The more things change, the more they stay the same. The standings shift, new players step in, but a team’s weakness will always find a place to rest its head. For the Yankees, year in and year out, that weakness has, once again, been the starting pitching staff.
For obvious reasons, Corey Kluber represents an intriguing free agent target for the Yankees. At his peak, the two-time Cy Young Award winner was one of the league’s premier pitchers, posting a 2.85 ERA (2.83 FIP) and a 5.51 K/BB from 2014 to 2018. The last two years, however, have not been kind to the right-hander: his 2019 was cut short after only seven starts after getting hit by line drive and fracturing his arm against the Miami Marlins and then straining his oblique in a rehab start in August, and his 2020 season ended after only one inning due to a teres major muscle tear in his shoulder. While he claims to be healthy and undergoing a normal offseason of training, Kluber will pitch his age-35 season after pitching a combined 36 innings the previous two years.
Furthermore, in that admittedly small sample size, he looked to be a far cry from the perennial All-Star and Cy Young candidate that he had been previously. In 2019, although his strikeout rate had remained in line with his career norms, his walk rate had more than doubled — from 4%, among the best in the league, to 8.9%, or slightly worse than league average. Opposing batters both made better contact — hard hit percentage jumped from 34.5% to 38.4%, and barrel percentage from 6.4% to 8.9% — and hit the ball in the air more as his GB/FB ratio went down from 1.34 to 1.04. His career-worst ERA (5.80) and second-worst WHIP (1.654) were not the result of random chance, although his 4.06 FIP in those seven games suggests he was in line for some positive regression.
If there’s one potential silver lining, it’s his spin rates:
Over the course of his career, Kluber has never been a power pitcher, spending most of his career operating in the 92-93 MPH range. On both his fastball and his curveball, however, the spin rate has remained consistently among the best in the league. Even with a decline in spin rate for both pitches between 2018 and 2019, they still remained in the 71st and 57th percentile, respectively. While all pitchers do lose spin rate as they age, some are better at maintaining it than others, and there’s some evidence that Kluber might belong to this category.
I say might, of course, because the man has barely pitched in two years and has had two major soft-tissue injuries — we do not actually know what he’s going to look like. Perhaps the injuries will force a mechanical change, which would certainly have an impact on both spin rate and how his breaking balls move. Perhaps the injuries themselves have simply kept him on the sidelines for so long that the decline has begun, but is not yet documented by Statcast. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Kluber, and while teams will certainly get a better idea of what he will be like next season after throwing some bullpen sessions for interested teams in January, it’s highly unlikely that fans will learn until games are played in the spring.
Even so, he remains a starter that the Yankees should be all-in on to a large extent. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to receive a 1-year, $12 million contract, and while he may exceed that — the free agent projections for starting pitchers on one-year contracts this year have actually been fairly conservative relative to what they actually received — he comes with a level of upside that no other pitcher on the market has outside of Trevor Bauer.
And in what limited non-DJ LeMahieu news that have trickled out of the Bronx so far this winter, it does appear that the Yankees are actually poking around the Kluber market. Although the report that the Yankees were close to signing him two weeks ago turned out to not be correct, Buster Olney reported that MLB executives deem it “inevitable” that he signs with either one of the Yankees, the Mets or the Red Sox — three teams that need some semblance of pitching depth to augment their rosters.