Nobody Really Wanted Corey Kluber

Since the start of the 2016 season, Corey Kluber has been baseball’s sixth-best pitcher by WAR. That’s despite making just seven starts last year. Even over the last three seasons, he’s still in the top 10 and just two years ago, his 5.5 WAR ranked eighth. One season lost to injury later, Corey Kluber’s trade value plummeted. Despite no strong trade offers, an indication of Kluber’s perceived low value around the league, Cleveland didn’t want to keep their former ace and dealt him for the best offer available to the Texas Rangers. Here’s the deal, as first reported by Ken Rosenthal.

Rangers Receive:

  • RHP Corey Kluber

Indians Receive:

To help frame Kluber’s talent as it stands right now, here are the righty’s ZiPS projections as supplied by Dan Szymborski:

ZiPS Projection – Corey Kluber
Year W L ERA G GS IP H HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2020 11 7 3.98 24 24 144.7 136 20 38 145 122 3.1
2021 10 7 4.07 21 21 128.3 123 18 34 125 120 2.7

Kluber will be 34 years old in April. Even before the 2019 season began, there were questions about his effectiveness. He posted that 5.5 WAR season is 2018, but his velocity and swinging strike dropped in 2019. His 2017 represented a career year, but going from a 34% strikeout rate that season to a 26% strikeout rate in 2018, along with slightly diminished velocity moving into his mid-30s, likely prevented Cleveland from trading him last offseason when no team was willing to blow them away. While it might have been reasonable to expect a slightly diminished Kluber in 2019, predicting he would be hit by a comebacker that would break his forearm is more of a fluke. An oblique injury during rehab meant that Kluber didn’t make it back to the majors, taking his on-field expectations and trade value to new lows.

If we were to look at Kluber’s value through the lens of the projections, the return for Kluber is light, but not unconscionably so. Emmanuel Clase is an exciting reliever. Ben Clemens wrote about him in August, after he threw this 101 mph cutter:

He is still just a reliever, though. He was graded as a 40+ FV player on our 2019 midseason update, and Eric Longenhagen told me he’ll probably be a 45 this offseason. Clase will be 22 years old in March and will be making the minimum salary through 2022. Generically, a prospect like Clase would be worth around $4 million or so in present value. Kluber’s projections minus his salary above provide a $16 million surplus in present value. We could be generous and assign Clase a bit of extra value for having already making the majors, making his success more likely, but we’ll probably still come up short relative to Kluber’s projected value.

There were reports that Cleveland had asked the Angels for Brandon Marsh, a 50 FV prospect who is in the top 100 on THE BOARD. Looking just through the prism of prospect surplus value, Marsh is too much to give up for Kluber based on Kluber’s expected performance. Cleveland perhaps should have gotten a little bit more objectively, but they were never going to get a haul dealing him this winter. Claiming Cleveland should have gotten more because Kluber’s trade value is high is question-begging. The question actually raised by this deal is if Kluber’s current trade value is so low, why on earth would Cleveland bother to deal him now? The answer likely isn’t a great one for Cleveland as an organization.

After consistently keeping payroll in the bottom quarter of major league teams for the early part of the decade, Cleveland jumped close to league average after making the World Series in 2016. Attendance rose by roughly 400,000 fans after the payroll increase and the team kept most of those gains in 2018 as payroll remained steady. Last offseason, the club dropped payroll by more than $20 million and failed to address glaring weaknesses in the outfield; attendance at Progressive Field dipped by 200,000 and Cleveland barely missed the playoffs. While the offseason isn’t complete, the team is down another $20 million-plus in payroll thus far.

What’s most bizarre about this Kluber trade is that if he weren’t already on Cleveland, the team would be an ideal landing spot for him. They are a small-market club with a good team trying to make the playoffs. Taking on a one-year commitment for $17.5 million and having an option for a second year at a similar cost for an ace one season removed from a very good season feels like a no-brainer. It’s a low-risk, high-reward deal that a team like Cleveland should be all over. Kluber might not pay dividends, but if he recaptures some of his prior form, it turns Cleveland from a good team into a great one. If he’s good, but Cleveland is not, then his trade value next season will be well above where it is right now. This deal says that either Cleveland has no faith in Kluber as a pitcher or that cutting payroll is more important than trying to win. Even if it is the former, there’s still arguably a chance that Kluber contributes next season. If it’s the latter, and last offseason fails to provide Cleveland with the benefit of the doubt, that’s just bad for baseball.

