Five consecutive 200+ inning seasons. A whopping 31.0 total fWAR across those seasons. 4.8 projected fWAR for the 2019 season. A contract that has - and could continue to be - a complete steal.
It’s safe to say that Corey Kluber has established himself not only as one of the absolute elite pitchers in all of baseball, but also as one of the most marketable trade chips out there, too. A great player on a great contract is always something that’s attractive to other teams - see: Eugenio Suarez and the San Diego Padres recent interest - but when you add-in that the player resides on a team with a very tight payroll, and suddenly the odds of him being moved draws every shark in the water.
It seems that Cleveland might well decide to move Kluber this offseason, in part because their $134 million payroll in 2018 was both a record and nearly $40 million higher than it was in just 2016. Despite owning one of the most talented clubs in the game and having made postseason run after postseason run lately, superstar Francisco Lindor has reached what will be a massive arbitration pay raise, as have pitchers Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, meaning Cleveland will be looking to parlay one of their better assets into multiple players that can still help them keep hold of the AL Central.
Kluber, it’s worth noting, is no spring chicken at this point of his career. He’ll turn 33 years old shortly after Opening Day 2019, and while he’s still on what looks to be an incredibly affordable deal - $13 million for 2019 with team options for $13.5 million in 2020 and $14 million in 2021 - his contract does contain stipulations that if he’s traded those options become guaranteed, according to Cot’s Contracts. Also, there are incentive clauses for where he finishes in 2015-2019 Cy Young Award votes that can raise his annual salary up to $4 million, and given that he has a win and a pair of third place finishes in that time already, it’s safe to say he’ll be getting most all of that raise. In other words, he’s looking at the equivalent of a 3 year, $48.5 million deal, and while that’s far from as cheap as a trio of pre-arb years would be from, say, Noah Syndergaard, it’s also significantly cheaper than what top free agent arms like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel are likely to fetch this winter.
The difference in that salary outlay, of course, is what it would cost the Cincinnati Reds in prospects to land Kluber, and that’s something that Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com discussed earlier this week.
Plus the Indians aren’t conducting a fire sale. If they trade Kluber, Carrasco or Trevor Bauer, they need big league ready players coming back because they need help in the outfield and bullpen. If they do something like this, they can’t miss.
If the Indians traded Kluber or another starter to the Yankees, they’d have to get a starter back and it’s possible Sheffield could fill that role. They’d need another major-league ready player to fill a hole in the outfield or bullpen. They’d also need at least one of the Yankees top prospects.
Hoynes was obviously getting specific with a potential New York Yankees deal in the second quote, but that’s at least a glimpse into what he thinks Cleveland would be feasible in requiring from the Yanks should they deal Kluber to another AL powerhouse. A big-league ready starter, a big-league ready outfielder or bullpen arm, and one of the top prospects from a Yankees farm system that has been a bit depleted this year thanks to trades and promotions.
If you read through Hoynes’ article - which is set up in Q&A fashion - the name Clint Frazier also gets mentioned alongside the aforementioned Justus Sheffield. Prior to the Giancarlo Stanton addition to the Yankees crowded lineup and persistent concussion issues, Frazier was one of the more talented, highly thought of outfield prospects in the game, one who actually came to New York from Cleveland alongside Sheffield in a 2016 deadline day deal that sent Andrew Miller to Cleveland. Together, that’s a former and current consensus Top 50 overall prospect, respectively, along with a potential other top prospect piece.
Finding a similar package from the Reds is a slight bit different, in part because of their lack of MLB-ready, top prospect arms that haven’t already fallen on their face at the big league level. Perhaps Tyler Mahle is the best comp for Sheffield at the moment, though he was slightly less regarded at the prospect level and is a year and a half older. For Frazier, though, the comp is likely Jesse Winker, meaning a Mahle/Winker co-headline deal with a talented third piece - Tony Santillan, Jonathan India, perhaps - likely the ask on Cleveland’s end.
It’s obvious to pinpoint Cleveland’s OF woes as where they’d like to make an upgrade. Cleveland’s OF posted just a collective 5.6 fWAR in 2018 - ranked 17th in all MLB - but 3.5 of that fWAR came from Michael Brantley, who is now a free agent. A distant second (0.8) and third (0.4) on that list came Lonnie Chisenhall and Melky Cabrera, who are both also now free agents. Bradley Zimmer should, in theory, improve enough to stake a claim to CF in 2019 and going forward if healthy, but even he isn’t a sure thing after a rough big league debut. In other words, bringing in an immediate help in the OF at a league-minimum cost seems to obviously be what Cleveland could most use, and Winker’s probably the best guarantee of the Reds have to offer.
That said, perhaps there’s a different angle the Reds could take. Hoynes’ article mentioned either the outfield or bullpen where Cleveland would need an immediate upgrade, and that’s no joke. Their bullpen was valued at only a collective 0.4 fWAR in 2018, which was good for the fourth worst mark in all MLB. And while they swung big to land reliever Brad Hand from the Padres to have around for a few more years, both Oliver Perez and Andrew Miller - their most and third most valuable relievers in 2018 by fWAR - are now free agents, too. A quick glance at Cincinnati’s bullpen has a big, fat spotlight on closer Raisel Iglesias, who is controlled for four more seasons at incredibly cheap rates relative to his peers, and perhaps the Reds could find a way to structure a deal around Iglesias, instead.
Landing Kluber would be a coup for the Reds, albeit one that would be both costly and with risk. The streak of 200+ inning seasons is quite the accomplishment and validation of great success, but also comes as almost a red flag for impending doom - you don’t have to look much past Johnny Cueto, Chris Archer, or Jeff Samardzija in 2018 for reference. His age, too, makes you wonder how much left he has in the tank, especially with the additional work he’s put in to pitching in the playoffs the last few seasons. That said, his fastball velocity has maintained for years, and he features one of the valuable and devastating curveballs in the game - something that’s importance we discussed just this week. The initial ask already seems quite high, and that’ll surely only get driven up as more teams begin to focus on him. Still, he’s exactly the kind of pitcher that would add immediate credibility to the Cincinnati Reds staff, and is exactly the caliber of pitcher the Reds need to find this winter.
(Who knows, maybe his familiarity with Goodyear, AZ will work in Cincinnati’s favor...)