Red Sox: Only scenario that makes sense to chase free-agent Trevor Bauer

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 04: Trevor Bauer #27 of the Cincinnati Reds delivers a pitch in the first inning during game two of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on September 4, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 04: Trevor Bauer #27 of the Cincinnati Reds delivers a pitch in the first inning during game two of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on September 4, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

There’s only one way the Red Sox should sign free-agent Trevor Bauer.

The Boston Red Sox will spend their offseason exploring ways to upgrade a woeful pitching staff that rated among the worst in baseball this year. Free agency is often a quick fix for teams willing to shell out a boatload of money and the market this winter just so happens to have a top of the rotation talent in Trevor Bauer.

The right-hander dominated the shortened season, leading the National League with a 1.73 ERA and 0.795 WHIP. He also produced a career-best 12.3 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9. As the overwhelming favorite to capture his first Cy Young award, Bauer enters free agency in prime position to command a massive salary.

Fresh off resetting the luxury tax penalties, the Red Sox should have the financial resources to pursue the top pitching talent on the market. The only question is whether or not they should commit a significant portion of their budget to him. There’s only one scenario where it makes sense for the Red Sox to enter the Bauer sweepstakes – if he’s willing to sign a one-year deal.

It may seem wildly unrealistic to expect one of the top free-agents to accept a short-term deal when teams will be showering him with lucrative multi-year offers that lock in more guaranteed money. Bauer is no ordinary free agent though. Prior to the 2019 season, Bauer pitched the idea of negotiating one-year deals throughout his career in order to maximize his earnings, believing more teams would get involved even if the price was high as long as it was a short commitment.

"“I’ll go year-to-year my entire career,” said Bauer, per USA Today. “Why would you lock yourself in a situation that may not make you happy? I think that’s highly inefficient. Everybody is afraid of risk. Everyone is scared.”"

This comment stemmed in part from Bauer’s frustration with the “character assassination” he endured during the arbitration process when he was a member of the Cleveland Indians. Free agency will be a completely different experience. Perhaps Bauer will change his views now that he is on the verge of hitting the open market. It’s easy to explore a hypothetical option for your future when you’re still two years away from free agency. It’s another story entirely when you have nine-figure offers staring you in the face.

Assuming Bauer is still open to this radical idea, a one-year deal should be appealing to the Red Sox.

As talented as he is, Bauer comes with a fair amount of risk. He’s one of the game’s most outspoken players with a brash attitude that can rub people the wrong way. We saw the Boston media clash with David Price during his tenure with the Red Sox but dealing with the prickly lefty would be a cakewalk compared to the controversy that Bauer refuses to shy away from.

Bauer has never played in an intense market like Boston and there are legitimate concerns about how he’d handle it. Those fears would be eased with a one-year trial run. If he proves to be a good fit, the Red Sox might be willing to sign up for more. If he isn’t on his best behavior or crumbles under scrutiny, at least they haven’t burdened themselves with a long-term commitment. In a worst-case scenario, his expiring deal would be easy to trade at the deadline if they were desperate to wash their hands of him by passing Bauer off to a club willing to gamble on his upside.

As brutal as the Red Sox pitching staff was this season, the future appears far brighter. Eduardo Rodriguez is expected to be ready for Opening Day after sitting out this year with myocarditis. Chris Sale should return from Tommy John surgery at some point next summer. Tanner Houck‘s emergence down the stretch has the Red Sox excited about his potential as a rotation staple.

Next year will almost certainly be better for this pitching staff even if they don’t make any additions from outside of the organization. However, there is some short-term uncertainty. E-Rod might not be able to handle a workhorse role after missing an entire season. Sale’s timeline remains uncertain. Houck is unproven outside of a small sample. Adding a legitimate ace in Bauer would stabilize the rotation and mitigate those concerns.

Sale is owed $85 million from 2022-2024 and Rodriguez will only get more expensive if they intend to hang on to him. Boston might not want to commit significant long-term payroll to their rotation but they could absorb the high salary of Bauer for one year with the tax penalties reset.

Settling for a one-year deal allows Bauer to demand a massive amount for his services in 2021. His salary could exceed the $36 million average annual value of Gerrit Cole‘s deal with the Yankees, making him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball next year. Bauer might even push for $40 million in that scenario.

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As astronomical as that figure appears, Bauer is worth it if he lives up to his potential. Other top pitchers like Cole earn less than they are worth right now because the long-term commitment comes with risk of injury or decline that could cripple their value at some point over the course of the deal. They are underpaid now knowing they’ll likely be overpaid at the end of the contract. There’s no such risk with a one-year deal.

The Red Sox have about $28 million in room beneath the tax threshold in 2021 and they can carve out over $6 million more by declining the club option for Martin Perez. Adding Bauer probably pushes them into tax territory but they can still sign him and fill other holes on the roster while staying within the first tier of penalties, which are relatively modest for first-time offenders. This is part of why resetting the penalties this year was so important.

By 2022, the health issues for Sale and Rodriguez should be well behind them. Houck could cement his spot in the rotation while enticing prospects such as Bryan Mata and Jay Groome could be on their way. Boston needs a pitcher of Bauer’s caliber to fortify their rotation now but it might not be a pressing need further down the line.

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If Bauer proves to be a good fit in Boston then perhaps both sides will be open to extending his stay. If he doesn’t pan out, at least neither side is locked into an unhappy marriage. A one-year deal creates flexibility for the Red Sox in managing their budget while giving Bauer the opportunity to achieve his goal of maximizing his earning potential by betting on himself every year.