Blue Jays: What the Cory Kluber signing says about this front office

Former Cleveland ace Corey Kluber has signed a one-year, $11 million “bet on yourself” contract with the New York Yankees. What does this say about the ability of the Blue Jays front office to sign and trade for their former players?

Having showcased his stuff last Wednesday to upwards of 25 teams, including the Blue Jays, Corey Kluber quickly signed with the Yankees on Friday.

As Joel Sherman of the New York Post noted, Yankees new director of health and performance, Eric Kressey, has been overseeing the former ace’s shoulder rehab. Kluber is also quite familiar with Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake, Cleveland’s ex-pitching coordinator and assistant director of pitching development.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan notes that the 34 year old Kluber’s velocity topped out at 90 mph, though he may already ahead of many pitchers who haven’t ramped up their offseason throwing program yet. Kluber averaged 92 mph on his fastball back during his excellent 2018 campaign when he went 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA and 3.12 FIP over 33 starts and 215 innings.

According to SNY’s Andy Martino, the Yankees’ offer wasn’t the most expensive contract on the table:

After Kluber threw a well-attended bullpen session in Florida last week, several teams began bidding aggressively, including a previously unknown suitor: the Toronto Blue Jays. This pushed Kluber’s base salary past what many in the industry expected, considering his recent injury history.

According to league sources, the Yanks actually did not submit the highest offer for Kluber. There were multiple teams willing to pay more than $10 million.

Given the Blue Jays clear need this offseason for better starting pitching after ace Hyun Jin Ryu, does the failure to sign Kluber, a two time Cy Young winner and three time All-Star, not to mention the failure to trade for former Indians stars Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco and Francisco Lindor perhaps point to bigger issues with this Toronto Blue Jays front office?

Former Cleveland Indians GM/team president Mark Shapiro and their former Director of Player Development Ross Atkins should have known all of these players almost more so than anyone besides the Cleveland front office and coaches.

Mark Shapiro was the General Manager of the Indians when they traded for Kluber as part of a 3-team trade with the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals at the July 2010 trade deadline, which sent Jake Westbrook to the Cards and Ryan Ludwick to the Padres.

Kluber would take a few more years to establish himself as an MLB regular in 2013, and his breakout came in 2014 when he won the AL Cy Young after he led the league in starts, wins and FIP, going 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and 2.35 FIP over 34 starts and 235.2 innings.

Atkins oversaw Kluber’s minor league development from August 2010 until 2013. Just as he would have known Lindor, who developed in the Indians minor league system after being selected 8th overall by Cleveland in the 2011 amateur draft.

Carlos Carrasco was acquired by Shapiro at the July 2009 trade deadline when Cliff Lee was traded to Philadelphia, but it took until his age 27 season in 2014 for him to establish himself, so Atkins would have overseen his development for almost five years. Mike Clevinger was acquired from the Angels for Vinnie Pestano in August 2014, suggesting a year of player development before Atkins left for the GM job in Toronto.

Could the failure to acquire any of their former players in Cleveland points to bigger issues than just “nobody wants to play in Canada”?

If we use the exceptional Pat Gillick and Epy Guerrero era as a benchmark, when they built the Blue Jays roster from scratch as an expansion franchise in 1977, they relied heavily on acquiring talent from their prior organization, the New York Yankees.

According to Shi Davidi and Dan Shulman in their 2016 book Big 50: Toronto Blue Jays: The Men and Moments that Made the Toronto Blue Jays, Gillick “steadily lifted some of his other favourites from the Yankees’ system in the years to come, Damaso Garcia, Willie Upshaw, and Fred McGriff notably among them.”

That was after he had selected Garth Iorg and Otto Velez from New York in the 1976 expansion draft, and crafted a trade to acquire a young lefty named Ron Guidry for declining veteran Bill Singer. Unfortunately that trade was overruled by then Jays Vice President Peter Bavasi, but Gillick clearly mined talent from his previous organization, which helped the expansion Jays win the AL East pennant by 1985.

Since Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins were hired in Toronto in 2015, they’ve acquire  a few players & prospects from the Indians’ organization, notably:

Of course that Donaldson trade was controversial given Major League Baseball rules stipulate that only healthy players can be put through the waiver process; the Indians activated Donaldson on September 1st after making the trade, and then immediately placed him back on the disabled list and sent him on a rehab assignment.

According to TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips that September,

It has been reported that the [2018 playoff bound] Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have all complained to the league about the process that landed Donaldson in Cleveland… They just don’t believe the Indians should have been allowed to trade for him based upon the rules of the game. None of those clubs want to face an Indians lineup with a healthy Donaldson. The rules don’t allow for teams to acquire injured players in August and nurse them back to health in preparation for the playoffs.

Apart from the 29 year old Merryweather, who has only pitched 13 MLB innings since the trade in an injury shortened 2020 campaign, none of these players acquired from Cleveland has made the Blue Jays more competitive.

And the Blue Jays keep missing on the elite talent made available by Cleveland, like Clevinger, Carrasco and Lindor, as well as on reclamation projects like Kluber.

Maybe current Indians team president Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff are less willing to trade players to Toronto following the Donaldson trade blow back from other GMs?

Perhaps this could change with if Toronto is able to sign free agent LF Michael Brantley? Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic writes that the Blue Jays continue to have interest in Brantley, a four time All-Star.

11Toronto’s top free agent outfield target remains George Springer, but Rosenthal floats the possibility of the Jays signing both players. Obviously Brantley is familiar with Jays’ president Mark Shapiro, who’d acquired him for the Indians in a 2008 trade with Milwaukee, and GM Ross Atkins from their time together in Cleveland from 2009-2015.

Current Indians star 3B José Ramírez is another player potentially worth trying to acquire. Mark Shapiro signed him to an international amateur free agent contract with the Indians in 2009 and he was in their system until his MLB breakout in 2016.

Blue Jays fans have been promised some elite talent upgrades around the young core as the competitive window opens. So far Hyun Jin Ryu is the only tangible example of that, but there’s hope that more MLB talent is on the way. Let’s hope the inability to bring in former players isn’t a sign that this front office can’t complete aggressive deals for talent.