The Guardians Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve With Shane Bieber

The Cleveland Guardians not only lost their ace for the season with Shane Bieber's injury, they also lost their best asset come the trade deadline.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 28: Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Guardians pitches against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum on March 28, 2024 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Guardians were dealt a devastating blow this past weekend, when it was announced that their ace Shane Bieber will miss the rest of this season with a torn UCL that will require Tommy John surgery.

Bieber had gotten off to an outstanding start to the season, striking out 20 batters and allowing just one walk in 12 scoreless innings pitched across two starts.

The 28-year-old won both of those games for the Guardians, part of a great start to their season that has seen them shoot up to the top of the AL Central standings with an 8-2 record.

What makes the injury all the more devastating to the Guardians and their fans is that Bieber was set to hit free agency after the season, so he very well could have thrown his last pitch with the franchise that drafted him in the fourth round all the way back in 2016.

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Nonetheless, the Guardians now have to try to maintain this hot start in a winnable division without their one frontline veteran starter. Always known for their ability to develop pitching, the Guardians could very well still make a playoff run this year, but that road is a lot more difficult without the guy who was looking like an early Cy Young contender yet again.

Even worse, if the Guardians don’t end up in the mix for the playoffs in the AL Central, they will be forced to consider selling off their best pieces at the deadline and now their top trade chip is off the table as well.

Did the Guardians Make a Mistake with Bieber?

As the headline of this story suggests, this is the time where the Guardians could be kicking themselves for how they managed their last year of team control of Shane Bieber.

It is always a bit cruel to refer to players as assets, particularly under these circumstances, but the implications of Bieber’s injury hit this franchise in many different ways.

Last year, there was some buzz that the Guardians could shop Bieber at the deadline, still a year and a half removed from free agency.

Based on his lofty standards, Bieber struggled last year, pitching to a 3.77 ERA across 19 starts in the first half of the season. His velocity was done, as were his strikeouts, yet Bieber still held value based on his track record and consistency, particularly with his durability.

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Unfortunately for Bieber and the Guardians, he ended up going to the injured list in the middle of July with elbow inflammation. Bieber would make a healthy return to the rotation at the end of September, and spent the offseason with Driveline trying to regain his lost velocity.

There were a lot of reasons for optimism on what a full season of a healthy Bieber could mean to the Guardians, both in terms of how he could help them compete in the first half of the season, or be used as an asset at the trade deadline if the team was not in the mix.

Early returns looked great for their decision to keep Bieber, as he helped their team get off to a fast start this season and was improving his personal stock with two dominant starts. Had he stayed healthy, there is every chance the Guardians could have made a run this year. Otherwise, they would have had the top trade chip at the deadline. Now, they are left saying, “what if?”.

New Rule of Thumb with Pitchers: Trade Them While You Can?

When you look around the league, a lot of teams were put in a similar position with their aces this offseason and the trend around the game was to sell early.

First, the Tampa Bay Rays traded oft-injured ace Tyler Glasnow to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for a package headlined by young starting pitcher Ryan Pepoit.

The Milwaukee Brewers dealt their own ace and former Cy Young Corbin Burnes to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for a package that included left-handed pitcher DL Hall.

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In both instances, the team decided to sell their top trade asset prior to the season, with each being in their final year of team control. In the trades, each team got a young starting pitcher who they immediately slotted in their Opening Day rotation.

This ensured that they got value to help them not only in the future, but for the upcoming season as well. Mind you, these franchises (Rays and Brewers) are arguably the best-run small market teams in baseball in recent memory. They have remained remarkably consistent when it comes to sustainable winning, always finding their way in the playoff mix without spending big in free agency.

To accomplish this, what the Rays and Brewers know better than anyone is that they cannot miss the boat on selling their players for value before losing them for nothing in free agency. It is a cold-hearted way to do business, but a necessary evil with limited financial resources.

Both trades that were made with Glasnow and Burnes netted their former teams a young arm who has the upside to become a frontline starter in their rotation. Even if they don’t reach that ceiling, they are cheap and under control big leaguers who can help for years to come.

Ultimately the calculus is simple. No matter how much surplus value an ace can provide you in one season, it can never match what you can get from other viable big league pieces over the span of five or six seasons.

Now all of this is not meant to knock the Cleveland Guardians. They made a choice that could have paid massive dividends had Bieber’s UCL remained intact for at least four more months.

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With Burnes, Glasnow, and even Dylan Cease off the board having been traded in the offseason, Bieber could have been that one big-ticket arm available to be moved at the deadline. There’s every chance that he would have trumped the trade package that both the Rays and the Brewers received for their respective aces.

And it is also worth noting that Glasnow and Burnes both could have had more trade value than Bieber, as they were coming off healthier and better seasons. Still, if one year of Burnes netted the Brewers a flamethrowing lefty in Hall, a top 100 shortstop prospect in Joey Ortiz, and compensatory draft pick, you’d have to wonder what the Orioles would have paid for Bieber instead.

Maybe the Guardians could have had their shortstop of the future with Ortiz, or at least gotten Hall and the draft pick. Regardless, the Guardians aimed for more, as well as getting the luxury of enjoying a first half of Bieber to see where it put their team in the playoff mix.

Now, unfortunately, the Guardians are paying for not selling when they could, and are left holding the bag.

Will This Situation Change How Teams Operate?

Whenever you go too far down the hypothetical highway it can get dangerous, so the last thing the Guardians are doing right now is crying over spilled milk and thinking about what they could have, or should have done with Bieber.

They took a calculated risk and it just happened to blow up in their face.

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Hopefully they can bridge the gap with some of their young talent and still find a way to be competitive this year and beyond without Bieber.

Now, there is also a chance that the Guardians re-sign Bieber on a two-year deal in free agency, allowing him to rehab with their club, similar to the situation we saw unfold with Brandon Woodruff and the Milwaukee Brewers this offseason (albeit his surgery was on his shoulder, not his elbow).

Even if that is the case though, it won’t help their chances in 2024 or 2025, as Bieber will not be set to return until the end of next year in the best case scenario.

Moving forward, teams are going to have to think twice about their strategy to hold onto a starting pitcher on the trade block in search of a better deal. The White Sox trading Dylan Cease is the perfect example of that, as they had a year and a half of team control and could have kept their ace for the first half to see how his market developed near the trade deadline.

Cease might have fetched 125 cents on the dollar at the deadline, but the White Sox were wise to cash in now, even if they did get back a bit less than they might’ve if they held on.

In the cruel business of Major League Baseball, pitcher injuries are devasting on whatever front you view them from. For the Cleveland Guardians and Shane Bieber, there could not have been a crueler end to what looked like a promising story to watch for the 2024 season.

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