A consensus top-5 pitcher in baseball over a half-decade run starting with the first of two Cy Young Awards in 2014, Corey Kluber fell from his perch rather unceremoniously. Part of that is because he’s the anti-Trevor Bauer, and not just because Kluber won two World Series starts while Bauer lost both of his. Kluber also prefers to avoid the headlines and let his pitching talk for him, which means he’s been silent for nearly two years.
He hadn’t yet settled into a groove through six starts in 2019, battling mechanical issues that derailed his normally impeccable control. His seventh start was already going sideways when a comebacker off the bat of the Marlins’ Brian Anderson fractured Kluber’s right arm, then he suffered an abdominal injury during rehab that shelved him for good.
Cleveland traded Kluber to the Rangers the following winter, giving him what he thought would be a new lease on his career. The shutdown had different ideas. Inadequate training facilities at his home in Massachusetts may have been partially to blame, but the end result is that he suffered a Grade 2 teres major muscle strain in his right shoulder and managed to throw just one inning in 2020. The Rangers declined his $18 million club option, making him a free agent.
Now less than 3 months from his 35th birthday and with only poor health and worse luck to show for the last two seasons, Kluber is holding an open workout for interested teams Wednesday in Florida. It will be held at one of the facilities operated by pitching guru Eric Cressey, who Cubs fans might recall worked with Kyle Hendricks last offseason to improve his strength and stamina.
“I don’t have a mindset that I need to prove myself to anyone, so to speak,” Kluber told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. “I just need to show people that I’m healthy. I’m not putting pressure on myself to go out there and do X, Y and Z. It’s just about showing teams I’m progressing through a normal offseason.”
The brief bullpen session is expected to draw representatives from about two-thirds of MLB’s teams, with the Cubs among those that “will have a presence.” Though Kluber is certainly an attractive buy-low candidate, it’s hard to see the Cubs making good on their threading-the-needle parlance when it comes to actually signing him.
Some were wondering and yes, the Cubs will have a presence at Corey Kluber's workout tomorrow. Kluber has struggled to return to form after battling injuries the last two years, but the Cubs have up to three rotation spots to fill and they're undoubtedly looking for upside value.
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) January 13, 2021
Part of that is on the Cubs themselves, more of it may be on Kluber. A team that has thus far been unwilling to sign anyone to a guaranteed deal while actively shedding payroll with trades and non-tenders isn’t likely to offer much to a bounceback candidate. Kluber is the type of player a contender might add in the hopes that he fleshes out the rotation, but Jed Hoyer admitted that the Cubs don’t have the bones for that yet.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say the Cubs were willing to offer a small guaranteed salary with some performance escalators. That seems pretty likely for someone in Kluber’s position. It also seems like something at least a few other teams would be willing to offer, likely teams that are in better position to compete. Assuming we’re looking at just a one-year pillow deal, Kluber is likely to choose a place where he can pitch and win.
Unless, that is, he’s looking at 2020 in much the same way the Cubs are, which is to say he’s trying to rebuild his value and wants a team with a rotation that’s more up for grabs. That feels like a longshot, though maybe the Hendricks/Cressey connection plays a role. Then again, Cressey also serves as the Yankees’ director of player health and performance.
I’m sure a lot of Cubs fans would prefer to stay as far away from Kluber as possible given his age and recent history, but there’s reason to believe some of those factors may be working in his favor to an extent. Though Father Time remains undefeated, it’s possible that hopping off the track and allowing the old man to lap him might allow Kluber a little more leeway because he’s kept more tread on the tires, so to speak.
Rogers reports that Kluber is throwing in the 87-89 mph range, which is right where he should be at this point in his ramp-up. No pitcher just goes back out and throws at max velocity more than a month ahead of spring training and Kluber’s average fastball hasn’t been north of 94 since 2015, so the numbers to this point are encouraging.
I’d personally love to see the Cubs bring the big righty to Chicago as a veteran addition, if for no other reason than it’d feel like they really were intent on at least boosting their odds of winning the division. And hey, maybe Kluber recaptures his form and gives Hoyer a valuable trade chip come July. The Cubs get some system depth, Kluber builds value, everyone wins. Well, except the fans who would presumably be forced to tolerate a mediocre team.
In the end, though, I’d suspect the former ace ends up with a team looking to win now, perhaps one a little closer to his offseason home.
Update: Kluber reportedly touched 90 with his fastball during his 30-pitch showcase, a very good sign that he truly is ahead of schedule in his throwing program. In addition to the Cubs, the Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Still-Indians-for-some-reasons, Marlins, Mets, Nationals, Pirates, Rangers, Rays, Red Sox, Tigers, Twins, and Yankees were in attendance. And that’s just the teams we know.
Nearly 25 teams showed up at Corey Kluber's showcase today, and scouts came away impressed. His fastball sat 88-90 — and he's got more velocity in the tank as he builds toward spring training. Kluber threw 30 pitches, including all of his off-speed stuff. Strong market expected.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 13, 2021