The beauty of the wheel is that it does not discriminate between pie in the sky fantasies and real-world actualities. It simply does. So today, let’s run down a crazy world of a match between Corey Kluber and the Seattle Mariners and see if we can get it to make sense.
The Seattle Mariners are going to spend some resources on their bullpen this winter. You can take that to the bank. But GM Jerry Dipoto has also said that the team is going to be interested in adding a starting pitcher this winter as well. Dipoto has used the term “stabilizing force” while strongly hinting that they would like to acquire a starter that fits into the middle of the rotation and one that may be on the older side of the ledger. Or more crudely put, someone who has pelts on the wall.
There is no shortage of options available to Seattle and Dipoto. J.A. Happ, Jeff Samardzija, or Jake Arrieta are some of the bigger names available. But how about former Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber? Would he make sense?
Before we answer that question, we need to understand that Kluber isn’t a free agent yet. The Rangers, who acquired Kluber for pennies on the dollar last winter, hold an $18 million team option for the last year on Kluber’s contract. If they do not wish to pay Kluber that amount, they can buy him out for $1 million.
Now the Rangers can negotiate a lower rate with Kluber, something they reportedly approached Kluber in early September. But the Rangers have also announced they want to shed payroll and are entering at least a year of rebuilding. Does Kluber want to stick around on a bad team? It’s possible, but he’ll surely have other suitors who may be more appealing.
Let’s assume that Kluber rejects the Rangers offer and Texas decides not to pick up that option. At that point, Kluber becomes a free agent. So could the Mariners jump on Kluber then? Possibly. Kluber would certainly represent the arm with the most upside on the market, but that comes with two caveats: the Mariners will have to win a bidding war and the upside comes with serious risk. Mainly, the risk that Kluber cannot make it through an entire season.
We need to remember that Kluber hasn’t had a full season since 2018. In fact, he’s made just eight starts combined the past two years and only threw one inning in 2019. Kluber’s five-year stretch between 2014-2018 was hall of fame caliber but it left a heavy toll on his arm. In that span, Kluber averaged 215 innings pitched. In addition, youth is not on Kluber’s side. He’ll turn 35-years-old about a week into the 2021 season.
So there are a ton of red flags to sift through. But now we come to the fun part: what if Kluber can return to his 2018 self? The version of Corey Kluber that went for 215 innings of 2.89 ERA and 3.12 FIP, 222 strikeouts, and just 34 walks? That, my friends, is an ace. And when you start to stack Kluber on top of Marco Gonzales, Justus Sheffield, Yusei Kikuchi, and Logan Gilbert, it’s not hard to see a playoff caliber rotation in 2021.
In addition, Kluber is also likely looking for a one-year deal and should come at a reasonable rate considering his age and injury situation. For the Mariners or any team, to acquire Kluber, they need to have a solid idea of what his medicals look like. While the risk is mitigated in a one year contract, it’s never ideal to throw away $12-$15 million on a handful of innings. He doesn’t need to be a Cy Young Award contender to return that investment either. A 2 WAR season would be fair value for a contract of that stature.
The Mariners have talked about adding a stabilizing force in their rotation but that isn’t what Kluber is. You cannot count on him to give you the innings necessary to count on him in that. Instead, Kluber is an expensive lottery ticket with a massive payout potential. And like any lottery ticket, risk tolerance is what will be tested. A good Corey Kluber is the type of gamble that could help the team compete for more than a Wild Card spot in 2021 and that might be a risk worth taking.