Bieber Starting Opening Day and a Look At His Future With The Guards

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CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 26: Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Guardians pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at Progressive Field on May 26, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images)

In arguably the most clear-cut decision of the spring, the Guardians announced on Wednesday that Shane Bieber would be their Opening Day starter when the team begins regular season play in Oakland next Thursday. This will be Bieber’s fifth consecutive season as Cleveland’s Opening Day ace, putting him in rare company as one of six Cleveland pitchers to ever make five or more Opening Day starts for the team (Stan Coveleski, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, CC Sabathia, Corey Kluber and Bieber).

The decision comes in the backdrop of an off-season that saw Bieber go to the Driveline baseball facility in Washington State to refine his craft. Over the last two seasons, Bieber saw his fastball velocity average at 91 mph after having peaked at 94 mph in 2020. Bieber had missed much of the 2021 season and questions remained about his health in 2022 due to this lowered velocity. Those questions continued in 2023 and he did ultimately end up on the Injured List for about a third of the season due to elbow inflammation.

To be clear, there is no definitive link between the velocity change and injuries, but that doesn’t keep individuals from speculating. Either way, the velocity drop was concerning. For his part, Bieber has spoken about how he wanted to go to Driveline because he felt healthy but like he still wasn’t putting his full authority into his pitches due to his delivery. He worked on that from their facility.

Whether due to health or hard work, things seem to be looking up on the radar gun for as Bieber made his first Spring Training appearance earlier this month with reports that he was hitting 94 mph. That velocity increase has been sustained in subsequent appearances.

The other storyline revolving around Bieber is his future with the team. Truthfully, the narrative around his health and velocity and the narrative about his future with the team likely intertwine.

Despite past overtures by the Guardians, the team and Bieber have not been able to come to terms on a contract extension over the course of the last few seasons. Bieber’s team control with the Guardians comes to a close at the end of 2024, meaning he will hit the free-agent market when the Guardians’ season comes to a close. Despite some roadblocks along the way, the 2020 Cy Young Award winner seemingly has decided to bet on himself and await free agency for a large payday. And quite frankly, all factors point to this being the right decision financially for Shane Bieber.

You may recall Lucas Giolito. Giolito is a 1-time All-Star and former ace of the Chicago White Sox who had a brief cup of coffee with the Guards at the end of last season. Giolito had three previous seasons in Chicago in his career with an ERA of 3.55 or better, but his career ERA is 4.43. Additionally, Giolito spent 2023 bouncing between three different teams, having been traded from Chicago to the Angels at the deadline before the Angels gave up on their wildcard run and waived Giolito, leading to the Guardians claiming him. Giolito was awful in his time between LA and Cleveland, with an ERA around seven. He led baseball in home runs allowed last year with 41.

Despite being two seasons removed from a sub-four ERA and leading the world in gopher balls last year, the Boston Red Sox signed Giolito to a two-year deal worth $38.5 million this winter. Even with Bieber’s velocity issues, he has generally been more effective than Giolito over recent seasons. Bieber will absolutely make more money on the open market than Giolito.

As a reminder, no Guardian, including Jose Ramirez, is making the $19.25 million that Giolito is making in 2024 (by the way, Giolito is already out for the season, needing Tommy John surgery). To date, only Edwin Encarnacion has ever received a yearly sum of money that exceeds what Giolito will make in 2024 while playing in Cleveland.

There’s a greater conversation here about the economics of baseball and how there must be a better way, but that’s not today’s conversation. The clear point here is that while this is Bieber’s fifth season as the Guardians’ Opening Day starter, it is also very likely his last.

And yet, unlike with numerous other players facing a pending free agency, the Guardians have not traded Bieber. The Guardians are very much a “sell high philosophy” type of team. They’ve done it with various pitchers including Aaron Civale as recently as last year (getting Kyle Manzardo in return, I might add) and for another example getting Emmanuel Clase for Corey Kluber. Kluber and former shortstop Francisco Lindor are probably the most high-profile players to recently get this treatment and both were traded with a full season left on their contracts. That same timing with Bieber would have meant that he was traded this winter.

The problem is that Bieber’s nebulous issues around velocity and health have dampened the Guardians’ ability to sell high on him. Again, the opportune time to trade Bieber would have been over the course of this past winter, or possibly slightly earlier, when there would still be ample time on his contract. A team would likely have paid more for one and a half years of Bieber, for example, than less than a single season. Without a proof of concept around his health and velocity though, teams were never going to give the little bit extra in return that would convince the Guardians to give him up. When the timing was right to sell high on Bieber, the perception of his ability was not right, and that disallowed the Guardians from selling high.

In theory, that proof of concept is happening now. Bieber is throwing harder than he has in a couple of years, and with the season about to start, will have plenty of opportunity to win the Guardians ballgames while potentially increasing his trade stock. However, at this point, teams would be trading for less than a season of team control. which in itself lessens their willingness to add formidable players to a return.

Most fans and media seem to still believe that it is nothing less than a foregone conclusion that Bieber will be traded this season, no matter the scenario. I’m here to say that I think there’s a world where the Guardians actually let his contract play out.

Of course, if Bieber were to get a significant injury, that would eliminate any trade interest, but I am not talking about that. I am talking about scenarios where Bieber is healthy. Now, I am only envisioning this in two potential circumstances. Those circumstances are:

  1. The Guardians are well in the lead of the American League Central Division and Bieber has been dominant.
  2. The Guardians are in the hunt for a playoff spot and Bieber hasn’t been spectacular but has been good.

The first situation is definitely the less likely of the two, but if the Guardians were to be say… seven games up in the division in July and Bieber is a major catalyst… I just have a hard time believing they would part ways. That just feels like a situation where you ride the horse that got you to the party. In this case, why mess with 2024’s success?

The second situation is more of a perfect storm situation but still more likely of the two. If the Guards are in the hunt and Bieber is contributing but hasn’t really done anything to up his profile as a trade candidate, I could see the team holding onto him.

To be clear, if he’s dominating and the Guards are in the hunt, I still think he gets dealt. Even if the Guardians are in the hunt, they will trade him because his stock would be up. Being in the playoff chase just means they would be seeking more Major League ready talent in return as opposed to prospects.

However, if Bieber’s trade stock doesn’t change (because he’s just been pretty good, not great) and to this point, the Guardians haven’t felt compelled to trade him at that current trade stock, then I’m not convinced they will be compelled to trade him. The natural rebuttal to this stance is that at some point they have to trade him if they want to get anything for him, but in a world where the Guards are competing for the playoffs, just maybe they’d be willing to take that opportunity cost in the name of a division title.

My thoughts on this are probably a little jaded because for the last two seasons there has been talk about a Bieber trade and it hasn’t happened. I’m somewhat at the point of “I’ll believe it when I see it” when it comes to this topic, but I do genuinely believe there would be some logic behind holding onto him in these scenarios.

Of course, I’m sure now five minutes after my editor posts this a Bieber trade will be finalized. Just wait.

Regardless, since he first started making a name for himself in the spring of 2018, Shane Bieber has been a hugely important piece on two playoff teams. He has been a multi-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner, all for the Guardians.

2024 is undoubtedly Bieber’s last season in Cleveland, but there is still some unpredictability left. And with that unpredictability comes potential. Don’t count out a full season.

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