The Indians are the next team decoupling from veteran players, but this one has a twist. Even though Cleveland has and will continue to have the best shot at winning the American League Central division in 2019, their bet is that they can cut payroll to pre-competitive levels, while still taking advantage of the wide-open division to both grab the playoff spot and restock their farm system.
It’s kind of insane when you think of it like that, but it could work. If a team that has (totally self-imposed) budget constraints wants to be competitive for more than, say, a five-year stretch, then the farm system needs to continue to churn out pre-arbitration eligible young stars.
Now, every team is salivating at the thought of having one of the best pitchers in Corey Kluber on their team. Carlos Carrasco is available as well, but we’re going to focus on Kluber, likely the surest bet of major trade acquisitions. Over the last five seasons, here is where Kluber ranks among the major pitching categories:
- fWAR: 1st (31)
- WPA: 4th (15.56)
- ERA-: 2nd (67)
- FIP-: 4th (69)
- Innings pitched: 2nd (1091 1/3)
If we’re talking about the pure value brought to the table, there is no starting pitcher acquisition that would make a team this much better other than if you added Chris Sale, and the team that added him just hoisted a World Series trophy, and the team before that added Justin Verlander.
What are you getting, exactly, when you acquire him, though? Each player carries their own unique risks; acquiring Kluber and Clayton Kershaw, for example, would carry similar immediate values but carry different long-term issues. On a similar note, the one alarming thing may be the beginning decline of his fastball:
It’s not that much of a concern, however, because he has improved in almost every year since 2013, and the fastball won’t become a serious issue until maybe 2021, coincidentally the last year of his contract.
That’s been mitigated by the fact he has continued to throw the fastball less, relying more and more on a sinker and cutter as alternate versions of that same pitch. You can see how that sequence works in reality:
Corey Kluber, filthy 2 Pitch Sequence (91mph Cutter and 94mph Two Seamer). pic.twitter.com/nKKR7fN1Te— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 4, 2017
It’s against Austin Romine, but... still.
Let’s talk about the implications for the particular team that could acquire him, because that matters just as much as the players themselves. The highest profile landing spot is obviously in the Bronx, where the Yankees are looking to add one starter via free agency such as JA Happ or Patrick Corbin, and then a starter via trade, such as James Paxton, Carrasco, or Kluber.
I would bet decent money that the Yankees go the cheaper route as they have preferred to hold on to their best prospects, but watching Boston win with Chris Sale probably stung, especially considering their lost prospects like Yoan Moncada have yet to have the impact one would have expected.
Nonetheless, the fit is there. The Yankees are projected by Cots to have a $156 million payroll, which, if they’re once again considering using the luxury tax cap as a hard cap as foolish as that very much is, they have about $50 million to spend this offseason. His first season is just $13 million with about $4 million in escalator bonuses, which would give them the flexibility to add both him and Corbin, easily. It would give them arguably one of the best rotations in baseball when you throw in an albeit struggling Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and CC Sabathia, making their weaknesses essentially nonexistent with the stellar bullpen.
My other major candidate would be the Astros, who are losing both Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency. Acquiring Kluber would give them a top-three of Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and himself, which would hands-down be the best playoff rotation since Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels with Philly (despite them losing, it’s still true).
Both teams certainly have the prospects, as Houston could forfeit someone like Forrest Whitley or Yordan Alvarez, and the Yankees have slightly worse prospects but better depth, as you could make a deal around Justus Sheffield and Estevan Florial, and even Clint Frazier as someone more major league ready, which would be laughable seeing Cashman paper-clip trade from 1.5 seasons of Andrew Miller to three seasons of Kluber from the very same team.
Nonetheless, this is a game-changing move that a losing team in 2019 will likely regret not making. Cleveland may or may not get pieces that will have the impact to both restock their major league roster cheaply and cushioning them enough to shoulder the loss, but the other team is so heavily incentivized to get a player like Kluber. It is the difference between a division win or a wild card, a World Series win or a bow-out.