33.1% the following year, 25% in 2022 and a below-average 20.1% in 2023.
Bieber’s walk and ground-ball rates remain strong, but neither is quite elite. After posting ridiculous swinging-strike and opponents’ chase rates of 17.1% and 37% in 2020, he checked in below the league average in both last year: 10.5% and 30.6%, respectively.
Bieber has never held top-of-the-scale rankings in terms of hard contact allowed, but he’s previously missed so many bats that yielding hard contact at average-ish rates didn’t matter. That’s no longer the case, given the lack of strikeouts, and last year saw Bieber post career-worst marks in average exit velocity (91.6 mph) and hard-hit rate (47.2%). Those marks are as rough as they sound. He ranked in the second percentile of MLB pitchers in average exit velocity and the third percentile in hard-hit rate.
Be that as it may, Bieber’s broader track record surely buys him some faith from other clubs, and it’s of course possible that some of those red flags are attributable to health troubles that are now hopefully behind him. It’s a deep free-agent class for pitching, but not every club is going to fill its needs via the open market. Bieber still holds clear trade value, even if teams likely all agree that the 2020 version of the one-time ace probably isn’t going to resurface.
For both the Reds and the Cubs, there’s good sense in pursuing Bieber. Cincinnati boasts an exciting crop of young position players and several talented but yet-unproven rotation candidates. Bieber would give them a veteran anchor to pair with the likes of Hunter Greene, Andrew Abbott, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft and Brandon Williamson.
Elsewhere in the NL Central, the Cubs have an established top three in the rotation (Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Jameson Taillon) but less certainty beyond that veteran trio, with Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks among their still-emerging options.
Adding a steady veteran like Bieber to stabilize things surely holds appeal for either club as they set their sights on a weak NL Central. The Reds, in particular, should have no problem absorbing Bieber’s final year of club control, whereas the Cubs already have more than $178M in projected payroll. Cincinnati’s 2024 outlay is scarcely more than $50M right now. Greene and backup catcher Luke Maile are the only guaranteed contracts on the books, and their arbitration class is quite small.
From a bigger-picture standpoint, a trade of Bieber — or at least the discussion of one — should come as no surprise for fans who’ve followed how Cleveland has operated over the years. The Guardians churn out high-end starting pitching arguably better than any club in baseball but never let their top arms reach free agency.
Part of the process that has helped Cleveland find continued success despite perennially bottom-of-the-barrel payrolls has been selling high on established starters in exchange for controllable young talent. The team’s unrivaled success in pitching development, paired with those regular influxes of young talent, have kept it competitive in a light AL Central division.
For example, none of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer or Mike Clevinger reached the open market in a Cleveland uniform. Kluber was flipped to the Rangers in a deal netting current closer Emmanuel Clase. Carrasco went to the Mets alongside Francisco Lindor in return for Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario. Bauer brought Franmil Reyes and a Yasiel Puig rental to Cleveland.
Clevinger netted several players, headlined by Josh Naylor, pitching prospect Joey Cantillo, infielder Gabriel Arias and righty Cal Quantrill — who was recently traded himself (to the Rockies) on the heels of a down season.
Despite all the star-caliber pitchers who break out in Cleveland, the Guardians have never held onto one long enough to make a qualifying offer and collect a compensatory draft pick.
Bieber would be a QO candidate next winter if he stays put, but his age, track record and reasonable $12.2M projected arbitration salary (per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz) should be enough to yield greater value than a potential comp pick in what would be the 2025 MLB draft.
Even as they’ve traded away so many arms, the Guardians haven’t ever felt compelled to backfill the rotation via free agency. The last time they signed a free-agent starter to a big league deal was nearly a decade ago when taking a $4M flier on then bounce-back candidate Gavin Floyd. The last multi-year deal they gave to a free-agent starting pitcher was nearly two decades ago: Paul Byrd.
The 2024 season has a good chance to represent a continuation of those trends. Even if Bieber is traded, Cleveland already graduated three top prospects — Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen and Gavin Williams — who all hit the ground running as rookies. Triston McKenzie dealt with an ominous elbow injury but finished the season healthy. If he can avoid further issues, he’s shown the ability to be an upper-echelon starter himself (191 innings, 2.96 ERA, 25.6% strikeout rate, 5.9% walk rate in 2022).
In-house names like Cantillo, Xzavion Curry and Hunter Gaddis could all vie for the fifth spot in the rotation, and it’s eminently possible that a Bieber trade (or another offseason swap) could net Cleveland a potential rotation candidate to join that group.