Texas Rangers Trade for Corey Kluber Tightens the Gap in the AL West

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 15, 2019

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 9, 2019 file photo, Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers in Detroit. Indians ace Corey Kluber has been shut down for two weeks with an abdominal strain, an injury sustained during his comeback from a broken arm. Kluber was pulled from a minor league start for Triple-A Columbus on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019 after one inning with abdominal tightness. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

If the American League West wasn't already the AL's deepest division, it is now.      

Fresh on the heels of the Los Angeles Angels' signing of superstar third baseman Anthony Rendon to a $245 million contract on Wednesday, the Texas Rangers responded with a whopper of their own on Sunday. 

As first reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and Jon Heyman of MLB Network, they're getting two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber in a trade with the Cleveland Indians:

Also according to Rosenthal, the Rangers are sending speedy outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. and right-handed reliever (and human GIF machine) Emmanuel Clase to Cleveland. Per Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, they're absorbing the entirety of Kluber's contract.

In so doing, the Rangers are taking on a $17.5 million salary for 2020. Kluber also has an $18 million club option for 2021 that will become a vesting option if he logs over 160 innings and doesn't finish the '20 season on the injured list.

These aren't terms the Rangers will regret if Kluber pitches like he did between 2014 and 2018. All he did in that five-year stretch was average a 2.85 ERA, a 5.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 218 innings per season. Per Baseball Reference, his 32.4 wins above replacement were second only to Max Scherzer's total.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 6: Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians receives his 2017 Cy Young award prior to the game against the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field on April 6, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Royals 3-2. (Photo by J
Jason Miller/Getty Images
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But as evidenced by Cleveland's light return, there is doubt as to whether Kluber will recapture his former dominance. He's going to turn 34 years old on April 10, and he's coming off a season in which he was limited to only seven starts by a broken arm and a strained oblique. He didn't pitch at all in the majors after May 1.

To boot, Kluber managed just a 5.80 ERA even before the injury bug came after him. His fastball, which peaked with an average of 93.2 mph in 2014, was operating at just 91.6 mph. Not so coincidentally, his hard-contact rate rose to a career-worst 37.5 percent.

Yet this happened over a small sample size and was authored by a slow starter. Kluber's career 3.91 ERA and 4.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio for March/April are his worst marks for any individual month.

In addition to drawing hope from that, the Rangers can reason that a healthy Kluber will be able to pitch around his declining velocity. To this end, he's always had impeccable command of an arsenal of pitches marked by different speeds and movements.

If Kluber does indeed put 2019 behind him and revert back to his No. 1 form, the Rangers will have potentially the best starting rotation in the American League next season.

They mainly had their rotation to thank for the team's better-than-expected record of 78-84 in 2019. It ranked fourth in MLB with 15.7 WAR, and that was despite the fact that only left-hander Mike Minor and right-hander Lance Lynn really came through. They combined for a 3.63 ERA over 416.2 innings, as well as 15.4 WAR.

Minor and Lynn are both back for 2020. And in addition to Kluber, the Rangers have added ground-ball specialist Kyle Gibson and fellow righty Jordan Lyles on free-agent deals. That gives them as many as three No. 1 starters and two guys who are well-suited for the fourth and fifth slots, respectively.

The Rangers still must add an impact right-handed hitter to a lineup that ranked 26th in Major League Baseball in wOBA from the right side in 2019. If they can also shore up an infield defense that yielded the majors' worst average on ground balls this past season, that would be swell.

Nevertheless, a step forward is in order in 2020. The Rangers can lock their eyes on a wild-card spot, and there's at least a glimmer of a chance that they can pitch their way to a division title.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

The Houston Astros are still the heavy favorite in the AL West, yet they might not be the same 100-win juggernaut that they were over the past three seasons. Even setting aside what penalties might come from MLB's investigation into sign-stealing accusations against them, their payroll situation is threatening to undermine their recent supremacy.

To wit, they've already lost ace righty Gerrit Cole to the New York Yankees free agency. And according to Rosenthal, their concerns about their payroll are so strong that they're even considering trading star shortstop Carlos Correa.

For their part, the Oakland Athletics still largely resemble the team that notched a second straight 97-win season in 2019. But between their hole at second base and the mixed bag of experience and reliability in their rotation, they also have some tangible downside.

Until they add a lot more than just Dylan Bundy to their rotation, the Angels have plenty of downside in their own right. But with Rendon joining Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Justin Upton and the rest of a strong offense, the Angels are more or less the inverse of the Rangers. Their goal seems to be to hit their way to the playoffs in 2020.

Altogether, the AL West was technically the best of the AL's three divisions with an average record of 84-77 in 2019. The only practical argument against the notion it was actually the league's best division was that only the Astros and A's were good.

That's no longer the case. Because only the rebuilding Seattle Mariners figure to be out of the running, the 2020 AL West race is shaping up to be a fun one.

                                           

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

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