Would a budget-constrained Cleveland team be marketing Corey Kluber in the upcoming off-season, and if so, would the Jays be interested?
Much has been written about the Blue Jays’ future pitching challenges. While the upcoming waves of young pitchers look more than promising, the Jays face real challenges in 2020 and possibly in 2021, particularly at the top of the rotation. Arguably what the Jays most need is a veteran, top starter to reduce the pressure on the “kids” by pushing everyone down a slot.
That starter should be under team control for at least 2020 and 2021, to act as a bridge to the Manoahs and Pardinhos and Kloffensteins.
The Cleveland Indians also have a problem. Their ace, Corey Kluber, signed a 5-year deal in 2015 that included team options for 2020 and 2021. Those options were originally for $13m and $13.5m, but escalators (due to his two Cy Youngs) have increased those amounts to $17m and $17.5m.
For a Cleveland team with a 2019 payroll of $122m, those numbers are not insignificant. A further complication is Kluber’s 2019 season, which began with a poor seven games (5.80 ERA, 4.69 SIERA) followed by a broken arm and oblique injury. Given Kluber’s age (he will pitch 2020 at 34 years old) there is some cause for concern. Cleveland might well be “willing to listen” on Kluber this off-season.
Toronto Blue Jays
Can you see where I am going here?
Kluber would immediately become Toronto’s ace, reducing the pressure on Nate Pearson to step directly into a #1 role and moving Shoemaker to the Jays’ #3. Players like Kay and Borucki and Thornton would then be able to develop in a #4 or #5 role, without the pressure to provide top-of-rotation performance. And Kluber’s durability (his 1091 IP from 2014-18 is second only to Max Scherzer – the broken arm in 2019 was a freak injury) would be welcome to a potentially young Jays 2020 bullpen.
There is risk – the injury and performance factors that contribute to making Kluber potentially available also increase the risk of reduced performance in 2020 and 2021. He would be a gamble – but potentially an intelligent one.
So what would it cost?
The two best, recent comparables would likely be the Greinke and Bauer deals.
Zack Greinke, like Kluber, is a top-10-in-baseball stud pitcher. He is also under team control through the 2021 season. The Astros acquired him at the 2019 trade deadline for four players: 1B Seth Beer, RHP J.B. Bukauskas, RHP Corbin Martin, and INF/OF Josh Rojas. Going into 2019, Bukauskas was rated the #97 prospect by mlb.com, but his stock had fallen due to concerns that he might end up in the bullpen.
Similarly, Martin was #81, but he had Tommy John surgery in July and will likely be out until 2021. Neither player is currently listed as a top-100, and they are currently listed as Arizona’s 11th and 12th best prospects. Beer is a bat-and-cool-name-only 1B, and Rojas is a utility player with limited upside. And it is important to note that, by acquiring Greinke at the deadline, Houston will have him for three playoff runs as compared to two runs for Kluber. So two years of Kluber should arguably be worth a bit less than 2.5 years of Greinke.
Trevor Bauer was also traded at the deadline. The Indians received five players: OF Yasiel Puig, P Scott Moss, OF Franmil Reyes, P Logan Allen, and IF/OF Victor Nova. Puig was a half-year rental, Reyes is a bat-only player likely destined for a DH role, and Moss and Nova are lottery tickets. Logan Allen was ranked #92 by Baseball America entering 2019, but a poor MLB debut (6.18 ERA in 27 MLB innings) and a 7.66 ERA in AAA for Cleveland has removed him from top-100 status. Bauer had only 1.5 years of team control left, and so Kluber might be worth a bit more.
So what can we glean from these two deals, both about the “going rate” and about Cleveland’s own situation? First, the trend appears to be more towards quantity than a single top prospect. Second, that teams are willing to gamble on players like Martin or Allen who were top prospects once but whose lustre has dimmed (much like when the Rays traded for Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow last year). And finally, it is likely that Cleveland still sees itself as a contender in 2020 and would be more interested in MLB-ready assets than third-wave teenagers.
What might a deal look like?
One of Cleveland’s greatest areas of need is in the outfield. In 2019 to date, they have earned 3.1 WAR from their OF players, 9th worst in baseball. They might also want a replacement for Kluber, and once for Jason Kipnis (whose $16.5m option for 2020 is unlikely to be picked up). For each of these positions, Cleveland would want players who are MLB-ready (or, better yet, MLB-experienced) but who still have multiple years of inexpensive team control. And they would likely be looking for players like Meadows and Glasnow who have at least a little breakthrough potential.
So might a package around Fisher/Teo/Alford + Kay/Zeuch/Thornton/Borucki + Drury/Urena + two good lottery tickets be sufficient to get a conversation started?
The bottom line
There has been considerable discussion of the Jays strengthening their rotation through free-agent signings. But it would be imprudent for the Jays to put all of their eggs in that basket. Might a healthy (fingers crossed) Kluber at the top of the Jays’ 2020 rotation not only make Toronto more attractive to those free agents but – just maybe – elevate a (perhaps) .500 team to a wild card contender?