Cleveland Indians: Weighing the pros and cons of a Corey Kluber trade

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Indians have the ability to trade from a position of strength at starting pitcher. Does the good outweigh the bad if they deal a former ace?

Despite being a two-time Cy Young winner and almost single-handedly willing the Cleveland Indians rotation to a World Series victory in 2016, Corey Kluber‘s lasting image in the minds of most is that of a pitcher who showed his first signs of a decline in 2019.

That’s not an entirely unreasonable concern. Kluber made just seven starts for the Tribe in 2019 before a fractured throwing arm ended his season, and he didn’t look like the guy baseball fans had become accustomed to in that short span.

Had his 5.80 ERA held up over the full duration of the year–and admittedly, few believe it would have–it would have been his highest in a full season by nearly two full runs. Kluber also walked hitters with uncharacteristic and alarming regularity, posting a 3.79 BB/9 in 35 2/3 innings.

His strikeout numbers remained serviceable, albeit less intimidating than anything he had put up in half a decade. His 22.6% strikeout rate would’ve been his lowest since 2013.

There’s a clear small-sample argument to be made here; after all, Kluber has historically performed better in the summer months than the spring. His career ERAs in April and May, respectively, are 3.91 and 3.36. That number routinely hovers in the mid-to-high twos from June through August, historically speaking.

For those looking to write off a 33-year-old pitcher who isn’t without his fair share of past injury concerns, these numbers and the narrow 2019 sample don’t matter–especially since he’s set to make the most money of any player on the Indians’ roster in 2020.

But for at least a handful of playoff contenders and World Series hopefuls who find themselves in need of starting pitching, Kluber’s career track record may well be enough to overlook his suspect, injury-shortened 2019.

As such, Kluber’s name is likely to be mentioned sporadically in trade speculation this winter–though not nearly at the same frequency as last offseason.

As is the case in any trade, there are positives and negatives to be weighed. For Cleveland, a franchise that constantly finds itself engaged in a self-imposed financial high-wire act, the positive impact of a potential Kluber deal begins with off-loading his $17.5-million 2020 salary.

Sure, there is the very real chance he outperforms his price tag, in which case the Indians once again come away with the same bargain they’ve held in their hands throughout Kluber’s career. If his early 2019 struggles were a sign of things to come, however, $17.5 million is not exactly pocket change on a “bad” investment.

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If the Indians were to move Kluber early in the offseason, freeing up that cash would allow them considerable flexibility on the free agent market. It would also broaden the spectrum in terms of what existing contracts they could afford to take on in trades.

Also among the pros regarding a trade that sends Kluber elsewhere is that the Indians are still trading from their position of greatest strength. The one aspect of the organization that is unarguably beyond reproach is its development of starting pitchers. Losing Kluber hurts, of course, especially if he returns to his customary front-line form. But the Indians aren’t exactly lacking in pitchers to step into his role, and their young staff proved that in 2019.

Regarding the cons, the most obvious of them is self-explanatory: The reason guys like Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale were given a chance to prove themselves in 2019 is that the Indians quite simply did not have any other choice. Cleveland lost three-fifths of its Opening Day rotation to long-term health concerns by the end of May, and traded a fourth in July.

Only Shane Bieber made it through the year unscathed. The Indians’ pitching depth served them well in 2019, but there’s a difference between having that depth and absolutely needing it. Trading Kluber, whether he’s ever going to be an ace again or not, thins the herd significantly.

There is also the question of what the Indians could actually get in return for Kluber after the way his most recent campaign panned out. Opposing teams will naturally use his questionable 2019 sample as a negotiating tactic; why should anyone pony up top prospects or high-level MLB talent for a pitcher who was last seen struggling?

At the same time, his value should still be high enough for the Indians to bring back at least a couple of players who can help in the present and the future. It’s just highly unlikely that the deal can be classified as landscape-altering, whereas last year that possibility was very much in play.

The safest route for Cleveland to take is probably to hold onto him. The Indians didn’t miss out on the 2019 playoffs until the season’s final days, and a healthy Kluber could very well have turned their entire season around.

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At best, he returns to form as a dominant starter. At worst, the Indians can probably depend on him to log innings, save their bullpen most nights, and not let games get out of hand. There are worse guys to trot out as your third starter than a two-time Cy Young winner.