Indians

Trading Corey Kluber

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

When I started this piece…a long, long time ago, I intended it to be a fair trade piece involving the Dodgers for Corey Kluber. Then, I saw the potential for a three-team trade that involved Kluber, Yan Gomes, Cody Bellinger, Brandon Nimmo, Noah Syndergaard, and a slew of prospects. Then I thought I’d put together a trade or two for the top five teams listed as suitors for Kluber. Then I was back at the Dodgers and Bellinger, which prompted a two-week text feud involving my WFNY/EHC brethren discussing the whys and the why nots of Bellinger as the only compensation. Then Verdugo became a key piece, about ten days ago in said discussions.

Since then, Chris Taylor, and Yasiel Puig, and Joc Pederson, and Ryan Stripling, and Julio Urias, and Kenta Maeda, and every prospect, pitcher, and position player in between have entered the fray of the discussion. But nothing seemed right. Nothing seems right. So here is my return to WFNY, after my four-month retirement, talking about something that really pisses me off…has to be done…pisses me off…has to be done…oh the hell with it. Corey Kluber is getting traded, so I might as well just get it over with…

On July 31, 2010, the Cleveland Indians traded for Corey Kluber. It was a big trade in concept, as all three-team trades tend to be, but with the most notable player in the trade at the time being Jake Westbrook, it was as nondescript a three-team trade you can make. The Indians traded Jake Westbrook the to Cardinals. The Cardinals sent Ryan Ludwick to the San Diego Padres. The Padres sent Nick Greenwood to the Cardinals, and also sent Corey Kluber to the Indians.

Today, Corey Kluber is the greatest pitcher to step on the mound for the Indians over the last half-century. His two Cy Youngs are unprecedented over Indians’ history. He’s been durable, with both elite K/9, and BB/9, and has showcased the best breaking ball in the league, when he’s been willing to use it. When Kluber is at the top of the game, he is virtually unhittable.

And unfortunately for the Indians, because of depth and salary, it may be time to trade the greatest pitcher of most of our lifetimes.

I don’t want to. I don’t support this idea. As a matter of fact, I’ve wanted to fight just about everyone talking about it. You just don’t trade the best pitcher of our lifetime. I don’t care if he has shown diminishing velocity. I don’t care if he’s getting too long in the tooth (I mean…he’s going to be 33 this year). Corey Kluber is the best freakin’ pitcher of our lifetimes. YOU DON’T TRADE THAT GUY, while he’s still more or less THAT GUY.

Oh, I know, you try and beat the curve. Kluber isn’t going to be Kluber forever, but today, with the Los Angeles Dodgers rumored to be hammering down the Indians door for Kluber, I’m going to put convention aside for the sake of having a little fun. Today, I’m going to shuffle aside the vitriol I hear every time I hear “Carlos Carrasco has more upside,” and “Trevor Bauer is more durable.”1 Today, I’m going to make a deal utilizing the fairly substantial asset that is Corey Kluber…the greatest pitcher of our lifetime here in Cleveland.

When establishing Kluber’s value, it’s important to notate four things:

  1. Kluber has been as durable a pitcher as there is in baseball. He’s pitched in 200+ innings in every season since 2014, and been in the Top 10 in innings pitched in each of those years.
  2. Kluber is going to turn 33 years old in the upcoming season. You never really know when the durability becomes an issue. In rare cases, it never becomes such an issue, but these are extremely rare cases. The Indians have rarely dealt with pitches long-term in the age range that Kluber is heading into. But in an open market, there’s nothing to suggest that durability is an issue in the immediate future.
  3. Kluber’s “value” has diminished in the playoffs over the last two seasons, suggesting that he’s either struggling with his workload throughout the year, he’s struggling with a drop in velocity, or both. While you can point to a lot of different reasons why Kluber has struggled in October since the 2016 run, it’s hard to pinpoint one. What can be said is that Kluber hasn’t been “Kluber” in the Indians past to ALDS losses to the Yankees and the Astros.
  4. He’s been the best pitcher in Cleveland over much of the past five decades, and while this isn’t something you can gauge while on the phone with other general managers, this really is a factor. Finding the friction point for dealing such a player is extremely difficult. If you wait too long, there’s no value. If you sell early, and he dominates for the remaining three years of his contract, you better hit a home run for a return, or it will be your job.

There are likely a lot of other factors involved when considering Kluber’s value here in Cleveland, as opposed to his value on the open market. But in the end, the Indians have a strength in the starting rotation, and major holes to fill in the outfield and the bullpen, to go along with likely having to shed salary. This makes Kluber an extremely valuable asset on the open market, especially considering the market surplus he provides in the open market.

