The Yankees seem resigned to sifting in the value picks when it comes to free agency, if they sign any free agents at all. This mandates assuming a certain amount of risk, accepting that the players in that pool are either less effective or come with greater health concerns. In that spirit, the Yankees had personnel attend Corey Kluber’s workout earlier this week.
Kluber — who pitched just 36 innings over the past two seasons — threw 30 pitches, featuring a fastball around 89-90 mph, with optimism that he can add velocity as he ramps up. This is pretty positive, as at his peak, Kluber’s fastball averaged around 93 mph. Asking a pitcher to add three mph is a significant ask, but it seems MLB clubs are considering it at least plausible.
More than a month ago, the Yankees also attended James Paxton’s open workout, where the lefty, recovering from a myriad of back problems, hit 94 on the fastball. Both Kluber and Paxton are looking to rebuild some value, so either could likely be had on a one-year deal with an option and incentive structure, although competitive bidding could push the guaranteed term up slightly. Even if that happened, neither player is going to get four or five years, making them attractive pieces given the Yankees’ strategy.
The question is, based on the information we have now, who would you rather have? The lack of publicly available data in this case hampers our ability to make judgements — MLB clubs likely got spin rate data from both workouts, and we don’t have that. On first glance, that velocity difference would lead you to favor Paxton. He will sit 95-96 when healthy, and perhaps nothing signaled his injury and ineffectiveness earlier in 2020 than the fact his fastball dropped into the 90-91 range.
However, Paxton is by nature a guy that relies on power pitching more than Kluber. In 2017, when Kluber won the Cy Young, he threw 423 four seam fastballs, and the hardest velo he registered was 95.6 mph. In Paxton’s last “full” season — we’ll get to health in a minute — more than 40% of his fastballs eclipsed that 95.6 mark. Kluber’s always been much more of a pitcher in the classic sense, using good fastball command to set up excellent breaking and offspeed pitches. A decline from 92 to 90 mph might not affect Kluber as much if the breaking pitches, especially his famous curveball, as still as effective.
Then there’s health.
Before being hurt in 2019, Kluber averaged 187 innings a season over his career, and logged at least 200 innings every year from 2014-2018. He was one of MLB’s true aces, both in terms of his performance on the mound and how much time he spent on it. Then came 2019, where a broken forearm shortened his campaign, and then after he was traded to Texas last offseason, he tore his shoulder after just a single inning of work.
The quickness with which Kluber was cleared to return to a throwing program is encouraging, and although he’s lost effectively two seasons to injury, I’m not worried about the broken forearm in 2019 causing future problems. The shoulder tear is the concern, and certainly any shoulder problem in the past should make us cautious of the future.
Compared to Paxton, though, Kluber seems to be in pretty good shape. Big Maple has famously never qualified for the ERA title, topping out at 160.1 IP in 2018. Shoulders are tricky things, but backs are too, and Paxton’s nagging back issue hampered his 2020 before a forearm strain ended the season, raising speculation the lefty needed Tommy John. He didn’t, but if you were to project injury risk in the future, Paxton’s would be greater than Kluber. Corey has the one major concern, but Paxton has a whole host of things that could go wrong, or at least has gone wrong.
Kluber’s best days are behind him, and Paxton seems doomed to be one of those guys that never quite reaches his best. Kluber’s a better pitcher, but Paxton has thrown 140 more innings over the past two years. Neither guy is going to be at the top of the Yankees’ rotation, but as the team peruses the value bin, it’s at least possible that both could end up being positive pickups at pretty low prices.