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The Yankees are taking a reasonable gamble on Corey Kluber’s return to form

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On a frenetic Friday, Klubot followed the Machine to the Bronx.

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Colorado Rockies v Texas Rangers Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

By Friday evening, the Yankees had closed on at least a dozen deals — in international free agency and arbitration — that they’d apparently made upon the resolution they reached with DJ LeMahieu that morning. After securing DJ’s return, the Yankees’ most notable player acquisition on Friday was adding 2014 and 2017 AL Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber.

Although it’s been a while since Kluber was last fresh enough to see extended run, at the time, he was as filthy as ever. As recently as three years ago, Kluber pitched 215 innings, finished third in 2018 AL Cy Young voting, and made his third consecutive All-Star appearance. With unparalleled control to go along with his patented hammer of a curveball, Kluber walked fewer batters per nine innings than any qualified pitcher in the majors, while still striking them out at an above-average rate. Kluber’s 2018 proved him to still be one of the game’s most reliably awesome starters.

In the seventh start of an uncharacteristically shaky beginning to his 2019 campaign, Kluber’s reign among the AL’s most dominant aces came to a screeching halt when a 102-mph laser back up the box broke his pitching forearm. He made two rehab starts in August after more than three months on the IL, but abdominal tightness delayed his recovery, and he never again pitched for Cleveland’s major league team.

That offseason, Cleveland exercised their club option on Kluber’s contract, only to deal him along with cash to the Texas Rangers for Delino DeShields Jr. and Emmanuel Clase. With Texas in 2020, Kluber made it through just one inning before shoulder tightness — a result of a torn teres major muscle — cost him the rest of the COVID-shortened season.

As of now, Corey Kluber has been given a clean bill of health, and is cleared to participate in his full offseason routine. Furthermore, considering the Yankees’ willingness to use the vast majority of their remaining room beneath the luxury tax on Kluber after locking up DJ LeMahieu, they likely have some modicum of faith that Kluber will be able to remain healthy ramping up to a full workload, even after the past two seasons of setbacks.

Since Kluber’s personal trainer is Eric Cressey, the man the Yankees tasked with overhauling their strength and conditioning departments at the beginning of last season, the club should have an inside scoop on Kluber’s development as well as an organizational faith in his method. The preexisting belief in Cressey’s methods constitutes a confidence in Kluber’s rehab process.

Just last week, Kluber threw a bullpen at Cressey’s facility in Florida in front of scouts, a group that included a Yankees contingent. During that session, Kluber’s fastball sat between just 87 and 89 mph. However, Cressey said Kluber was right on schedule in his ramp-up. He went as far as to predict Kluber’s eventual return to form, noting “You don’t need to see Corey Kluber go out and throw 95 in the bullpen to know he’s back. He’s ahead of everyone else.” Of course Cressey would be incentivized to praise his own client, but his connection with the Yanks — and Kluber’s landing in the Bronx shortly thereafter — seems to lend some credence to the idea that all three parties (club, trainer, and player) believe in Kluber’s capability to pitch at the highest level in the imminent future.

While the one inning in 2020 is too small a sample to merit much consideration, even though his fastball velocity was in line with that of the previous season, Kluber’s early struggles in 2019 are worth at least a second look. Though his four-seam and sinking fastballs didn’t lose more than a half a mile per hour on average, they were being hit much harder than they had ever been in the past. Across 242 sinkers and fastballs in 2019, Kluber gave up 21 hits, including four homers and four doubles, good for xwOBAs greater than .470 against either fastball variant.

Some of Kluber’s struggles can simply be explained by the variance inherent in small sample sizes, considering the almost-two run disparity between Kluber’s FIP (4.02) and his ERA (5.80). Also, Kluber is a historically slow starter, having posted a worse average ERA during March/April than in any other month over the course of his career.

Given the likely causes for Kluber’s struggles in the recent past, his clean bill of health, and the level of success he’d been able to replicate year after year at the game’s highest level, the Yankees should be extremely optimistic about his ability to provide a much-needed positive presence in the heart of the club’s starting pitching rotation. With Gerrit Cole already poised to continue his perennial dominance, and Luis Severino set to return before the season’s end, it’s well within the realm of possibility that the Yankees will have three Cy Young-caliber arms come playoff time. Two-thirds of this new triumvirate’s shaky medical history could find the Yankees putting on a repeat performance of last postseason’s one-arm act, but it’s just as likely that the Yankees end up with a handful of the American League’s dozen best starting pitchers all in pinstripes.