Kluber is set to earn $46.7 million over the next three years, with potential Cy Young escalators that could take it much higher than that. While this salary is high for the Indians, it does establish a ton of surplus value, and in comparable value, there aren’t many pitchers of Kluber’s stature making as few dollars as he is. Yet for the Indians, paying a pitcher $15+ million, on average, per year on any deal is going to push their financial limits on a veteran team, especially one like this current Indians’ ensemble. While you can argue his salary vs. his surplus (which varies, depending on which surplus standard you use), from a pure fiscal view, it makes sense to trade Kluber to free up salary over the next three seasons.

Will it make the Indians a better team? That all depends on the outcome.

For the sake of any deal with one team for the Indians ace, I’m not going to include a “handcuff player,” such as Jason Kipnis and Yonder Alonso. While it makes sense to try and get rid of their sizable contracts (Alonso is arguable), it decreases the value you get in return for Kluber.

I’ve also stayed away from the rumor mill, of sorts. Of course, I’ve discussed this deal with the Tribe-side of WFNY, but in general, I have stayed out of the mix.

Trading with the Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the mix for a starting pitcher, and Kluber has been rumored since the World Series ended. The Dodgers are also a team that’s willing to spend money, and happen to have a surplus of outfielders. But I’m using the Dodgers to show you just how difficult it is for the Indians to deal a pitcher of Kluber’s quality while still making an attempt to win the World Series. While the rumors have all been centered around Alex Verdugo, let’s start where the Indians likely started when talks were initiated.

The Trade:

The Dodgers get:

Corey Kluber

The Indians get:

Cody Bellinger

While this trade makes a ton of sense, I simply can’t comprehend a deal in which the Indians only get one player back, regardless of how good this deal seems to be, and regardless of how good Bellinger is. I think the Indians want more back, and the Dodgers want…well…more back too. So lets up the ante slightly.

The Dodgers get:

Corey Kluber
Noah Naylor

The Indians get:

Cody Bellinger
Will Smith
Tony Gonsolin

Before I get into this trade, I have to tell you that I’ve gone round-and-round about it. Cody Bellinger hasn’t been mentioned in a single credible rumor from the start. The only thing the Dodgers have said publicly is that they won’t deal him. So why include him here?

Because he’s exactly the type of player the Indians need to receive in a deal for Kluber. You have to receive a player with a bunch of control (Bellinger has one more year of pre-arb), a player that can play right now, and a player that has a shot at being an All-Star. Bellinger was already an All-Star, and has been close to a 4 fWAR player in both of his first two seasons. By the way, that’s exactly why the Dodgers don’t want to deal him. But a player like Bellinger is a must for the Indians, and you can see that the chances of a deal like this happening are slim. The Dodgers, even with Alex Verdugo waiting in the wings, don’t want to deal their young potential superstar.

Oh, I’ll get to Verdugo in a minute.

Including Naylor was tough for me, because he certainly has superstar potential. That said, the term potential isn’t something I care too much about at this stage of his development. I only say that because the Indians have a current Lindor/JRam window of three seasons, and I want to maximize it as much as possible, rather than look to any future windows. Dealing Naylor makes sense when sweetening the pot for a potential Dodgers deal. I’m not sure he holds a ton of value in a trade, but I think when you look at assets past Bellinger and Kluber, it’s essential to add the type of prospect haul (close to the bigs) that can make a Kluber deal make sense.

I’d be tempted to pull a Bellinger for Kluber deal straight-up, but while you can make an argument that their surpluses match, that there’s less gamble on the young Bellinger, and that Kluber has been showcasing signs of aging over the past 18 months, I’ll bring up the complexity of dealing Kluber in this current market.

Patrick Corbin just signed a six-year, $140 million dollar deal with the Washington Nationals. Nathan Eovaldi just signed a four-year, $68 million dollar deal with the Boston Red Sox. Both pitchers are a lot younger than Kluber, but both pitchers come with enough question marks to make those deals eye-openers. Kluber is established, and while perhaps showcasing diminishing skills, you could make a case that even at age 33, he’s a better bet than both Corbin and Eovaldi over the next three years.

Kluber should net more than just Bellinger, which is likely the deterrent in said deal. You can work off of supposed surplus or contract value, but we all know that the Dodgers clearly value Kluber on the same plane as Clayton Kershaw as a front of the rotation, so while their WAR numbers are similar enough to say a straight up trade, there’s likely some grey-area value that we’re missing. I think the Dodgers are looking at this deal as a final step to the Series title, while the Indians are just keeping a window open so that they can get past the ALDS. I mean, of course they’ll think a move such as this makes them a World Series contender (it does, sorta), but it’s also a massive gamble. A miss here, and they’ve lost their movable capital in starter surplus, especially with the likelihood of a need to move Bauer a year from now.

