The Cincinnati Reds watched their Cy Young Award winning pitcher walk into free agency earlier this offseason, and to date have done zero adding-back to replace him. On top of that, they also lost a mid-rotation stalwart to free agency, too, while their presumptive #5 starter for the 2021 season is coming off an injury riddled year that limited him to just 14.1 IP.
In other words, the Reds should be very much in the market to add to their starting rotation, although we’ve seen throughout the course of this winter that spending big bucks to do so simply doesn’t appear to be in the cards. That, though, brings us to Corey Kluber, former Cleveland ace and two-time Cy Young Award winner, who is on the cusp of his 35th birthday and has logged a grand total of 36.1 IP since his 2018 CYA victory.
Injuries have derailed him since his brilliant run of form with Cleveland, and last year’s experiment in Texas collapsed almost immediately. Still, there have been whispers all winter that he was rounding back into shape, and today he put on a pitching showcase to spotlight just that. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan relayed Wednesday afternoon, some 25 clubs were in attendance for what appeared to be a rather impressive show, one that should give teams good reason to assume he’s on-track to be healthy, and ready, for the 2021 campaign.
Nearly 25 teams showed up at Corey Kluber's showcase today, and scouts came away impressed. His fastball sat 88-90 -- and he's got more velocity in the tank as he builds toward spring training. Kluber threw 30 pitches, including all of his off-speed stuff. Strong market expected.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 13, 2021
From the Reds perspective, there are a couple angles here that should put Kluber in play.
For one, hardly any teams in the game this winter are spending any money whatsoever, which would potentially drive down Kluber’s price into a range that, in theory, would be affordable even for the penny-pinching Reds. The injury history should torpedo that from the $17.5 million he was making in the final year of his long-term contract, too, even though none of the litany of injuries Kluber has suffered in recent years truly of the career-threatening variety (he broke his arm when hit by a comebacker, for instance).
Beyond that are the peripherals Kluber has long posted that put his pitching style parallel to the one the newfangled Reds pitching philosophy has begun to endorse. From 2016-2018, both his fastball spin and curveball spin ranked in the top third of MLB’s percentile rankings, per MLB Statcast, and even in his injury-shortened 2019 season they were solidly above-average. Spincinnati hasn’t become a ‘thing’ for no reason, and it’s clear spin potential was a key component behind the acquisition of Jeff Hoffman, for instance, too.
What might also be working in Kluber’s favor is that he never truly was a fireballer at his peak in the first place. His fastball velocity topped out at 93.2 mph back in 2014, but still sat at just 92.0 in his 2018 CYA season (and 91.7 in very limited work last season). So, if he’s already sitting 88-90 with more purportedly in the tank, there’s at least some evidence that he’s not going to still require a ramp-up to get back to his previous methods and/or a complete change in repertoire to accommodate for a significant velocity loss at this stage of his career.
Advocating for any outside addition to the Reds at this juncture seems foolhardy, I know. But at this juncture, it increasingly feels like the Reds pitching staff - one that was only tasked with getting through 60 games last year in the first place before the subtractions - is somewhat woefully ill-equipped to tackle a full 162 game slate as currently constructed, with those innings having to be absorbed by some arm somewhere. In Kluber, there just might be the right mix of bargain-through-reclamation and stud upside that makes him precisely the kind of arm even the budget Reds should be targeting right now (at least since it’s pretty well clear they’re not going to spend what it takes to keep their own CYA winner around).