Rays Restock Their Rotation With Corey Kluber

After trading away Blake Snell and declining Charlie Morton’s club option last offseason, the Rays made a flurry of smaller moves to bolster their rotation depth, bringing in Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, and Chris Archer on one-year deals. But Archer ended up spending the majority of the season on the Injured List, Hill was traded away in July, and while Wacha pitched better than his 5.05 ERA might lead you to believe, it was still a 5.05 ERA. Those three combined for 48 appearances for Tampa Bay and just 1.9 WAR, and all three won’t be returning in 2022.

With Tyler Glasnow projected to be sidelined for the entire season after Tommy John surgery, the Rays’ rotation once again looked rather pyramid-shaped heading into this offseason: lots of depth and plenty of options in the middle, but thin at the top. Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Ryan Yarbrough, Luis Patiño, and Shane Baz are lined up to take on the bulk of the starter innings in 2022, but while that group was solid last season, putting up a cumulative 5.9 WAR in 112 combined games, no one present has all that much major league experience.

To that young group, the Rays have added a veteran who can also address their need for a frontline starter, signing Corey Kluber to a one-year, $8 million contract on Sunday. The deal includes incentives based on games started that could push the total up to $13 million — a safeguard given his recent and long injury history. He missed the majority of the 2019 season in Cleveland after a line drive fractured his throwing arm and made just one start in Texas the year after, leaving his only appearance with a shoulder injury after a single inning. He signed a one-year deal with the Yankees in January and started the season looking good, making nine starts through April and May, but left his tenth with another shoulder injury that kept him off the mound for two months; he returned at the end of August and made six more starts down the stretch.

During the first half of the season, Kluber posted a 3.79 FIP with a 25.0% strikeout rate, and while his command wasn’t as pristine as it had been in the past, he looked fantastic at times, including throwing the first no-hitter of his career against the Rangers. But after returning from his shoulder injury in the fall, his results took a hit: he allowed 16 runs in 26.2 innings, his strikeout rate dropped to 22.3%, and his FIP crept up to 3.96. Velocity may have something to do with that: In his ten starts before hitting the IL, Kluber’s fastball velocity averaged 91 mph, but that dropped to 90.3 after his return. Never a fireballer, he relied instead on impeccable command and wicked movement during his five-year stretch as one of the premier starters in baseball, but there’s a point at which a heater simply loses its effectiveness when it falls below a certain speed.

Luckily, Kluber doesn’t need to rely as much on his fastball to find success. For the first time in his career, his repertoire was led by his slurvy breaking ball and his cutter, his two best pitches, and his fastball usage dropped to 25%, the lowest of his career.

His breaking ball and cutter formed a formidable one-two punch during his most successful years in Cleveland. With the effectiveness of his sinker waning, it makes sense that he would lean on his best pitches more often.

Kluber also started throwing his changeup with the Yankees far more often. A reliable pitch early in his career, it became an afterthought once he focused on his slurve/cutter combo, but it’s always been an effective offering for him, and its increased usage gave him a third option to use when looking for a swinging strike. Opposing batters swung and missed 40.2% of the time against his change this year, right in line with the 40% whiff rate he’s run on it for his career, and when they put it in play, they only managed a .318 xwOBA on contact.

Kluber isn’t that far removed from being one of the best pitchers in baseball, but the uncertainty surrounding his shoulder was always going hold him back from getting one last big free-agent contract. And as someone who relies on three quality secondary offerings as his fastball deteriorates, he makes for an interesting project for the Rays. Tampa might be one of the softer landing spots for him, too. The team won’t be relying on him to carry a heavy load and has the depth to cover for him should another injury pop up — a good idea, as Kluber enters his age-36 season.

Adding Kluber’s $8 million pushes the Rays’ projected 2022 payroll a hair under $84 million, which doesn’t look like much but would be a record-setting mark for the perennially frugal franchise. That doesn’t leave much room for any more additions via free agency, though the rotation looks deeper than it did a year ago. Even without Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos should return from his own Tommy John surgery at midseason, and Josh Fleming is available as a seventh or eighth option. It’s likely the Rays’ total salary commitments will come down at some point this season, whether by trade or by non-tendering some of their huge arbitration class. Still, after inking Wander Franco to his massive extension and now adding Kluber to the top of their rotation, they look ready to challenge for their third straight AL East crown.





Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

Did this site just forget about the Marte/ Canha’Escobar signings?

CC AFC
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CC AFC

Chew gum, walk, etc.

BenZobrist4MVP
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BenZobrist4MVP

There was a lot that went down this weekend. I am sure they will post about the Mets flurry of activity soon. It sounds like they have another free agent signing as well.

BenZobrist4MVP
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BenZobrist4MVP

Of course I am talking about Nick Plummer.