When David Cone threw his perfect game in 1999, I had just finished kindergarten. Sadly, I had not yet started paying attention to my now-beloved Yankees.
In other words, it took me 20 years of fandom to see my otherwise-dominant favorite team pull off a no-hitter. And the player who did it was a memorable one.
Corey Kluber is both a star (having won two Cy Young awards) and a feel-good story. He signed with the Yankees as an experiment, having not played baseball while switching teams twice over the past two years.
And the Klubot’s stoic personality somehow made the occasion even better. I almost burst out laughing as the approachable, but stone-faced, Kluber answered Meredith Marakovits’ questions about his emotions in that big ninth inning.
But part of me doesn’t want to get too excited. Kluber came to New York on a one-year contract. And cool as it is to have two elites in Kluber and Gerrit Cole atop the Yankees’ pitching rotation, it’s hard for me to shake my supposition that Kluber is just a visitor
At the end of this season, Corey Kluber will become a free agent. Free agency is a time where struggling older players end up on new teams (because no one’s in a rush to sign them).
Will the Yankees re-sign Corey Kluber after the 2021 season?
It is also a time where thriving older players end up on new teams. No one wants to be the sucker that signs them the year their value finally deprecates. Consider the example of Kenny Lofton, who switched teams eight times between his age 35 and 40 seasons, despite never really flaming out.
Corey Kluber is a 35-year-old on a year, $11 million dollar contract. $11 million is a lot of money to invest on an experimental rotation option, but a pittance for a man who may be re-establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the game.
This offseason saw Yankees ownership doggedly strive to stay below the $210 million dollar luxury tax threshold. If that mentality continues, the idea that the Klubot could be a long-term member of the Yankee family is all but a fantasy.
THE VERLANDER COMPARISON
The ideal future for Corey Kluber is the Justin Verlander trajectory. Verlander accepted a trade from Detroit to Houston as 34-year-old (Kluber is 35), when it seemed his best days were behind him. Verlander, however, went on a tear from 2017-19, all but ending the debate as to whether he belongs in Cooperstown.
What did it cost Houston to retain Verlander for as long as they did? The total comes out to just under $90 million — and that’s with the discounts created by salary splitting with Detroit and a pandemic shortened season. If those discounts are removed, the cost of Verlander between 2017 and 2021 was $150 million, or $30 million dollars a year.
In short, if Kluber’s comeback season restores his brand power as much as Verlander’s 2017 season did, the Yankees will have to look into whether he’s worth paying the same kind of money the team currently only gives to Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton. That’s a $20 million dollar raise for one player, on a team that left itself only $10 million dollars of financial breathing room.
Of course, a Verlander-type offer is a long-shot for any pitcher, Corey Kluber included. Kluber’s counting stats, and thus his Hall of Fame case, are not gold-plated as Verlander’s are. Furthermore, Verlander’s 2017 “comeback” came after a few months of sluggish play. Corey Kluber has the far more daunting task of having to prove to teams that they don’t have to worry about his two-season-long run of being injured.
THE LONG ODDS
So how much money will Kluber command in the 2021-22 offseason (presuming he keeps performing?). At this point, it’s too early to tell.
As things stand, Kluber is on pace to be a 3 WAR player, meaning he could sign a contract similar to those recently given to Charlie Morton. Morton, 37, is a less glamorous late-boomer than Kluber and has made $15 million for three straight seasons.
But Kluber’s modest WAR total is partially the product of his cautiously-managed starts in April. The Corey Kluber we’ve seen since then has been dominant. If this is the real Corey Kluber, he could receive an offer with annual value somewhere between that given to Morton and Verlander (say, $20 million).
So long as the Yankees remain thrifty, however, one cannot count on them to re-sign a player commanding a salary raise: be it for 20, 10 or even five million dollars.
As a fan, you may love or hate New York’s recent caution with the luxury-tax-based salary ceiling. The truth is Yankee management has been blessed over the past few seasons with the opportunity to have their cake and eat it too. It’s easy to contain your budget when your stars are all being paid arbitration — and even pre-arbitration — salaries.
But those days are over. Aaron Judge will be offered a hefty award for the 2022 season (that number might even pass the $20 million mark, considering the $27 million awarded to Mookie Betts in 2020). A year later, he’ll be a free agent, looking for a big-money, long-term investment
It’s hard to know exactly what the calculations are of Yankees ownership, but unless their decision to stay under the cap is a matter of principle, it seems they are not anticipating the obvious: that teams that don’t spend are eventually forced to rebuild.
Long as the odds are, I’d love to see Cole and Kluber establish themselves as perhaps the best 1-2 Yankees rotation punch of all time. And if the old dream of Judge and Gary Sánchez being this generation’s version of Gehrig and Ruth or Maris and Mantle could be revived, I’d love to see that too.
But for that to happen, Yankee fans will have to make it loud and clear that the team’s current ways are undesirable. If you don’t want Corey Kluber’s campaign to be a cameo, declare him your favorite player. Make him that guy that it would be bad PR to lose.
Texas looked kind of ridiculous when they gave out Kluber bobbleheads on Wednesday night. The man who would go on to no-hit them pitched only one game for that team. In the years going forward, we can only hope we in the Yankees community don’t look equally ridiculous in celebrating his no-hitter.