Will Smith is an interesting candidate because he’s a defensive-first catcher, who has showcased some recent power. He’s not far from the big leagues, and would provide support for the Roberto Perez/Eric Haase tandem in 2019. Smith should be available throughout the 2019 season, and would be a long-term, cheaper asset than Perez. Did I mention that Smith can also play second and third? I like Ruiz far better than Smith simply because he’s a switch hitter (and a better prospect), but the Indians are looking to contend now, so Smith makes more sense. The ultimate problem is that Smith is a righty, which makes a Smith/Haase platoon not make any sense whatsoever, down the road. However, he can play third, so perhaps he’s got some flex-positioning available. Not a perfect fit, but a fit nonetheless.

Tony Gonsolin is someone the Indians can look at in regards to their big league roster almost immediately. He was the Dodgers’ minor league pitcher of the year as a starter, but is old for his level because of a permanent switch during the past two years from a multi-use hitter/pitcher, to strictly a pitcher. He has a high velocity four-seamer that sits mid-90s, and can touch the upper spectrum, a developing slider, that looks better by the day, a big moving curve, and a nice offspeed pitch. Most of his pitches aren’t perfect, but you can almost see a full-time back-end of the bullpen sort of arm there. He’s a top ten prospect for the Dodgers, but because of age, not sure where he fits long-term there. He would be a nice addition for an Indians’ organization that needs bullpen arms.

Now, this deal isn’t perfect. The Dodgers likely don’t want to include Bellinger because he’s established, and the adding salt-and-pepper to the deal in Smith and Gonsolin makes this deal unwieldy. The Indians likely don’t want to take less, because they understand that while Kluber might be a sell-now candidate because of his age, he’s still the top commodity in the deal.

You also have to take into account the Dodgers need for a catcher long-term. While Kluber does give them one of their top three priority needs this offseason, it doesn’t address their current catcher mix. Early discussions with the Indians centered on not just Kluber, but Yan Gomes as well. Perhaps the Dodgers don’t want to include Smith into a deal because they’ve yet to pull the trigger on a deal for a catcher. Perhaps the Indians would include Roberto Perez instead of Naylor, but it’s highly doubtful the Indians would deal both of their starting catchers in the same offseason, and a Haase/Smith tandem doesn’t make a lot of sense because they are both right-handed hitters, as I’ve already mentioned. The point here is that the Dodgers may not want to deal Smith, as much as they don’t want to deal Bellinger.

So is there an alternative to the deal? If the Indians get Bellinger, could they take less? Perhaps the stand off between the two teams is exactly that. Maybe the Indians ultimately take Bellinger in a one-off deal, and you could make a strong case that it makes sense. Perhaps you take Bellinger and a lottery ticket, or somehow try and pry a Ross Stripling, who likely becomes the odd man out in Los Angeles, with Kluber joining the rotation. There’s a deal there, but the home run is similar to the one I suggested.

Let’s get to the steamrolling rumors of Alex Verdugo, one of the top prospects in baseball.

The Alternate:

The Dodgers get:

Corey Kluber

The Indians get:

Alex Verdugo
Keibert Ruiz

Let’s just go after their top two prospects to start things off.

Is the Dodgers side of things too high? Verdugo has the potential to be a major league stud. He has an advanced bat, thanks to fantastic plate discipline at every level, including his short stint in the majors. He doesn’t showcase a ton of power, but as we all know, that can change quickly in the flyball revolution. Offensively, he spreads the ball to all fields, but could see a shift in power as he starts to pull more baseballs at the big league level. Still, there are questions, but as a Top 15 or 20 prospect in baseball, you’d expect as close to a “sure-thing” as you can get without being Bellinger.

Getting Ruiz would be a nice second piece, since he’ll fit into many top 100’s heading into 2019. The problem with getting a Ruiz is that he’s a down-the-line guy. As studdish as he looks, that’s a move you make for the 2020 future, not for 2019, and that’s likely hard for the front office to stomach, let alone the fans (and while that shouldn’t matter, there’s some weight there because of the PR hit trading Kluber will likely carry with it).

Maybe there’s a third piece here. Maybe it’s a player like Gonsolin, or maybe a current starter for the Dodgers, or maybe another lottery ticket, but irregardless, you are starting to see the problems with dealing for Kluber. If you look at straight numbers, and age, and projections, Kluber for Bellinger seems like a pretty straight up, doable deal. Kluber for Verdugo is a nice start, but you can’t deal for a guy that “projects” to fill an Indians’ outfield need, without getting a bit more.

Since Ruiz is at least 12 months away, I’m not sure he’s even a fit. The Indians would never say no, but perhaps there’s a better route, that makes more sense.

