Corey Kluber Blockbuster Trade Is the 1 All-in Risk Yankees Need to Win a Title

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 8, 2018

Cleveland Indians starting pitcher walks back to the dugout during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

The New York Yankees shouldn't be expected to stop at one blockbuster move this winter. They have a score to settle with the Boston Red Sox, and they have the assets to pursue upgrades for exactly that purpose.

Still, there's no harm in pushing them to pull off one in particular. In this case, the target is Corey Kluber.

For now, the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner is merely a target. Kluber is available as the Cleveland Indians deal with "market constraints," according to ESPN's Buster Olney. Per Jon Heyman of Fancred, the Yankees met with them at the general managers' meetings Tuesday:

Though the Yankees have already re-signed veteran left-hander CC Sabathia, their interest in Kluber fits with their desire to add more pitching however they can.

"I think we'll just gravitate to anything that will make sense," GM Brian Cashman told reporters. "It could be a combination; something could make sense via trade in the same category as free agency. I'm interested in adding more than one pitcher. I need to, I think, add multiple. If I can do so, we'll see."

Where Kluber is concerned, the hard part is convincing the Indians to even consider shipping him to New York.

Generally speaking, a team doesn't make a guy like Kluber available unless it's looking to tear it all down and rebuild. But this isn't that. As MLB.com's Jordan Bastian discussed, the Indians are merely keeping their options open. They're not giving up on contending.

This points to a dilemma: Why would they trade one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball to a top AL rival, much less one that outpaced them by nine wins in 2018?

The price would have to be very, very right for the Indians to even consider it. 

At the least, the Yankees would have to take on Kluber's entire remaining contract. It pays him $17 million in 2019, and the Yankees would be obligated to accept or decline his 2020 and 2021 options (valued at $35.5 million total) following the 2019 World Series.

The Indians would also need the Yankees to fill some of their immediate needs. A Kluber trade would open up one of those in their rotation. The Indians also need outfielders. The Yankees don't have much to suit Cleveland on either front.

And yet, there might be a deal to be made if the Yankees are willing to sacrifice their best young players outside of Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. Coincidentally, these include left-hander Justus Sheffield (MLB.com's No. 31 prospect) and slugging outfielder Clint Frazier, who originated in Cleveland's system. Outfield prospect Estevan Florial (No. 45) would also have to be involved.

The Yankees might balk at that, given that their pitching alternatives include James Paxton and free agents such as Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ.

Or, they could see it as a chance to get the actual Corey Kluber.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Kluber has been a steadier presence than any other AL pitcher since 2014. He's put up a 2.85 ERA with a 5.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 1,091.1 innings. He's amassed 32.5 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Chris Sale is next at 27.4.

There is some danger in focusing too hard on these numbers, as they don't entirely reflect what Kluber is right now.

He'll turn 33 on April 10, and he's coming off an age-32 season in which cracks started to form. His average fastball dipped to career-low 92 mph. Lo and behold, both his overall contact and hard contact rates ticked up.

And yet, Kluber still put up a 2.89 ERA over 215 innings, including a strong 3.29 ERA in 115 innings outside of the pitiful AL Central. To boot, the expected production off him—based on quality of contact—was roughly the same as that of fellow AL Cy Young Award finalist Blake Snell.

What happened was a case of Kluber transitioning into a life as the AL's very own Zack Greinke. The stuff may be going, but he just plain knows how to pitch.

Though Kluber's arm slot is getting lower over time, he still repeats his delivery and maintains a consistent release point. If nothing else, that's keeping him from getting himself into trouble. He walked 4 percent of the batters he faced in 2018, best in the AL.

What's more, Kluber pulled this off despite pitching within the strike zone with a career-low 48.2 percent of his pitches. He succeeded in making hitters chase his pitches. A career-high 36.1 percent of swings against him expanded the zone.

Those swings ensured that, despite the fact Kluber's contact rate went up, it stayed below the MLB average. And altogether, Kluber collected more outs on pitches outside the strike zone than all but six other pitchers.

It might be tempting to more quickly blame hitters than credit Kluber for that. But the sheer movement of his three primary pitches—two-seamer, cutter and slider—remains outstanding. He's also a master at setting hitters up, which Rob Friedman captured here:

And as always, Kluber was especially lethal against right-handed batters in 2018. He held righties to a .575 OPS. Out of all right-handers who faced at least 300 righty batters, that was the best of any AL hurler.

This is worth focusing on because of the specific competition that will be standing between the Yankees and the World Series in 2019: the Red Sox and Houston Astros. Between Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer, they pack some serious righty thunder.

Again, it does nobody any good to ignore the complications of the Yankees trading for Kluber. It's a long shot on a practicality basis, and they wouldn't be getting Kluber at his peak.

But when it comes down to it, he's the best pitcher who's reasonably available this winter.

If the Yankees are going to pay a fortune for a pitching upgrade no matter what, it's best if they try and pay a large fortune for Kluber than a smaller fortune for anyone else.

     

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant.

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