Yankees Raise Ceiling With Corey Kluber

The Yankees’ big free agent signing last week came when the team brought back DJ LeMahieu for six years and $90 million. That deal raises both the floor and the ceiling in the Bronx next season. LeMahieu is a dependable player who should be average at a minimum, ensuring the infield doesn’t have a black hole, while a repeat of his performance since the beginning of 2019 would elevate the Yankees’ chances of a great season. The Yankees’ other signing last week came late Friday in the form of Corey Kluber. Kluber does less to shore up the Yankees’ floor given his recent injury history; indeed, there’s a non-zero chance Kluber doesn’t contribute much to the Yankees at all this year. What Kluber and his two Cy Young awards do manage to do is substantially raise the Yankees’ ceiling, as the team should face a tough battle in the AL East.

Jeff Passan was first with the news that Kluber would be signing with the Yankees for one year and $11 million. Kluber’s contract sits between my $9 million prediction and the $12 million median crowdsource estimate from our top 50 free agent ranking. Despite making just eight starts over the past two seasons, including just a single inning last year, a couple factors worked in Kluber’s favor in securing a decent pillow contract. The first is that Kluber threw for scouts and impressed. The second relates more specifically to the Yankees.

When there’s not much of a recent track record to go on, it probably helps to have someone inside the training process who can provide an accurate assessment of a pitcher’s health. Even with that inside information, though, it’s difficult to have too high of expectations for Kluber this season. Even in Kluber’s last good season in 2018, when his 5.5 WAR was seventh among all pitchers, the velocity on his sinker was down a couple ticks from its peak in 2014; it lost a little velocity in each subsequent season, falling to the 92 mph mark we saw in his abbreviated 2019 campaign.

Now, Kluber doesn’t need a huge fastball to be successful. The pitch has always been a setup for his better offerings. In 2017 and ’18, he threw his cutter and curve more than 50% of the time. Those are the pitches he uses to so successfully get batters out. For his career, batters have -7 wRC+ against his curve with a 51% strikeout rate and a 1% walk rate. The curve is what’s most responsible for those Cy Youngs, not a low-90s sinker. That said, Kluber will be 35 years old in April. Age and recent results work against him, so a full recovery will be of utmost importance to his success.

As for projections, Steamer forecasts Kluber to be slightly above-average; ZiPS says he’ll be a bit better than that. The bigger question is how many innings he’ll provide. His 2019 injury (a comebacker that fractured a bone in his arm) was more of a freak occurrence; his return that season was complicated by an oblique strain. The 2020 injury to his shoulder appears more likely to linger, but his throwing session earlier this month alleviated at least some of those doubts. Kluber avoided surgery and his rehab has gone well, but for the Yankees, he is likely more of a lottery ticket who the team hopes turns into a number two starter behind Gerrit Cole than a pitcher the club believes it can count on every fifth day.

The Yankees already have a really good team. Re-signing LeMahieu means they’re likely the best team in the American League, at least on paper. They are already stacked in the bullpen. It’s the rotation that’s the potential weakness, though signing Kluber doesn’t really change that. Here are our current Depth Chart projections for the Yankees’ rotation after signing Kluber.

Yankees’ Rotation Depth Chart Projections
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Gerrit Cole 204 12 2.5 1.4 3.56 3.5 5.2
Jordan Montgomery 147 8.9 2.9 1.6 4.48 4.59 2.1
Corey Kluber 152 9.5 2.4 1.5 4.2 4.23 2.5
Deivi García 120 9.1 3.8 1.8 5.06 5.2 1.1
Luis Severino 101 10 2.7 1.4 3.91 3.97 2.1
Domingo Germán 100 9.1 3.1 1.8 4.88 4.97 1
Clarke Schmidt 56 8.1 3.7 1.5 4.91 5.02 0.6
Michael King 38 7.9 3 1.6 4.79 4.92 0.4
Jhoulys Chacín 19 7.2 3.8 1.9 5.62 5.76 0.1
Nick Nelson 9 9.5 4.7 1.5 4.74 4.92 0.1
Total 947 9.7 3 1.6 4.36 4.41 15.1

