Rangers Could Miss Corey Kluber For the Rest of the Season

Corey Kluber’s debut with Texas lasted just one inning. A strikeout, walk, caught stealing, and popup made for a snappy opening frame against Colorado on Sunday, and after 18 pitches, the 34-year-old right-hander’s velocity was right where it has been for years. It seemed like the start of a solid return to the mound for Kluber and an exciting first glimpse for Rangers fans at the team’s biggest offseason addition, but the good vibes faded quickly. Kluber never took the mound for the second inning, with the team quickly citing “tightness in his right shoulder” and saying there would be an update Monday.

The update came, and it wasn’t reassuring — Kluber has a Grade 2 tear of his teres major muscle, an injury that will require him to be shut down for at least four weeks. There is a chance he could miss the entire season, and if he does return at some point, he will need to pitch out of the bullpen, as there won’t be enough time to stretch him back out to handle a starter’s workload.

This is the second consecutive season the two-time Cy Young winner has missed substantial time following several years of him being one of the most durable starters in the game. Kluber threw at least 200 innings every year from 2014-18, racking up the second-highest innings total over that five-year span. That run got busted on a fluke play last spring when Marlins third baseman Brian Anderson hit a line drive that got Kluber in his right arm, causing a non-displaced fracture that ended his season after just seven starts.

This season could be even shorter, which is an unfortunate development for both Kluber and the Rangers. Texas picked up Kluber via trade over the winter when it sent reliever Emmanuel Clase and outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. to Cleveland in what amounted to a salary dump for the latter. Over the two seasons before his arm injury, Kluber had contributed 12.7 WAR to contending Cleveland teams, and though he’d been disappointing over his first seven appearances of 2019, it was far too early to throw in the towel on one of the most successful starters of the past decade. Cleveland’s rich pitching development pipeline, however, gave the team an excuse to deem Kluber’s $17.5 million salary in 2020 an unnecessary expense, and it shipped him to another strong rotation in Texas. Clase has since been suspended 80 games for testing positive for an anabolic steroid, while Deshields Jr. hasn’t played since testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.

When my colleague Craig Edwards wrote up the trade back in December, he mentioned that while the deal did raise the Rangers’ ceiling, it was an addition their rotation didn’t necessarily need. After this weekend, this team will have to hope that is indeed the case. Even after Kluber’s injury, our Depth Charts still projects the Rangers’ starters to produce the third-most value in the majors, behind only the Nationals and Rays.

Rangers Depth Charts SP Projections
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Mike Minor 71.0 8.6 2.8 1.4 4.41 4.38 1.3
Lance Lynn 67.0 10.2 3.3 1.2 3.95 3.93 1.6
Kyle Gibson 62.0 8.3 3.3 1.2 4.23 4.29 1.1
Jordan Lyles 60.0 8.1 3.5 1.6 5.03 5.00 0.7
Kolby Allard 36.0 7.4 3.5 1.4 4.70 4.88 0.5
Joe Palumbo 17.0 9.7 4.1 1.4 4.87 4.62 0.2
Corey Kluber 16.0 9.2 2.4 1.2 4.05 3.86 0.4
Ariel Jurado 7.0 6.0 2.6 1.4 4.93 4.95 0.1

Palumbo was the one called upon to replace Kluber on Sunday, and he allowed three runs on three hits in two innings. But in terms of who will pick up the now-empty spot in the rotation, the Rangers are tapping Kolby Allard, a 22-year-old lefty. A first-round pick by the Braves in 2015, Allard was acquired by Texas in the middle of last season and made nine starts down the stretch, allowing a 4.96 ERA and 4.01 FIP — the latter of which translated to a FIP- of 84. After spending much of his pro career as a relatively soft-tossing lefty who relied on command over stuff, Allard suddenly added a couple of ticks to his fastball in 2019, giving a small boost to what had previously been only a modest ceiling.

If Allard can minimize the effects of losing Kluber, it would be a display of rotation depth the Rangers desperately lacked last season. While Lynn and Minor were outstanding in 2019, all other starters combined for a 7.29 ERA — a number that would likely be higher if we didn’t count the openers the team used. If Allard struggles, however, the team could pass the baton to Palumbo or Jurado. Palumbo, 25, pitched well in the minors last season, following a 3.19 ERA over 11 games at Double-A with a 2.67 ERA in six appearances at Triple-A. He has real swing-and-miss stuff, but he’s been hit hard in his 18.2 career major league innings, allowing 20 runs on 24 hits and nine walks and giving up eight homers. Jurado, 24, is another young arm whose big-league trials have left something to be desired — he threw 122.1 innings in 2019 with a 5.81 ERA and 5.10 FIP.

While the back of the rotation will need some sorting out, the top of the staff still looks strong. Lynn opened the season with six shutout innings of two-hit ball on Friday, with four walks and nine strikeouts in a 1-0 victory. The following day, Minor allowed two runs on three hits in five innings, with six strikeouts and one walk in a 3-2 loss. Gibson, a free agent signing in the offseason, will make his debut with the team on Tuesday.

Looking beyond 2020, Kluber’s injury makes it very unlikely the Rangers will ever benefit much as a result of trading for him. When he first signed his extension with Cleveland, the 2021 season was the final year of the contract, providing the club with an $18 million team option. After getting traded, that turned into a vesting option that would kick in if Kluber pitched 160 innings and did not end the season on the injured list. Kluber will no longer be able to meet even a pro-rated innings threshold this season, and it would be very surprising to see Texas voluntarily make an $18 million bet on a mid-30s pitcher who hasn’t thrown more than 40 innings in two years. That means the right-hander should hit the open market for the first time in his career this winter, likely shopping for a one-year deal to prove what health and effectiveness he still has.

The trade that brought Kluber to Texas was maligned in many spaces for its rather conspicuous financial motivations, but because of his age and the nature of his contract, this deal did always carry some risk for the Rangers. An expanded playoff field benefits a lower-tier contender like Texas the most, and because of the potentially steep drop-off in starter quality, having Kluber in the fold for a full season might have been just enough push to earn the team a seat at the table come October. If that happens, the trade is the coup many of us thought it was. It’s still a coup, just not in the way we expected.

We hoped you liked reading Rangers Could Miss Corey Kluber For the Rest of the Season by Tony Wolfe!

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Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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fjtorres
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fjtorres

Neither team looks to get any on the field value this year.
Might not make a difference, though, if what happened to Miami repeats.