If Indians Were Looking to Improve By Trading Corey Kluber, Now Wasn’t the Time to Do It

When I started writing in this space I promised Cleveland baseball content, which to this point, has actually been conspicuously absent. I had another post all punched out and ready for editing today, but then I started getting the alerts early this afternoon on my phone. Truthfully, I was hoping to not have to start Indians content this way:

The Cleveland Indians have traded two-time former Cy Young Award winning ace starting pitcher Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Delino DeShields Jr and rookie relief pitcher Emmanuel Clase.

The acquisition concludes over a year of trade discussion about Kluber, that dates back to talks from before baseball’s 2018 Winter Meetings. Talks about Kluber continued all last winter, but the Indians could never come to terms with any team and decided to begin the season with Kluber and his $17 million contract on their books in a continued attempt to compete for the World Series.

Ultimately, that move might have proved costly. Kluber was not good in April at all, posting a 5.80 ERA in 7 starts. This sample size was small, but not promising before a line drive come-backer by Marlins outfielder Brian Anderson nailed Kluber in the pitching arm on May 2nd and ended not only his night, but his season. It likely also diminished his trade value. Kluber was injured through the July 31st trade deadline and a return in August proved impossible after he suffered an oblique stain while rehabbing his arm in the minors.

The Indians came into this off-season with all that baggage around Kluber. Still, with a clean bill of health given trade talks commenced again about the dominant right-hander. This is the part that I just don’t understand.

A lot of fans like to lament the Dolan family. I, for one, usually don’t. I applaud them for the fact that as an ownership group they have largely hired incredibly competent people to run their baseball business and not meddle in affairs. I genuinely believe the Indians are run as one of the 5 best organizations in all of baseball and a lot of this has to do with the steady hand of ownership.

Everything I can think of would suggest that wasn’t the case with this Kluber trade. Let me be clear on why.

Kluber’s value was high coming off of the 2018 season. He finished third in Cy Young voting, posted the best ERA of his career besides years that he won that award and led the AL in innings pitched and walks per 9 innings. The $17 million he was slotted to make in 2019 was a considerable amount of money, but a relative steal compared to the $23.3 million AAV a lesser pitcher like Patrick Corbin received on the open market that winter. Names included in trade talks at the time included legitimate prospects like Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who would crush 33 home runs in San Diego this past season.

A combination of the poor April and the injury that followed likely zapped a lot of that trade value. Teams were able to come into talks this winter with the Indians using Kluber’s poor performance and injury to negotiate a better deal. What is puzzling to me though is why the Indians front office would still go through with it.

This is a staff that largely loves to sell high. They did not do this whatsoever with Kluber. If I was in their position I would have to question an offer like the one that was ultimately accepted. Kluber may be coming off of an injury, but it was a freak one, not based on stress or miles on his arm, but by an accident. There was no structural damage to his elbow or shoulder. There should be no reason to expect the injury to linger. Further, his poor month to begin the 2019 season was just that: a month. What are you more apt to trust? The one month of ineffectiveness he struggled through in 2019, or the six seasons of dominance that came before it? This was the perfect opportunity for the Indians to shelf the trade talks and let Kluber return to form. A likely better performance and a clean bill of health could either lead to the dominant ace you know helping propel your ballclub to 2020 playoff hopes, or at least a better value at the trade deadline. To be clear, my beef is not with trading Kluber at all, but for trading him now and for what was received in return.

Instead, Kluber was traded- when his value probably couldn’t have been any lower than its been since talks commenced. Why? As stated before, the Indians front office deserves a lot of credit under the Dolan’s ownership. With the exception of the Manny Acta years they have provided competitive baseball consistently while at the helm. If I can see the flaws in the trade they just performed, I’m sure they are aware of them as well. So what’s the deal?

Remember how I congratulated the Dolans on not meddling? Well, maybe they have started. Its likely not a coincidence that Kluber’s $17 million is coming off the books in return for a paltry rookie contract and the projected 2nd year of arbitration contract of $2.4 million for DeShields. We already know that the marching orders last winter were to cut payroll, and cut payroll the Indians did in the removal of Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen among others from the roster via free agency. Maybe this is all step 2 in that process, but it couldn’t come at a worse time.

The Minnesota Twins won the AL Central last year. It was the first time since 2015 that the Indians didn’t carry that pennant. The Chicago White Sox have amassed a strong lineup of hitters that appear ready to break out. With the right smattering of pitching, that becomes a very talented ballclub also looking to usurp the Tribe in the standings.

The Indians answer to all of this so far? Trade their somewhat expensive, but relatively reasonably priced ace pitcher when his value is lowest.

Speaking of… what have the Indians gotten in return? To be frank, there actually is at least a little good news here.

DeShields is a light-hitting right-handed outfielder that played exclusively in centerfield last year but can play leftfield as well. He hit .249 in 2019 with just 4 home runs and a fairly average .325 OBP, but did steal 24 bases. His weighted Runs Created plus (wRC+) was just 72, and is just 76 over his 4 year career (100 would be average, higher is better). Defensively, he held the 4th best Range Runs for any centerfielder in baseball, while being a middle of the pack quality centerfielder otherwise. Oddly though, he hasn’t played any other position than centerfield since 2017, an area likely to be patrolled by Oscar Mercado in 2020 and beyond for the Tribe. Ultimately, DeShields was worth 0.8 Fangraph’s WAR in 2019. His career high is 2.1 in 2017 when he hit .269, scored 75 times and had 29 stolen bases. Basically, he’s a fast, athletic outfielder that was taken 3rd overall in the 2014 draft, but few other tools ever developed.

Clase is a right-handed rookie relief pitcher with a fastball that scouts absolutely adore for both its velocity and movement. He only pitched 23.1 Major League innings in 2019, but posted an ERA of 2.31 in those innings. He has shown an ability to limit walks, both in the minors and with a walk rate of just 6.4% for the Rangers last season. His combination of a blazing fastball, able to regularly hit 99 MPH, while not walking many hitters is a talent beyond his years. He also incorporates a slider, but will likely automatically be the biggest “power arm” in an Indians bullpen that often got by with only finesse in 2019. Ben Clemens at Fangraphs claimed he could be one of the best relievers in baseball just this past August. (If you don’t click any other link in this post, click that one. It will give you hope.) He is a legitimate solid pick-up.

Clase is the real chip here that the Indians got in return, but he projects as a (possibly even dominant) set-up man for their bullpen. Someone you hope will pitch 70 innings a year but nothing more. I truly feel the Indians could have gotten more for Kluber if they had played this right, and they likely know this too, either kicking themselves for not trading him last winter or wishing they could give it one more go this summer.

That was not be though, and it makes me wonder if the walls are closing in around the Tribe front office when all it would take is the money the Dolans had already committed in order to keep the team’s competitive aspirations afloat. It makes me really wonder what’s next.

It makes me not so confident in a front office that has given me every reason to be.

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