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Forget J.A. Happ: Yankees should strike trade with Indians for Trevor Bauer

John Harper, | Twitter |

The Yankees passed on Patrick Corbin, smartly so at the price the Nationals paid, and now Nathan Eovaldi is heading back to the Red Sox. So where does Brian Cashman turn for starting pitching?

The obvious move is J.A. Happ. But if Cashman wants to gamble a bit on the potential for greater October dominance, as he did in trading for James Paxton, Trevor Bauer can be had at a bargain price.

At least that’s what I was told on Thursday by an executive from a major league club who has had discussions with the Indians about their much-publicized willingness to trade a starting pitcher.

Most of the public speculation has been about Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, yet Bauer is the most intriguing of the three, coming off an ace-like season at age 27. The Indians also gave Carrasco a three-year, $37.5 million extension on Thursday, making him less likely to be dealt.

So why would the Indians deal him, besides the fact that he’s quirky at the very least, and occasionally outspoken to the point of being controversial?

Simple. They need to cut payroll.

“You can get Bauer cheap,” the exec said. “The catch is that you have to take (Jason) Kipnis’ money too. The Yankees might be the only team who would do that — if they’re not really in on (Manny) Machado or (Bryce) Harper.”

Yes, the Indians would love to unload Kipnis — their second baseman who has one year left on his contract — for $14.7 million, plus a $2.5 million buyout on his option year salary of $16.5 million for 2020.

So the real cost for one year of Kipnis would be $17.2 million, a huge overpay for a guy whose production has fallen significantly the last couple of seasons from his All-Star peak a few years ago.

But, depending whether the Yankees are going to make a big push for Machado, Kipnis could fill a hole in 2019, allowing them to play Gleyber Torres at shortstop until Didi Gregorius returns from Tommy John surgery.

The benefit would be the Yankees getting Bauer for a modest return, certainly none of their top prospects, while giving them the flexibility that comes with short-term deals.

Or if the Indians were willing to eat some of the Kipnis money, perhaps the Yankees would be willing to send Clint Frazier back to where they got him in the Andrew Miller deal in 2016. It could work for both sides, with Cleveland looking for outfielders.

Bauer, who is two years away from free agency, is projected to earn some $11 million next season via arbitration, which would bring the total for him and Kipnis to nearly $26 million-plus, which isn’t including the Kipnis buyout.

But look at it this way: the Yankees were prepared to pay Corbin $20 million per for five years, and probably would have gone to $21 or $22 million if he’d been willing to limit the contract to their desired five-year length, rather than the six he received from the Nationals.

And while they can surely sign Happ to a shorter-term deal of two or three years, it’s still going to be in the range of $16-17 million per.

Whatever they do, the Yankees have plenty of money after staying under the luxury-tax threshold last season, and would be willing to spend more to avoid long-term deals.

Meanwhile, adding Bauer would make them that much more formidable come October, because, like Paxton, he has the arsenal to overmatch any lineup, and there is a sense among baseball people that 2018 was something of a breakout year for him. He pitched to a 2.21 ERA and racked up 221 strikeouts in 175 innings.

“I think he’s just finally growing up and settling into doing what he does best instead of trying to outsmart everybody,” is the way one AL scout puts it. “He’s always had great stuff — high velocity and that ridiculous curve ball — but he throws about six different pitches, and I think he got in his own way at times.

“But last year he figured out what works best for him. He commanded his curve better than he ever has, and he was smarter about when and where he threw his cutter and his slider. He didn’t make the big mistake pitch that had hurt him in the past.”

The numbers seem to bear that out: Bauer’s hits per inning were down significantly, and most dramatically, he gave up only nine home runs, down from 25 the previous season. And indeed, his ratio of 0.5 home runs per nine innings was the best in the majors.

All of that has to be tempting to Cashman, especially if he could land the right-hander without paying a heavy price in prospects.

How Bauer would fit in the conservative Yankee culture would be interesting to say the least. He thrives on being unconventional from his training methods to his candor, which creates headlines from time to time.

He also insists he’s not interested in signing a long-term contract as he approaches free agency, saying he prefers to maximize his value by signing one-year deals.

Such is the confidence he has in himself, and, well, the Yankees certainly could live with that year-to-year philosophy.

But whether they could live with taking on Kipnis as part of a Bauer deal probably comes down to how serious they are about pursuing Machado.

If they’re willing to commit to what figures to be, at minimum, an eight-year deal, Machado slides into shortstop until Gregorius returns, and then probably becomes the long-term third baseman, where his defense provides great value as well as his bat.

If the Yankees are determined to avoid such a long-term deal, however, the idea of taking on Kipnis for a year to get a seemingly ascending talent like Bauer might not be the craziest idea.

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