Of course, another ideal fit for Kluber is the Texas Rangers. Kluber’s salary goes up $1 million with the trade to $18.5 million, but that’s basically what Madison Bumgarner just received, except for five seasons. The team option is now a vesting one should Kluber get to 160 innings and doesn’t end the season on the injured list, though if that happens, the option would look like a good deal. The vesting option shouldn’t lower Kluber’s trade value as the innings requirement still serves to raise the floor of the deal by decreasing the chances of being stuck with two poor seasons. Texas isn’t good right now, but they have a rotation that doesn’t need Kluber, with Lance Lynn, Mike Minor, Kyle Gibson, and Jordan Lyles as their top four. They could have gotten another low-end starter and still had one of the better rotations in the game. That low-end starter might increase the team’s floor, but for a club trying to get back into contention in what should be a tough division, raising the ceiling might be more important.

The Rangers still have a lot of work to do on the position-player side, but they now have one of the 10-best pitching staffs in baseball. Giving up Clase and a near-replacement-level outfielder in Deshields is a hard move not to make. A lot of other teams might have been able to put together similar offers, but it is possible many systems, like the lower-level heavy Angels, just couldn’t match up with the 2020 value Cleveland was looking for. That helps explain why Texas might have been able to pull off this deal where other teams couldn’t, but it doesn’t do much to help understand why Cleveland made this deal at this time when Kluber’s value to them should have been much higher than what he returned in trade. What ended up being good for the Rangers also seems pretty bad for baseball.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Vince Clortho
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Vince Clortho

Respectfully, we don’t know if it was the best offer available. We only know it’s the best one that offered to clear 100% of the remaining money on the deal.

casey j
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casey j

That makes is sound even worse, from Cleveland’s side. “Worse” as in “Money based”. This makes me think that whenever a deal in baseball doesn’t seem to make sense, perhaps a team is actually having an actual financial crisis? Is this trade the MLB equivalent of selling your wedding ring at a pawn shop? Not necessarily, but possibly.

Also, just a guess, but my guess is taking all of Kluber’s salary was a condition of any trade talk, with any team. This likely limited the player return. If all the teams know you really want (need) to trade a guy, teams talk… offers drop.

OTMHeartBBC
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Member

Some owners are there to make $, not win. period

Mr Cleveland Indians owner just profited bigly in this trade and can afford a new yacht.

maguro
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maguro

If this is your perspective it would seem to cut against the other clubs who refused to pay Kluber’s whole salary just as much as it cuts against Cleveland.

FrancoLuvHateMets
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FrancoLuvHateMets

The other teams could actually be spending a lot of money relative to their market size already. If the Blue Jays were asking them to eat money, yeah, but if the Brewers were offering a better package to eat some of the money, it’s not much of an indictment on them.

Hughes
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Hughes

That’s where I’d love to know what the Jays were offering. Kluber makes a lot more sense than what they’ve picked up so far. Even if it’s a bridge to another starter 2 years from now.

Especially because they’re rumored to be in the hunt for Ryu enough to have peaked Boras’ interest. (At least enough that we’re not getting a repeat of the Blue Flu mockery).

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

Agreed – I think that the prospect return is proof that the Indians prioritized clearing out most or all of Kluber’s money. Purely prospect-wise it would be surprising if no one had offered better than a ‘minor league reliever + 4th outfielder’ package.

Shalesh
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Shalesh

How much salary should Cleveland have eaten and how much better a return would they have gotten do you reckon? I mean this is perennial CY-contender Corey Kluber, not broken down David Price. And — unless the league is way higher on Clase (which may be possible) — Kluber just went for less than the Blue Jays got for 1.5 years of Marcus Stroman last July. The league suddenly sees Kluber as only slightly better than Price?

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I actually think that the league is way higher on Clase than any of us would have guessed. I had been tracking him as an under-the-radar guy who could be the next shutdown closer. But realistically, if distracted sadtrombone could see it, then it probably wasn’t much of a secret. He’s got stuff. In the minors he ran huge strikeout numbers and good groundball rates. He did okay getting promoted directly from AA at age 21.

All that said, I agree with you that even with that, the return here is awfully light.