The Sort-of-Real Deal:

The Dodgers get:

Corey Kluber

The Indians get:

Alex Verdugo
Dennis Santana
Tony Gonsolin
Ryan Stripling

Verdugo is still the centerpiece, but now the Indians are acquiring three potential starter/relievers, without breaking the Dodgers bank. In Santana, they get a 22-year old who just moved to being a full-time pitcher in 2014. He’s got electric stuff, but it’s still developing. His four seam fastball supposedly has good movement, rests at 94, and touches 98. The problem is I haven’t seen a lot of video where this is moving all that much. His breaking ball has a ton of potential, a slurvy pitch that he can really alter the velocity on, but he’s still trying to figure out how to control it. His sinker looks devastating. There’s a ton of video in which it hits the floor, and fools the minor league batters he’s faced, but again, it’s one of those pitches that he has to have control of everything else, to be effective in the bigs. He’s still figuring out his offspeed pitch, but gets a ton of swing and misses. Still, he missed a few months with a rotator cuff strain, has a weird-ish delivery at three quarters, and while should pitch in the bigs in 2019, has a ton of questions.

Stripling was lights out with the Dodgers last year, but at 29, certainly doesn’t have the body of work that makes you think he’s the centerpiece of anything. I’m not even sure if he’s a long-term starter, and even though he’s under control, I don’t think the Indians are looking at Stripling as a big piece of any deal, even though I like him. He’d be a solid addition.

But would I really do this trade? Verdugo has the least amount of questions, and the rest of those dudes? I don’t know, it’s a lot, and not a lot at the same time. The Indians are dealing Kluber, and have they really answered their outfield question?

They probably need two outfielders, right?

As I was ready to pound my head through a wall trying to find equity in this deal, WFNY’s Michael Hattery, Esq. threw this tweet my way.

So let’s not take it literally, and assume the plural in this means wither plural MLB players, or plural minor league players.

The enough playing around deal:

The Dodgers get:

Corey Kluber

The Indians get:

Alex Verdugo
Chris Taylor
Dennis Santana

Taylor likely doesn’t have a home in 2019 at any position. Verdugo already doesn’t start, and Taylor certainly isn’t playing shortstop with Seager returning. Last year, he found time at second, short, third, left, and center, and while the Dodgers would always have room for him, he’d certainly be a really nice piece for the Indians going forward, and their outfield situation is fixed with one big move.

Santana is icing on the cake, and can be a pen guy, or a rotation guy. I look at his stuff though, and can’t help but think bullpen.

The Home Run Deal:

The Dodgers get:

Corey Kluber

The Indians get:

Alex Verdugo
Chris Taylor
Dennis Santana or Dustin May
Tony Gonsolin

So that’s a ton right there, right? The Dodgers give up their top prospect, a 4 fWAR player in Taylor, a Top 5-ish system prospect in May or Santana, and a Top 10-ish prospect in Gonsolin.

It’s a lot, right?

Too much, right?

But here’s the thing. I started this piece a month ago…

a month ago…

…and I have no clue what value you give Corey Kluber…except a whole freakin’ lot.

I could talk to you about his surplus, and diminishing return. I could get all high and mighty, discussing the Indians need to capitalize on his value now, as though he was just a guy built out of numbers. I could note how the Indians are dealing from an area of strength, to heal an area of weakness. I can detail how the Indians aren’t rebuilding, they are just reshaping their team. But all of that feels a lot like a Saturday morning spent building models out of Play-Doh. They all look great in the moment, but at the end of the day, you either have to tear apart the Play-Doh and put it away, or let it sit there, and ultimately harden and crumble.

No, I still can’t make any sense out of this deal the Indians are likely to make for their two-time Cy Young award winning ace, because you see, Corey Kluber is the greatest Indians’ pitcher that I’ve ever seen pitch in my lifetime over a multi-year arc, and I just don’t know how the hell I can make a trade to the Dodgers that cures that feeling. The outfield will certainly be better. The rotation will certainly have able options to fill in a fourth or fifth spot.

It seems as though they have to deal him, because they haven’t been able to develop outfielders all that well, and because of injuries, and because of a payroll that’s gotten unwieldy for the current market…I think.

But that’s life in small market baseball. You build a team for a window, hope and pray you catch lightning in a bottle, then force yourself to thread the needle on trades for your stars who are in their prime, but nearing the end of it.

It certainly has to be done, but I don’t have to like it.

  1. Carrasco is less than a year younger than Kluber, and Kluber has five straight 200 inning seasons, while Bauer hasn’t had one yet, and while there are reasons for that…you know…you can’t really say more durable…yet. []