Transaction Analysis: Indians trade Corey Kluber

Traded RHP Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers for RHP Emmanuel Clase and OF Delino DeShields

Designated IF Mike Freeman for Assignment

It is difficult to be objective about a trade involving Corey Kluber, regardless of the return. He’s one of the 10 best pitchers in franchise history, certainly the best since Sam McDowell (who last pitched for the Indians in 1971). He won 2 AL Cy Young Awards, and nearly pitched the Indians to a championship in 2016. His rise from obscurity in 2013 heralded the beginning of a seven-year run of competitiveness, including four playoff appearances.

2019 was a lost season for Kluber. He had started out poorly, which has happened in the past, but unlike previous years, he didn’t have a chance to warm up with the weather. On May 1st, a line drive caught him on his pitching arm, fracturing his ulna. He would make some rehab starts in late August, but an oblique strain ended any hope of him pitching the rest of the season.

The Indians would pick up his $17.5M option after the season, and it appeared that they would either try to trade him this winter or bank on him returning to form in 2020. The Indians had depth in the rotation, so it made sense to try to use that depth to improve other areas of the club.

When Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg signed record-breaking contracts, both in terms of AAV (Average Annual Value) and length, I assumed that if anything the Indians would be in a position of strength. Kluber’s $18.5M salary (with a projected 3.4 fWAR) seemed downright reasonable compared to any of the starters left on the market, even considering his injury-marred 2019 campaign.

So when the news hit that Kluber was being traded to the Texas Rangers, my first thought was that the Indians had in fact extracted a great return. After all, Kluber had been mentioned in connection with several other teams in recent days (Dodgers and Angels, just to name the two most prominent), and I figured that the Indians had played all the contenders against each other. If the deal was anything like the Trevor Bauer trade last July, the Indians would be getting at least a couple “win-now” players plus several good prospects.

Then Ken Rosenthal tweeted this:

I thought: “huh, I guess the return is going to be mostly prospects.” Especially considering this next tweet:

But then even those hopes were dashed:

The trade ended up being RHP Emmanuel Clase and OF Delino DeShields for RHP Corey Kluber and $500,000. And of course the roughly $15M the Indians saved. Underwhelming, to say the least.

Now don’t get me wrong: both players the Indians received will help the team in 2020. Clase, who made his MLB debut this past season, is a much-needed power bullpen arm, and has the stuff to close games. Delino DeShields is a better fourth outfielder/pinch-runner than the Indians had on the roster. But neither of these players are what I’d term core players. Perhaps Clase could be the next Cody Allen if everything works out, but he’s way too young and inexperienced to know what he is right now. If you want to look at it from a purely WAR perspective, the Indians gave up 3.4 fWAR and got 1.1 fWAR back in return, plus $15M, and that’s assuming that the money will be spent.

With teams promising the moon and the stars to any half-way decent starting pitcher on the free agent market (as I write this, Madison Bumgarner just got 5/$85M from Arizona), to get this anemic a return is a major disappointment. Knowing what we know now, it’s obvious that the Indians picked up Kluber’s option merely in order to trade him this winter, and other teams called their bluff.

And this is not taking into account how the overall fanbase is going to take this trade. Corey Kluber was one of the faces of the franchise, and trading him for a fourth outfielder and an interesting but unproven bullpen arm is not going to sit well, especially after the events of last winter. So I certainly hope that the Indians already have a major move, or series of moves teed up to go. I don’t think anyone is expecting them to trade for Mookie Betts, but signing Marcell Ozuna or trading for Starling Marte would make this trade defensible. Oh yeah, it would also help to announce that Francisco Lindor is no longer available on the trade market.

Because the Indians acquired two players on the 40-man roster, they needed to clear a spot, so they designated Mike Freeman for assignment. I think the Indians will be signing a free agent second baseman, which meant that Freeman’s days on the 40-man were numbered, though I thought he might stick around through Spring Training.

Here’s what the roster looks like after the moves today:

Link to live file (OneDrive)

I penciled Adam Plutko in as the fifth starter because he’s out of options, but realistically you could have a number of other pitchers beat him out this spring (Plesac, Rodriguez, even Moss or Allen). The Indians still need at least one corner outfielder and either a second or third baseman, and theoretically now have anywhere from $25-30M to play with. Let’s hope they actually use it.

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