Shalesh
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Shalesh

Right, so Cleveland sees Clase as an FV50- now that could blossom into a closer that could fetch an FV55 down the road. Meanwhile, they’re not optimistic on 34yo Kluber returning to CY-form, so they think it’s too big a gamble to hold him for something possibly better than the ASB. The rest of the league has a similar view as Cleveland, but the Rangers think it’s worth the risk. I was trying to think through why my White Sox didn’t offer Aaron Bummer, who’s better now than Clase, and the only explanation is that they are not optimistic about Kluber going forward either.

Keith Law is calling this a salary dump — in fairness, he has to make a judgment within an hour or two of a deal — and I think fans are jumping on that. Cleveland definitely wants to shed payroll but I think they view this more as a “challenge trade” than a salary dump. And as a “get something for Kluber now while we still can” trade. I’m surprised that Kluber’s stock has fallen so low, but a recently injured 34yo with declining velocity on all 3 of his pitches is not going to be in high demand — even one with Kluber’s record. Boston wouldn’t get very much for Chris Sale if they made him available now.

Roger21
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Roger21

Even before he got hurt last year, Kluber’s xwOBA was about 50 points higher than it was in 2018. Other stats, like Sierra and xFIP, showed a similarly troubling decline. With that in mind, I’d commend Cleveland for getting much of anything for him.

gettwobrute79
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gettwobrute79

You’re basing all of those numbers on less than 40 innings in 2019. While it may be indicative of a decline, that’s far from certain. The return is really light and I think Cleveland sold at the wrong time.

LHPSU
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LHPSU

There’s no such thing as “60% chance of a decline” or “40% chance of a decline”. There’s only one outcome, and you base your decision-making on what you think that outcome is.

Ted Nelson
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Ted Nelson

Why is Kluber not broken down and Price is? Kluber *was* a perennial Cy Young contender in the past (as was Price, granted), but his 2020 Steamer projections don’t look a lot better than Price’s: 4.1 FIP vs. 4.2.

I think a lot of people are remembering who Kluber used to be (the name value) and ignoring how poorly he pitched in 2019 before he got hurt. Also, probably ignoring just how valuable a league minimum RP who throws a 101 mph cutter with 6 years of control left can be.

dl80
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dl80

Come on. You’re basing that on 35 innings with an unsustainably high BABIP and low LOB. Other than an increase in walks, his other numbers are in line with his previous years.

Buhners Rocket Arm
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Member
Buhners Rocket Arm

Does anybody know why Kluber walked so many guys last year? His Zone% was 7% lower than his career numbers which is huge. 35 IP isn’t a lot, but that’s like an extra ball an inning.

ljf330
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Member
ljf330

Back and knee issues altered his release point and his control was markedly worse. That combines with the declining velocity have lead to the declining performance in 2018 and early starts in 2019, If having most of the year off lead to improvement in these issues Texas got a steal. Time will tell.

Ted Nelson
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Member
Ted Nelson

Results were worse in a bunch of categories: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/savant-player/corey-kluber-446372?stats=career-r-pitching-mlb

It is a small sample, but people were barreling him up and getting better launch angles. xWOBA was way up. K% was way down.

It’s certainly possible that Kluber has a good 2020 due to some combo of small sample noise in his 2019 results and a return to health in 2020. I just think a lot of fans are assuming 2019 was a blip and Kluber is likely to return to his old ways, while at the same time maybe understating the value of Clase a bit since he’s an unknown RP.

User79
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User79

It’s not clear to me why people believe the Indians would prioritize clearing money over prospect value. Does that mean if the Indians had to pay, say, $3 million dollars for better prospects that are valued at $5 million more, they wouldn’t do that?

There’s evidence the Indians don’t want to pay for veterans, who are getting expensive. I haven’t seen any evidence the Indians wouldn’t pay for young, controllable, and promising prospects. In fact, their success in recent years would suggest they are somewhat savvy in collecting talent.

I guess I’m saying I don’t believe the Indians would pass up a better package, to save a few million dollars. They probably assessed value of prospects versus costs, and picked the best one.

strawman
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strawman

See the rub is whether marching orders have changed. The Indians attracted minority ownership before their mini-splurge in salary years ago. That minority ownership as of this offseason is now the majority ownership of the Royals.

It’s hard to say whether this is free up salary to make a run at Lindor OR free up salary in general/soft rebuild. Which could mean a total blow up of the team.

sogoodlooking
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sogoodlooking

We also don’t know the condition of his arm. If it’s more iffy than most believe, the move makes that much more sense for Cleveland.