Shane Bieber is no stranger to the Cincinnati Reds. In 6 career starts against them, the Cleveland Guardians ace has held Reds hitters to just a .617 OPS, striking out 46 in 39.1 IP combined while pitching to a tidy 3.20 ERA. The 2020 American League Cy Young Award winner also finds himself in an interesting situation this winter in that he’s entering his final year of team control with Cleveland, an organization notorious for dealing players in similar positions to get what they can before said player reaches free agency sans contract extension.
Bieber’s likely to exit Cleveland this winter - if the offers are right. And since the Reds are in a desperate search for pitching upgrades, it should come as no surprise that the two clubs have been connected in trade talks for Bieber. MLB Network insider Jon Morosi relayed as much on Tuesday morning, noting also that the Chicago Cubs were in talks, too.
If the offers are right carries a lot of weight in my previous paragraph. While Bieber did post a solid 110 ERA+ during the 2023 season, his ERA (3.80), FIP (3.87), and WHIP (1.24) were well above his career marks. His average fastball velocity dipped to almost 3 full mph lower than it was during his CYA campaign in 2020, and he spent a good chunk of the second half of the season on the injured list with elbow inflammation. Perhaps that was a one-year blip due largely to the elbow issue, but a closer look at his pitch mix shows that his velocity decline has coincided with an increased use of his slider and cutter at the expense of his curveball - the pitch that FanGraphs graded as his single best offering during that brilliant 2020 season.
Bieber is far from cooked, to be quite sure, but if Cleveland is either a) asking for a return as if he were still his 2020 self or b) willing to wait for Bieber to return to form during the first half of 2024 before shopping him at the deadline, pursuing him as a top of the rotation arm might be folly from the Reds perspective. That said, at a projected salary of some $12.2 million for his final trip through arbitration, he’s considerably cheaper than, say, Tyler Glasnow at $25 million for the upcoming season, and any sort of return to form could well place Bieber squarely in the category of player who would command a Qualifying Offer at the end of 2024 (the decline of which meriting the Reds an additional draft pick). So, the range of offers and the flexibility Cleveland has with waiting will make cutting a deal a bit tricky on Nick Krall and Cincinnati’s side of the equation.
What seems to be clear, though, is that the Reds are not afraid of shopping for rental arms right now, what with Bieber and Glasnow connected in back to back days. Even Sonny Gray, who signed for just 3-years, was connected with a potential return, meaning the Reds are clearly pursuing arms on short-term deals that would both a) upgrade the rotation significantly in 2024 but b) neither cost them much from their prized depth of pitching prospects nor block said prospects beyond this upcoming season. Addition at the margins for an improved 2024 that doesn’t interfere with their longer-term goals, once again.