Last season, the Texas Rangers used 19 different starting pitchers, with only rotation stalwarts Mike Minor and Lance Lynn starting more than 18 games. Even with stellar years from Minor and Lynn, Texas ranked 12th in the American League in rotation ERA. In 2018, the Rangers used 15 different starting pitchers, didn’t have a single starter qualify for the ERA title and ranked 14th in the AL in rotation ERA.
As the Rangers prepare to move into shiny new Globe Life Field for 2020, the offseason priority was to improve and stabilize the starting rotation. On Sunday, they acquired two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber from the Cleveland Indians for center fielder Delino DeShields and 21-year-old right-handed reliever Emmanuel Clase, who recorded a 2.31 ERA in 23⅓ innings with the Rangers and ranked as the team’s No. 30 prospect, according to MLB.com.
Kluber made just seven starts last season, missing most of the season with a broken forearm after getting hitting by a line drive on May 1 and then suffering a strained oblique on a rehab assignment in August. Before the injury, Kluber was hit hard, allowing 44 hits in 35⅔ innings and posting a 5.80 ERA. Still, it feels like a shockingly low return for a pitcher who won the 2017 Cy Young Award and finished third in the 2018 voting. It essentially amounts to a salary dump by the Indians, with Kluber set to earn $17.5 million this season with an $18 million club option for 2021.
Given that Kluber’s injuries weren’t structural, it certainly is a worthwhile gamble for the Rangers. If he’s bad again, the commitment is only for one season. Having already signed free agents Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles, the Rangers can run a top five of Minor, Lynn, Kluber, Gibson and Lyles, with Kolby Allard, Brock Burke and Ariel Jurado in reserve. If Kluber bounces back, and Minor (7.8 bWAR, 4.2 fWAR) and Lynn (7.6 bWAR, 6.8 fWAR) repeat their career seasons or at least come close, this has the potential to be one of the better rotations in the league.
Kluber must be viewed as a question mark, however, and even if the Indians really like Clase, the return suggests there wasn’t much interest out there in Kluber, and teams weren’t willing to give up much value in addition to absorbing his salary. DeShields is a plus defender in center but owns a career 76 OPS+, including 72 last season, which ranked 201st out of 207 batters with at least 400 plate appearances. He’s hardly the solution to Cleveland’s search for outfield help, and DeShields/Clase is far less of a return than the Indians would have received last offseason, when they were also shopping Kluber and may have received a package from the Dodgers that included Alex Verdugo.
A big reason for the concern about Kluber’s production moving forward is his declining velocity:
Corey Kluber’s pitch velocity distribution by year… pic.twitter.com/agN8UeSRAb
— Daren Willman (@darenw) December 15, 2019
Kluber’s fastball averaged 94.6 mph in 2014 and was down to 92.4 in 2018 and 92.3 last season. But Kluber’s fastball — in particular his two-seamer, which he throws more often than his four-seamer — has always been hittable. Even in 2017 and ’18, batters hit .303/.354/.492 against his sinker. In his limited innings last year, that jumped to .390/.457/.732. That’s just 46 batters faced, and his curveball remained an elite strikeout weapon, but his overall strikeout rate has fallen from 34.1% in 2017 to 26.4% to 22.6%.
So there are red flags. You can’t go into 2020 expecting Cy Young-caliber Kluber, although this is far from a Felix Hernandez situation. In fact, Caesars Sportsbook moved the Rangers’ World Series odds from 100-1 to 40-1 following the trade. (The Indians fell from 18-1 to 30-1.)
The Rangers still have a hole at third base, but there are options out there — Josh Donaldson in free agency, Kris Bryant or Kyle Seager via trade — and they could use another bat in right field or first base. But there will be a lot more excitement now in the new park.
The AL West, in fact, looks a lot more interesting than it has been the past three seasons. The Astros have dominated the division and the A’s have won two straight wild cards, but the only other team to finish above .500 since 2016 was the 2018 Mariners. Now the Rangers are making a playoff push, as are the Angels, who signed Anthony Rendon and should have more moves to come.
Are the Astros vulnerable? Look, the Rangers and Angels have a lot of catching up to do. The Astros finished 29 games ahead of the Rangers and 35 games ahead of the Angels in 2019. Obviously, losing Gerrit Cole is a huge blow to Houston and Wade Miley (33 starts, 3.98) is a free agent, so that’s 66 starts and 8.9 WAR currently gone from the 2019 rotation. They have Lance McCullers Jr. coming back from Tommy John surgery and Jose Urquidy to replace Miley, but factor in the ages of Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, and it’s plausible to argue the Astros are beatable for the first time in four years. If the Rangers and Angels continue to make additions, you could also argue the AL West will be MLB’s best division in 2020, with four potential playoff teams.
As for the Indians, it’s a sad day, trading one of the best pitchers in franchise history (he’s eighth all time in WAR for Cleveland) and getting a disappointing return. There is no way to view this other than the Indians prioritizing saving money over winning. Sure, the rotation still could be very good in 2020 with Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac, but the depth takes a hit. Maybe they’ll apply Kluber’s salary elsewhere on the roster — or maybe this means Francisco Lindor is next to go.