On Friday evening, reigning NL Cy Young award winner and free agent Trevor Bauer sent the following enigmatic tweet.
Y’all got any dinner recommendations in Denver?— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) January 2, 2021
There are at least a hundred explanations for why Bauer would be soliciting reccos for Denver eateries that don't involve him discussing a potential free agent deal with the Rockies. After all, Bauer has said that he looked forward to hitting free agency and he promised to take a very non-traditional approach to the process. So far, he’s recorded videos on his YouTube channel asking about playing for the White Sox, Blue Jays, and even soliciting the input from a Padres fan and an Angels fan. Though he once said he would only sign one year deals for the rest of his career, he has since backed off that stance.
All that’s to say, this could be a ploy by Bauer to stir up excitement and intrigue with zero intention of even considering pitching at Coors Field. But that's less fun and gives me fewer things to write about. So let's explore what it would be like if the Rockies signed Trevor Bauer.
Bolstering the rotation
Trevor Bauer had a stupendous 2020 season. He posted a 1.73 ERA and 0.79 WHIP with 100 strikeouts in 73 innings across 11 starts. That level of dominance, while pitching in Great American Ballpark, one of the few stadiums more hitter friendly than Coors, resulted in the NL Cy Young award for Bauer. It also resulted in the Reds’ first playoff appearance since 2013 and though Bauer was dominant in his lone Wild Card Series start, the Reds offence could not muster enough runs to get past the Atlanta Braves.
The dominant year caps a run of seasons in which Bauer seems to have harnessed his prodigious talent. His first four seasons (2012-2015) were decent, though he never posted an ERA+ better than 95. Since then, he hasn’t posted an ERA+ lower than 106 or a strikeout rate below 10 K/9, including a 196 in 2018 and a 226 in the shortened 2020 campaign. With a career line of 3.90 ERA, 1.265 WHIP, and a 9.7 K/9, Bauer stands as one of this off-season’s top free agents.
You add his arm to a rotation that includes German Márquez, Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and Antonio Senzatela, the Rockies suddenly look a lot stronger in an NL West that is getting more competitive. Even if it leaves the Rockies’ biggest need, the offense, unaddressed, a rotation headed by Bauer could potentially do in Denver what one did in Cincinnati: lead a mediocre-at-best offense (the 2020 Reds had a team wRC+ of 91) to the playoffs.
But why would a top free agent pitcher ever consider signing up to pitch half of his games in #Coors? (Other than for the great schools, of course.)
A challenge for the challenger
Trevor Bauer is not what anyone would consider conventional. He made waves even during his days as a prospect at UCLA for his controversial long-toss program that he claimed made him into a stronger pitcher. Bauer’s unwillingness to give up his program led, in part, to the Arizona Diamondbacks trading him to Cleveland just over a year after drafting him third overall. Cleveland allowed him to continue the program and reaped the benefits when he turned the corner in 2016 and made their rotation the envy of baseball.
Bauer has been outspoken in his insistence on the utility of analytics in baseball. He became an early acolyte of the now-famous Driveline Baseball, which utilizes cutting edge technology to help players unearth their full potential, from Justin Turner to Adam Ottavino, and even Jon Gray. Bauer’s relationship with Driveline actually represents the culmination of a life-long quest to turn himself from a mediocre athlete into an elite starting pitcher.
Bauer doesn’t shirk a challenge (for better or for worse). And there remains no greater challenge in MLB than finding consistent pitching success in Denver.
Bringing analytics to Denver
Would Bauer take up that challenge? It would be a risk to come off a super-dominant 2020 campaign and try to replicate it playing half your games in Coors Field, not to mention the training difficulties posed by the mile high air. But if there’s a current MLB player who has demonstrated a willingness to find innovative solutions to such challenges, it’s certainly Trevor Bauer. And though he has come off as abrasive and burned a few bridges with his long-toss program , how could other members of the Rockies roster not follow his lead (assuming he finds some success)?
The growing consensus is that the Rockies are falling into a hole of being less innovative and analytical and it’s causing them to fall behind the rest of the league. Cutting the analytics department only puts the ream further behind. But a player of Bauer’s caliber taking up residence in the Rockies clubhouse may help create a grassroots analytics revolution from within that could very well keep the almost-completely-shut competitive window open for just a touch longer.
Are they contenders?
This isn’t to say Bauer makes the Rockies instant contenders, especially in a division that includes the Dodgers and rapidly-improving Padres. Bauer’s projected 3.7 fWAR would be a significant addition to a pretty poor ZiPS projection for the team, but unless a lot of players hit their high projection, not enough to carry the Rockies to a division title.
And therein lies the Rockies’ biggest problem. The holes in the roster are many and large, not solvable by one or perhaps even two additions that address even the greatest needs. If the Rockies truly do believe that the window of contention is still open, they need to evaluate drastic changes to keep it that way. If it slams shut this season, they will be forced to make even more drastic changes anyway.
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As if to prove my point, the issues the Rockies are facing are myriad enough to warrant many and various changes.
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