Finding a Match for Corey Kluber: Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Yankees

The Indians have expressed their willingness to consider moving ace pitcher Corey Kluber (32 years old). In 2018, Kluber pitched exceptionally well. He had a 2.89 ERA, 9.29 K/9, and walked 1.42 batters/9; Corey Kluber was worth 5.6 WAR in 2018 (he was 1.7 WAR short of the total he accumulated the season prior). Nonetheless, Kluber’s 5.6 WAR tied him for the 8th highest in the majors.

Additionally, Kluber has not missed a beat; he’s made at least 29 starts and pitched in 203 innings each of the past 5 seasons (2014-18). His lowest WAR in that span was 5.1 (2016), and his highest was 7.3 (2017); in 2017, he was worth 7.3 WAR and won the Cy Young award (he also won it in 2014).

Kluber was drafted way back in 2007 as a 4th round pick of the San Diego Padres. In July of his 4th season (2010) in the Padres minor league organization, he got traded to the Indians as part of a three-team deal:

Indians

  • Traded away: SP Jake Westbrook and cash considerations
  • Received: SP Corey Kluber

Padres

  • Traded away: SP Corey Kluber and SP Nick Greenwood
  • Received: OF Ryan Ludwick and cash considerations

Cardinals

  • Traded away: OF Ryan Ludwick
  • Received: SP Jake Westbrook, SP Nick Greenwood, and cash considerations

Kluber spent the rest of the 2010 season pitching for the Indians AA affiliate and pitched in AAA throughout the vast majority of the following two years (2011-12). In early August of 2012, the Indians called Kluber up to the big leagues. He made 12 starts and struggled mightily; Corey ended the season with an ERA in the low 5s, and he conceded 76 hits in 63 IP. In 2013, Kluber notably improved. His ERA dropped into the 3s, he rarely walked batters (2 BB/9), he struck out batters more frequently, and he kept batters off the bases at an unreal clip (0.92 WHIP). In the subsequent season (2014), Kluber truly took off. He made improvements all across the board, and he won the AL Cy Young award. From 2015-18, Kluber continued to pitch remarkably, earning yet another Cy Young award (in 2017), and he proved to be worthy of the title “ace.”

The Indians have won the AL Central 3 consecutive years (2016-18), but because they are seeking to trim their payroll, Kluber finds himself on the block; he is owed a substantial $52.5 million over the next 3 years. With that being said, Kluber’s sensational production on the mound merits double that sum; therefore, Kluber’s trade value is off the charts. In order to most accurately gauge his worth, we need to take aging curves into consideration. A decline in performance is imminent, as Kluber is already in his early 30s (2019 will be his age 33 season).

“a basic rule of thumb is that once a player gets to 30, you sort of expect them to lose about 0.5 WAR per year of value due to aging. Some players will age better or worse, but that’s an average estimate.”

Fangraphs’ Neil Weinberg

Corey Kluber’s Projected WAR (accounting for annual loss of 0.5 WAR off of 2019 Steamer projection)

2019: 4.8

2020: 4.3

2021: 3.8

The Indians are paying him $17 million in the first season (2019), $17.5 million the following season (2020), and $18 million in his final season (2021).

According to Fangraphs Neil Weinberg, “teams are paying about $8 million per every WAR they add to their roster. For example, a 2 WAR player signed for three years would theoretically provide his team with 6 WAR, so a team might want to pay him anything up to $48 million. If the team pays less than $8 million for each expected WAR, we call this a “good deal” and if they pay more, we say they “overpaid.” Over the duration of Kluber’s contract, he’s projected to be worth 12.9 WAR. If we multiply that by $8 million / 1 WAR, we find that Kluber as a free agent (if he were seeking a 3 yr deal) would have warranted $103.2 million over 3 seasons.

In An Update to Prospect Valuation, Fangraphs formulated a system that can compare the monetary value of prospects to that of major league players.

The results are presented in present-day WAR and translated to a rough dollar figure based on $9 million as the cost of a win on the free-agent market. Keep in mind that the dollar figure isn’t a direct value, but rather equivalent value of a prospect relative to the free-agent market. Part of the reason prospects have such tremendous value is due to the suppressed salaries permitted by the CBA until a player has reached six years of service time. By translating the WAR figure into a monetary value, we can compare the value of prospects with the values of major-league players and their contracts. These values likely roughly approximate what an individual player might get as a signing bonus if he were declared a free agent and teams could only provide a signing bonus instead of a long-term contract.

Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards

The calculations for Kluber’s surplus monetary value can be seen below…

[(4.8 WAR * $9 million / 1 WAR) – $17 million] + [(4.3 WAR * $9 million / 1 WAR) – $17.5 million] + [(3.8 WAR * $9 million / 1 WAR) – $18 million] = $26.2 million + $21.2 + $16.2 million = $63.6 million in surplus value

The Dodgers and Padres are two teams whom many deem (including Jon Morosi) as strong contenders for the much-coveted Cleveland ace. At this point, we will now take a look at what pieces these teams could look to offer:

Dodgers

RF Alex Verdugo (50 FV; $30 million)

Verdugo is ranked by Fangraphs as the 49th best prospect in baseball. Last season, Verdugo hit for a .329 AVG and belted 10 big flies in 379 AAA plate appearances. He also stole 8 bases and is known for having a cannon of an arm in RF. The Dodgers deep and talented major league outfield limited Verdugo’s playing time. In just over 80 MLB PAs, Verdugo had a .260 AVG and 1 HR. Steamer projects him to hit for a .270 AVG and smash 13 HRs in 522 PAs next season; they estimate him to produce a 1.3 WAR. One red flag with Verdugo concerns his batted ball profile; his ground ball rate was nearly 52% in AAA and his line drive rate was just below 18%. The former is too high and the latter is too low.

