Dodgers weren’t desperate for Trevor Bauer, but they saw opportunity and pounced

Trevor Bauer reacts after striking out Christian Yelich during a game between the Reds and Brewers on Sept. 23.
Trevor Bauer reacts after striking out Christian Yelich during a game between the Reds and Brewers on Sept. 23. Bauer agreed to a deal with the Dodgers reportedly for three years and $102 million.
(Aaron Doster / Associated Press)

For three months, while the baseball world wondered where Trevor Bauer would land, the Dodgers lurked. Starting pitching wasn’t a necessity. They boasted Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler atop one of the best rotations in the majors. They didn’t need Bauer to remain favorites to defend their first World Series title in 32 years.

But they lurked anyway, hovering in the background as the days went by and Bauer remained without a home. They pounced Friday, signing the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and Southern California native to a historic three-year contract nearly a year after acquiring Mookie Betts on the eve of spring training. Bauer, a heavy social media user, confirmed the decision to return home in a YouTube video.

“I can’t wait, Dodger fans,” the 30-year-old Bauer said at the end of the 2-minute, 27-second clip.


Bauer’s three-year deal is worth $102 million, according to reports. It reportedly includes opt-outs after the first and second seasons. He will make $40 million in 2021, making him the highest-paid player in MLB history, and would make $45 million in 2022. He’d make only $17 million in 2023, incentivizing him to opt out after 2022 for another big payday should he avoid injury or a steep decline in performance.

The Dodgers sign Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, to a contract, outbidding the New York Mets.

Feb. 5, 2021

The deal’s average annual value of $34 million is the second largest ever for a pitcher behind the contract Gerrit Cole — Bauer’s teammate at UCLA — signed last winter with the New York Yankees ($36 million average annual value). His salary for 2021 nearly matches the Pittsburgh Pirates’ entire projected payroll of $40.5 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

Widely considered the top free-agent pitcher available, Bauer narrowed his decision to the Dodgers and New York Mets on Thursday.

The Dodgers had been quiet this winter before the move. Several role players, including Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernández, Alex Wood and Pedro Báez, signed elsewhere and third baseman Justin Turner remains available in free agency. And other than tweaks to the bullpen — including the acquisitions of Corey Knebel and Tommy Kahnle, plus the re-signing of Blake Treinen — the roster remained largely unchanged.

The massive expenditure comes after the Dodgers, citing “widespread economic devastation,” laid off at least 20 employees across the organization in November. A week before the layoffs, Dodgers President Stan Kasten said the franchise lost “well north of $100 million” in 2021.

Now the Dodgers own a payroll that will smash through MLB’s $210-million competitive balance tax threshold.


According to Cot’s, the team had a CBT payroll of $204.5 million before adding Bauer. His contract’s annual average value — the figure used for CBT payroll tabulations — pushes the Dodgers’ figure to $238.5 million. As it stands, the Dodgers would pay 12% surtax on top of a 20% tax on all overages because they’re at least $20 million over the CBT line.

And that’s before the Dodgers address third base, by either re-signing Turner or finding a replacement. They could try to shed payroll before getting taxed to save money. Or they could decide to use internal options at third base, though they’ve maintained they want to add a right-handed bat and they don’t have a right-handed-hitting third baseman on the roster.

But the Dodgers are slated to have significant money come off the books next winter. Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and Joe Kelly — a combined $55.3 million this season — are in the final year of their contracts (Kelly has a $12 million club option for 2023 that the Dodgers aren’t expected to exercise) while Corey Seager, who is scheduled to earn $13.75 million in 2021, is also headed to free agency. The tax hit, as a result, could be for just one season. Further, Bauer could be insurance in case Kershaw doesn’t return in 2022.

Free-agent pitcher Trevor Bauer announces he is signing with the Dodgers.

For now, the Dodgers paying the premium to sign a pitcher who went to Hart High in Santa Clarita, played collegiately for UCLA, was drafted third overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011, and was dominant in 2020 for the Cincinnati Reds.

The right-hander compiled a 1.73 ERA and 0.795 WHIP in 73 innings across 11 starts against NL and AL Central opponents during the 60-game regular season. He limited the Atlanta Braves to two hits and recorded 12 strikeouts without a walk in 7 2/3 scoreless innings in his only postseason start.


Bauer, however, hasn’t been dominant for most of his career. His only other standout season came in 2018 for Cleveland when he had a 2.21 ERA over 175 1/3 innings and made his only All-Star team. He hasn’t finished with an ERA lower than 4.00 in any of his other seven years in the majors.

But Bauer has remained healthy — beginning with the 2014 season, he made at least 26 starts each year before last summer’s pandemic-shortened campaign — and has one of the most electric arsenals in the game, producing elite level spin rates with his fastball-slider-curveball-cutter mix.

He pushes the brink in experimentation in his search to get better and staunchly believes in the analytics driving the sport today. As a result, his production has steadily improved. Since 2018, he ranks sixth among qualified MLB pitchers in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement (11.6), ninth in opponent batting average (.209), and 11th in ERA (3.18). The Dodgers, meanwhile, are lauded around the industry for their analytics department.

But Bauer’s behavior off the mound has attracted detractors.

He was traded to the Reds in 2019 after he threw a baseball from the mound over the center field wall as Cleveland manager Terry Francona emerged to remove him from a game in Kansas City. He’s irked people and knows it. He was quoted in a Sports Illustrated story published in February 2019 as saying, “I’m good at two things in this world: throwing baseballs and pissing people off.”

The Dodgers astonishingly signed Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer to a 3-year, $102-million deal. The best team in baseball just got enormously better.

Feb. 5, 2021

Bauer’s social media history has also raised red flags. At least two women — a college student and a reporter — have accused Bauer of harassment and encouraging others to harass them.

“I don’t shy away from confrontation and am often quick to defend myself, but I am by no means a bully and I take great offense to my character being called into question,” Bauer said in a statement to the Athletic last month.


Bauer has worked to control his image. He established his own media network and has used social media to take shots at opponents, offer tips to fans and address his free agency.

A first-time free agent this winter, Bauer attracted several rumored suitors. Throughout the process, he used his Twitter feed to hint at potential landing spots such as the Mets, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Angels and San Diego Padres.

The Dodger didn’t need Bauer to compete for a championship. They already had two Cy Young Award winners in Kershaw and David Price, who will pitch this year after opting out of the 2020 season, plus young talent in Buehler, Julio Urías, Tony Gonsolin, and Dustin May to round out the rotation. But the Dodgers were believed to be strong contenders all along if he was willing to take a shorter-term deal.

Earlier this week, Buehler publicly endorsed the idea of signing Bauer during a radio interview on KLAC-AM (570).

“It’s hard to say we wouldn’t want that guy around,” Buehler said. “He had an amazing year last year. I hope he finds his way into some blue.”

The Dodgers were always lurking. On Friday, they pounced.