Purely based on the projections, that is a really good rotation, though Cole is doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Right now, the Yankees are heavily reliant on Cole having a strong, healthy season. Without him, the team’s starters would be in the bottom third of baseball. The Yankees probably don’t need a healthy Kluber to get to the playoffs, and even if they drop to the Wild Card, Cole would be the likely starter, but Kluber has the potential to be a solid number two behind him in the postseason. That’s essentially what the Yankees are hoping and paying for, but in looking at this rotation, it’s obvious it still needs some help in the form of reliable innings.

Jordan Montgomery made 10 solid starts after returning from Tommy John surgery, but gave up a few too many homers and didn’t pitch deep into games. Deivi García made a promising debut last year, but turns 22 years old in May and has never pitched more than 111.1 innings as a professional. Severino is coming off surgery. Domingo Germán is coming off a suspension. Clarke Schmidt is intriguing, but he might not have the second offspeed offering necessary to be a consistent starter. Meanwhile, Michael King hasn’t shown much in the majors, Jhoulys Chacín has struggled tremendously the past two years, and Nick Nelson struggled in relief last season.

As currently constructed, this is a team heavily reliant on its lineup, its bullpen, and Gerrit Cole. That might be enough to make the playoffs and it might be enough to take the division, but even after losing Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, the Rays probably aren’t going away. The Blue Jays were good last year and seemed poised to make a big addition or two this winter. Corey Kluber is exactly the type of addition a team with few holes and a ton of money should make, but the Yankees haven’t bought a ton of reliable innings to this point.

Bringing back Masahiro Tanaka probably makes the most sense, given that after Tanaka, there are a boatload of less-reliable pitchers like former Yankee James Paxton, but to make any further additions, the Yankees are going to have to go over the competitive balance tax. They are still about $50 million under the payroll they would have run in a normal 2020 season, but they have yet to signal a willingness to return to that level. The Yankees will probably be fine, and Kluber represents solid upside risk for them, but if the 2021 season falls apart, it’s probably because they didn’t get more certainty in their rotation.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Mike NMN
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Mike NMN

If the Yankees want to stay under the CBT, then they will have to pay another team to get them to take a bad or just expensive contract. I think the Kubler signing is their bet for this year–that he will recover some of the old magic. The problem with trading young and cheaper talent to pair with a bad contract is that they will cannibalize their future. They don’t need another starter to make the playoffs–they might need another one to go deep into it, and you are talking about maybe 4/5 meaningful additional starts. Is that worth blowing through the CBT, or burning a lot of assets? As to bringing back Tanaka, is he really the #2-caliber pitcher at this point?

Willians Astu-stu-studillo
Member
Member
Willians Astu-stu-studillo

To answer your question, no, he’s not really a #2. But he’s been really great in the postseason for his career, which makes him a valuable mid-rotation pitcher for the Yankees. And I suspect that their plan for that #2 spot is to see what materializes out of their current options. One of Severino and Kluber likely locks that role down by the end of the year, and even German or Garcia may have that upside.

Rex Manning Day
Member
Rex Manning Day

Yeah, I think the argument for Tanaka is that he can be fairly reliably expected to give them a bunch of decent-quality innings. He’d likely start the season as a #2/#3 type by default, with the bet being that by the end of the year Kluber and Severino will have pushed him back to at least #4.

And other than Bauer, are there any free agent pitchers who would be clear upgrades over Tanaka? The various FG projections have him at ~150IP and ~2.5 WAR, which ain’t bad. Not a guy you’d want as your #2 if you have serious postseason ambitions, to be sure, but unless NY signs Bauer or pulls off a big surprise trade, they’re not getting that type of guy anyway. And in the “chew up innings while the injured, bounce-back, and young guys establish themselves” camp, you could do a lot worse than Tanaka.