Nobody Really Wanted Corey Kluber by Craig Edwards December 16, 2019 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: RHP Emmanuel Clase OF Delino DeShields Jr. 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.