For better or worse, Corey Kluber was the perfect Cleveland Indian, the player who most closely represented the values of the franchise. For starters, he was a “lowly” fourth-round pick, and an unheralded prospect thereafter, a trait he shares with many of Cleveland’s star players. Like Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, and Trevor Bauer, he was acquired via trade and developed into a great big leaguer in the Indians organization. In this case, it was a 2010 swap with the Padres and Cardinals, when the Indians turned an aging soft-tossing fan favorite in Jake Westbrook into the contemporaneously anonymous Kluber. It surely riled up some at the time, but they would soon be comforted by Kluber’s striking breaking ball, pinpoint command, and the quick ascent to dominance that entailed. Like his former employers, despite participating in an emotional game, Kluber never reveals an inkling of sentiment. As composed as Chris Antonetti remains in press conferences, as business-like as the front office acts in building its team, Kluber consistently matches or exceeds their level of poise on the field. Altogether, Corey Kluber represents the paradigm of Cleveland’s team-building process: to isolate and acquire an undervalued player, train him up, and let him shine, after signing him to a team-friendly, cost-cutting contract of course. It’s only fitting, therefore, that when the time came, the Indians would do to Kluber what they did to aces before him: trade him away to save a buck and break our collective hearts in the process.
In the 119 year history of the Cleveland Indians, 38 pitchers have thrown over 1000 innings. Of that group, no pitcher has been effective as Corey Kluber on a rate basis. Using FanGraphs’ collection of “plus-stats,” which normalize raw stats to the era in which they were produced, I found that Kluber had the greatest difference between strikeout- and walk-rate and the lowest FIP of any Indians pitcher. By adjusted ERA, he was bested only by Hall of Famers Addie Joss and Gaylord Perry. His FanGraphs WAR/IP is first place by a landslide; the difference between Kluber and second-place Sam MacDowell is the same as the difference between MacDowell and ninth-place Stan Coveleski. And, of course, no Indians pitcher besides Kluber has won multiple Cy Young Awards.
Stacked up against the rest of the league, Kluber’s resume is just as impressive. From 2013, his first full season, to 2018, Corey Kluber was fourth in MLB in FanGraphs WAR. Amongst pitchers who threw at least 500 innings, he was eighth in ERA, sixth in FIP, ninth in K% and 15th in BB%, giving him the fourth-best K%-BB%. No pitcher had a more valuable cutter. No pitcher had a more valuable breaking ball. And, of course, the numbers contextualize Kluber’s greatness, but the majesty of his stuff speaks for itself. Here’s a perfectly-located slurve from 2013:
And another, from 2019:
Corey Kluber, Filthy 82mph Breaking Ball…and Sword. ⚔️🤺 pic.twitter.com/faXNpxzMwS
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 28, 2019
Sadly, the ending of all good things can be described with a when not an if. We are all keenly aware of this fact of nature, but in addition, the Indians strongly averse to playing a passive role in time’s dilapidation. In trading Kluber, the Indians have also traded away the risk that comes with age. It’s highly possible that it’s not Kluber’s time to succumb, and that 2020 will bring success his way. However, it’s also possible that Kluber’s struggles in 2019 were signal, not noise. After all, his fastball velocity has been declining for years, and before he was hurt, he wasn’t just getting shelled; his once-pinpoint command had evaporated, as his walks mounted at a career-worst rate. Were his struggles real or were they rust? The Indians decided not to wait and see.
Of course, the decision might have been reversed without the fiscal aspect. In trading Kluber, the Indians have lowered their financial commitments to $91 million in 2020, per FanGraphs, their lowest payroll since 2015. At this point in the offseason, seven ballclubs have committed less money to their 2020 roster; those teams averaged 68 wins last year. It’s not exactly a desirable club to be in. An optimist might point out the Indians have holes and were trading from a relative strength; perhaps they’ll use the money saved to occupy the vacant infield position or fortify the outfield.1 A pessimist might point out that the Indians’ increase in payroll from 2015 to 2016 exactly coincided with John Sherman’s purchase of a minority stake in the team. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, sure, but it doesn’t take much of a logical leap to assume his arrival might have come with an influx of spending money. Now that he’s forfeited his share for a controlling stake in the Royals, that spending money has likely dried up. Indeed, from 2016-2019, the glass was half-empty; now, it’s three-quarters empty.
Obviously, we must discuss the baseball aspect of this trade; I can assure you, dear reader, that more words than this will be spilt upon this matter, but these are my initial thoughts. Without Kluber on the roster, the Indians starting rotation looks something like Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Aaron Civale, and Adam Plutko. Or Zach Plesac. Or Jefry Rodriguez. Or Scott Moss. Or Logan Allen. Or Triston McKenzie. Or someone who’s not yet on the roster. Needless to say, the fifth rotation spot is far from solidified. That said, starting pitching is still a strength of the roster. If we’re celebrating a Cy Young Award for Clevinger or Bieber come November, don’t color me particularly surprised. Each has the potential to reach that peak, though a top ten finish for each of them is more likely. However, beyond that duo on top lies some uncertainty. The Indians surely hope that a normal offseason and Spring Training is the final step in a complete recovery from leukemia for Carrasco, and he can recreate the consistency he wielded from 2014-2018. Meanwhile, Civale’s 2019 effectiveness was corroborated by a unique six-pitch mix and elite spin rates, but a 6.6% HR/FB seems ripe for regression.
In return for Kluber, the Indians received Emmanuel Clase and Delino Deshields Jr. Emmanuel Clase is a 21-year-old who debuted in 2019 and averaged 99.4 MPH on his cutter! Delino Deshields is a right-handed hitter and a great baserunner. Emmanuel Clase achieved groundballs on over 60% of grounders, while suppressing his flyball-rate to under 20%! Delino Deshields wRC+ last season was 72 and his career ISO is .096. Emmanuel Clase’s 2.34 ERA was corroborated by that elite groundball-rate and a 3.43 FIP! Delino Deshields profiles as a fourth outfielder. Did I mention that Emmanuel Clase is 21!? Delino Deshields is 27. Emmanuel Clase has a real chance to be a top-tier relief pitcher for the next half-decade with the Indians! Delino Deshields is coming to Cleveland too.
Of course, Clase might not become an elite relief pitcher, either. The life of any pitcher is a fickle one, relief pitching more than most, so just because Clase looks the part of a great one, doesn’t mean he’s certain to be one. In other words, the Indians traded away a risky player with a relatively large contract and two years of control for a risky player getting paid the league minimum and the better part of a decade of team control. If everything were to work out for both teams, Kluber would be a 5-win pitcher for the next two seasons, while a positive outcome for Clase could sum that much over the course of six seasons, albeit in much higher leverage situations. From a baseball perspective, there’s a real possibility that trading Kluber for Clase (and Deshields) is a lateral move, but from a financial and fandom perspective, this is just another sad reminder for Indians supporters to not get too attached to any player or find a good coping mechanism for their ultimate departure.