Was Corey Kluber a failed Yankee or an underrated asset?
When seasons and contracts end, there’s an air of inevitability that surrounds certain players. Different guys are received differently depending on their roles and/or expectations.
For New York Yankees fans, Corey Kluber is that subject this offseason after his $11 million 2021 mostly went down the tubes due to injury, but he pitched a solid year, which included a no-hitter against the Texas Rangers. However, I don’t have any sense whatsoever that the team is interested in bringing him back.
Nothing stings more than writing a piece that immediately diminishes in relevancy. Last May, I was salivating at the thought that the Yankees had the best 1-2 starting rotation punch (Gerrit Cole and Kluber) since Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. I truly believed it was imperative that the Yankees made sure to keep Kluber for years beyond 2021.
A week later, the right-hander was on the 60-day injured list, never to return to his early-season glory.
In hindsight, many Yankee fans will remember the Kluber signing as failed attempt to make something out of a has-been. Others will remember him as the guy we got instead of re-signing the beloved Masahiro Tanaka.
But as I wrote last offseason (in what turned out to be another ill-fated take on the injury prone-ness of James Paxton), fans too often make the mistake of binary thinking when it comes to players’ health.
Kluber’s peak years (2014-18), made him look like a Hall of Famer. In that time span, he (closely) trailed only Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, putting up 30.3 fWAR. This made him the American League’s best pitcher. And award voters noticed, giving him two Cy Youngs in that span.
The veteran’s shot at baseball immortality has waned substantially since those golden years. Injuries have taken the bang out of his age-33, -34 and -35 seasons. And unfortunately for Kluber, the baseball world noticed this decline right away. Last season, the Yankees were able to sign him for $ 11 million, a real bargain (viewed by some) considering his one-time rivals, Kershaw and Scherzer, both made over $30 million that season.
Kluber may be a disappointment when one considers what he once was. Kluber may be disappointed given that his Yankee legacy (effectively) ended one start after that no-hitter seemingly kickstarted it. And Kluber may be a disappointment if you were particularly invested in seeing what Tanaka could do over a full MLB career.
But ponder this for a moment: what if Corey Kluber wasn’t Corey Kluber? Sure, the pitcher we saw in 2021 was a mere fraction of the legendary Klubot. But consider how many teams try to merely acquire capable starters and relievers and build pitching depth. If Kluber had the reputation of being a nothing but a solid arm, perhaps his 2021 would have seemed a lot sweeter.
In 2021, he was worth 1.5 fWAR. That’s not a great number, but consider that Kluber only started 16 games. Compared to his teammates Domingo Germán (1.3), Nestor Cortes (1.7) and Jameson Taillon (2.0), he was able to put up the value of a decent back-end starter while contributing significantly less due to injury.
Then factor in Kluber was healthy in time for the playoffs. While he admittedly struggled upon coming off of the injured list in August, he would nonetheless have imposed a far more intimidating presence than the average pitcher if given the chance to start a postseason game.
In assessing a player’s worth, one also has to consider their salary. As a veteran player (and one with quite a resumé), Kluber indeed commanded more money than a lot of 1.5 fWAR pitchers could expect.
But while Kluber was not a cheap investment, his costs were not disproportionate either. In fact Kluber seems to be the prototypical one-year, $10 million player: a big name not guaranteed to perform atop their game. Similarly expensive players are Carlos Martinez, Taijuan Walker, Blake Snell, Carlos Carrasco and a couple of guys Yankees fans should be familiar with (Sonny Gray and Michael Pineda).
As I said a year ago with Paxton, I’m not particularly invested in the Yankees re-signing Kluber. But it frustrates me, nonetheless, that fans and media personalities alike seam to treat Kluber’s non-return to New York as a fait accompli.
Kluber could once again be a low-cost, high-reward signing. And while the odds of that high reward admittedly feel lower than they did a year ago, this diminished Klubot may very well be a key part in somebody’s rotation next year.