+ RHP Dennis Santana (50 FV; $16 million)

Santana is ranked by Fangraphs as the 104th best prospect in baseball. In 2018, Santana improved significantly. After walking over 6 batters/9 at AA in 2017, Santana only walked 3.26 batters/9 this past season. His K/9 was over 11 in 49.2 IP and his ERA was in the mid-2s between AA and AAA. Those who are down on him are skeptical of his control, which could hinder his chances of remaining a SP, and his health (missed time in 2018 with a right rotator cuff strain).

+ RHP Dustin May (50 FV; $16 million)

May is ranked by Fangraphs as the 106th best prospect in baseball. In 2018, May pitched pretty well. He had a 3.29 ERA, 8.60 K/9, and a 1.56 BB/9 in A+. What I find most alarming is the fact that nearly all his skills regressed upon being promoted to AA. His ERA rose to 3.67, his strikeout rate decreased to 7.34 K/9, and his walk rate increased to 3.15 BB/9. It is a possibility that his struggles in AA can be attributed to late season fatigue or a small sample size (34.1 IP). Only time will tell.

+ $1.6 million in cash = $63.6 million (Kluber’s surplus monetary value)

Padres

RHP Chris Paddack (55 FV; $41 million)

Paddack is ranked by Fangraphs as the 35th best prospect in baseball. In 2018, Paddack pitched insanely well after missing most of 2016 and all of 2017 due to TJ surgery. In 52.1 IP at A+, Chris had a 2.24 ERA, 14.27 K/9, and a 0.69 BB/9, all of which are excellent. When he was promoted to AA, he continued to perform at a very high level. Although his strikeout rate dwindled (8.84 K/9), his ERA dropped below 2 and his walk rate remained below 1 in 7 starts at AA. Paddack is still a very risky prospect because of his injury-plagued history (TJ surgery), but he flashes ace potential.

+ 1B Josh Naylor (50 FV; $14 million) or LHP Adrian Morejon (50 FV; $15 million)

Naylor is ranked by Fangraphs as the 111th best prospect in baseball. In 2018, Naylor had the best season of his minor league career. He hit 17 HRs and had a .297 AVG in 574 AA PAs. His strikeout (12%) to walk (11.1%) ratio was excellent as well. He could be their regular DH as soon as 2020, and when Carlos Santana’s contract expires, he could take on permanent 1B duties.

Southpaw Adrian Morejon pitched well last year at A+ as a 19-year-old. He’s very advanced for his age, flashing a plus three pitch mix (changeup, slider, and fastball). He had a 3.30 ERA in 62.2 IP. Morejon struck just over 10 batters / 9 IP and his walk rate was in the mid-3s. He generated GBs at an extremely high clip (53.2%). Adrian Morejon is still several years away from reaching the majors, but he has the ceiling of a #2 SP.

+ LF Tirso Ornelas (45+ FV; $8 million)

In 2018, Ornelas slugged 8 HRs and hit for a .252 AVG as an 18-year-old in A. At such a young age, he demonstrated terrific plate discipline; he walked 11.3% of the time and struck out 19.2%, the latter of which is an improvement upon last season (25.6% at R). Ornelas has the upside of an all-star outfielder and the floor of a 4th outfielder.

$63-64 million ($41 million + [$15 million if Morejon or $14 million if Naylor] + $8) = $63.8 million (Kluber’s surplus monetary value)

Here’s another plausible scenario (basically, Padres would be trading for Kluber and then flipping him to the Reds…

Indians receive: (Naylor or Morejon), Paddack, and Ornelas from the Padres

Indians give up: Corey Kluber to the Reds

Reds receive: Kluber from the Indians

Reds give up: Senzel ($55 million) and Siri ($8 million) to the Padres

Padres receive: Senzel and Siri from the Reds

Padres give up: (Naylor or Morejon), Paddack, and Ornelas to the Indians

The final scenario we will look into is the possibility of Kluber being traded to the Bronx Bombers:

CF Estevan Florial (50 FV; $26 million), RHP Albert Abreu (50 FV; $13 million), and CF Aaron Hicks ($25.2 million) for Corey Kluber ($63.8 million)

The calculations for Hicks’ surplus monetary value (based on Fangraphs’ Update to Prospect Valuation) can be seen below…

(3.5 WAR [2018 projection per Fangraphs’ Depth Charts] * $9 million / 1 WAR) – $6 million (his 2018 salary) = $25.2 million in surplus value

Hicks would fill an immediate need for the Tribe: CF. Aaron hit 27 HRs and had an OBP of .366; he also stole 11 bags.

Although Florial had an AVG around .250 in 339 A+ PAs, his OBP was .354; he also stole 11 bases. His two drawbacks are his propensity to swing and miss (25.7% K rate) and lack of power (3 HRs).

Albert Abreu has the upside of a high-leverage reliever. He had an ERA in the low 4s and his K rate was 9+ / 9 IP. One concern with Abreu is his inability to throw strike (4+ BB / 9 IP).

By the looks of it, Kluber is bound to get traded in the coming weeks (could be days. It’s not a matter of “if”; it’s at a matter of when and where. I believe it will come down to a race between the Dodgers and Padres. The Padres have more to offer, but if Cleveland is enamored of Verdugo, the Dodgers are the inevitable favorites.

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