Everybody knows that the Yankees need to acquire at least one top-tier starting pitcher to help them get over the hump. After all, the franchise hasn’t won a World Series since 2009, and fans know that it is just too much time for a club used to winning.
Of course, fans have also come to understand that there are other teams that are quite competitive, and that winning isn’t that easy. However, frustration is building up within the fanbase because in the last couple of years, as there have been quite a few opportunities to add that missing piece and the team has always elected to look elsewhere.
This offseason offers a prime chance to add, at the very least, one top starter. Free agents Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg should be the top priorities, but there are plenty of suitors for their services: the Astros, the Padres, the Dodgers and, most notably, the Angels. The Phillies and the Giants probably can’t be dismissed, either.
If the Yankees miss on any of those two, they could be forced to look at secondary options in the free agent market. Zack Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Madison Bumgarner are among those. And, of course, there’s always the trade block, in which Corey Kluber appears as an alternative.
Is Kluber a reliable option for the Bombers after an injury-marred 2019 and at 34 years old, his age during next season?
Facts and numbers
Kluber, a two-time Cy Young award winner, will turn 34 on April 10, 2020. When healthy, he is the definition of a workhorse: he pitched more than 200 innings in each season from 2014 to 2018, and only failed to surpass 220 once, in 2017. He was one of the American League’s top starters in that timeframe, with three sub-3.00 ERA finishes—including a fantastic 2.25 mark as recently as 2017.
His career ERA is 3.16, and his FIP is an even better 2.99. He has a 9.80 K/9 and a 1.96 BB/9, both elite marks for a starter in the American League.
His 2019, however, was one to forget. In a start against the Miami Marlins on May 1, he was hit by a comebacker in his right elbow. He was later diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture of his right ulna bone, an injury that ended his season even though he attempted a comeback.
The thing is that not only did he suffer a fracture in the elbow area, but also, he got shelled in his seven starts, to the tune of a 5.80 ERA (4.06 FIP) in 35.2 frames. Maybe he was having trouble with the juiced ball (although his 1.01 HR/9 wasn’t that high) but perhaps he finally started to show some signs of decline.
For what it’s worth, 35.2 innings are not enough to make a final determination on whether he was simply struggling or, instead, showing a significant decline skill-wise. And his comeback attempt ended because of an internal oblique strain, not because of an aggravation of the arm ailment.
Would there be a buying opportunity?
Kluber is owed $17.5 million in 2020 after the Indians exercised their club option. The team has another one for 2021, and after that, he will become a free agent. The Tribe is reportedly looking to shed payroll, and they may entertain the idea of trading their ace. That’s where the Yankees might pounce.
They won’t give him away, though. After all, Kluber represents a cheaper alternative to Cole, who will surely get at least $30 million per year, and Strasburg, who may approach that number. The Indians’ right-hander is older than both of them, however, and there is no certainty that his 2014-2018 version, or even 70% of that, will return.
That makes it incredibly difficult to establish his trade value. The Indians might like infielder Miguel Andujar, and the Yankees have a plethora of pitching prospects that they could flip, from Deivi García to Luis Gil, Roansy Contreras, Clarke Schmidt, Mike King, and more.
Striking a deal could be tricky because the Yankees may think that pairing Andujar with a pitching prospect like García would be giving up too much for a declining pitcher who is coming off an arm fracture. The Indians might feel they need to ask for more in exchange for one of the best pitchers in the junior circuit from 2014 to 2018.
Is Kluber worth giving up valuable players who can help the organization in 2020 and beyond? It seems like the best option for the Yankees would be to try to secure the services of Cole or Strasburg, because Kluber may be a downgrade given that he would be coming back from an arm fracture and moving to a substantially tougher division and an unforgiving park. At 34 and with the memory of his high 2019 ERA still fresh, he has too many question marks to be considered a trustworthy alternative, even though he is certainly capable of coming back strong.
The Yankees need a bankable ace, and at this point, relying on Kluber’s seemingly declining arm does not fit that description. Considering factors such as health, age, experience, projected contract, recent performance, and others, he may fall in the same tier as other free agent targets not named Cole and Strasburg.