Trevor Bauer walked off the mound in Atlanta on Wednesday with both layers of his makeup on display.
Bauer was leaving a dominating performance: 7 ⅔ innings, no runs, no walks, 12 strikeouts. He became the first pitcher in postseason history to amass such a line. He celebrated by slapping fives with teammates, then walking off the mound and making a mock chop motion.
No one was in the Atlanta stands for Bauer to poke fun at. He did it anyway.
When the Reds’ postseason ends, Bauer will be walking into free agency. He’s a 29-year-old, outspoken starter who has come into his own during the strangest of seasons. This puts eyes from every competitive team on him, especially one a team that anchors its philosophy in having an abundance of starting pitching, the way the Nationals do.
Bauer descended from the No. 3 overall pick in 2011 to a pitcher with mediocre -- or worse -- results following a trade to Cleveland. He went through a positive burst in 2018. He was solid in 2019 until the Indians had seen enough with his antics. Steamed with his performance, Bauer turned from the pitching mound and threw the ball over the center field wall when he saw manager Terry Francona coming to remove him. He was part of a large trade four days later.
He crashed after the trade. Bauer’s 6.39 ERA in Cincinnati again made it look like he was a high-pick bust. But, this year was a revolution. He led the National League in ERA and even threw two shutouts -- a disappearing situation in baseball -- among his 11 starts. He’s situated to be paid well in the offseason. If this season is to be believed, he’s easily the best starting pitcher option in a poor class.
Which brings the Nationals into the conversation -- if from afar. Next year is the final season of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin being under contract together. The Nationals need a fourth starter, will probably work in-house for a fifth starter and are desperate to get back into the postseason mix after their 2020 flop.
Their financial investment in the first three starters is gigantic. However, if Scherzer leaves after 2021, the Nationals will have a need for another upper-tier part of the rotation. And, looking at the coming free agent class may help inspire them to sign a 29-year-old pitcher for multiple years now. Noah Syndergaard, Clayton Kershaw, Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Chris Archer are some of the names scheduled to be available after the 2021 season. Syndergaard underwent Tommy John surgery in March. Verlander, 37, needs Tommy John surgery. Greinke turns 37 years old Oct. 21. Kershaw appeared to reestablish himself this season, though he has already thrown more than 2,500 innings in his career. Archer has been a mediocre pitcher for three years.
So, knowing the 2022 class is low on quality options, the free agent market should suppress costs this offseason, and that a future need is looming would be valid reasons for the Nationals to try to pay Bauer. A wrinkle in all this is Bauer’s previously stated preference to sign only one-year contracts.
This, of course, is appealing to every team in the league. The Nationals have avoided the damage a long-term pitcher contract can deliver. Scherzer out-performed a seven-year, $210 million deal. Corbin is two years into his six-year contract. One was good, this year was not. Strasburg barely pitched in the first season of his new seven-year deal and needed wrist surgery. Prior, his extension was worth it.
Signing Bauer for one year at a hefty sum allows the Nationals to clear both him and Scherzer from the books next season. It would also create the best rotation in Major League Baseball. It’s enticing.
Well, enticing if they think Bauer will fit. He was openly critical of the players’ union during summer negotiations which Scherzer was heavily involved in. Rizzo and Davey Martinez said figuring out the right personalities to plug into the clubhouse is critical. However, winning is winning (and this is an organization that acquired Jonathan Papelbon). It’s also hypocritical of the sport as a whole to beg for more individual personality then tell a player who shows that to tamp it down.
When the Nationals look at their offseason needs, the outfield, third base, first base, catcher and left-handed relief help popup along with another starting pitcher. In a vacuum, Bauer is the best option. For the Nationals, he’s probably not.