If the 2012-2013 offseason for the Tribe was the winter of the free agent signing, then his past offseason was the winter (and spring) of the extension. Tribe completed three extensions with young, core guys during the offseason and leading into the first week of the season. Locked up into their primes (and in some cases maybe past) are Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, and Jason Kipnis. There was lots of excitement from Tribe fans over these signings. Brantley has become a fan favorite due to his approach and ability to hit with men on base. Dr. Smooth is a guy fans can rally around. Then they signed Gomes, who probably was the best signing of the three but had the least fan fair. Still signaled the Tribe was committed to him and committed to getting Santana out from behind the plate. Seemed like the Tribe was done…until Chris Antonetti and the Tribe mike-dropped the fans with a Jason Kipnis extension announcement just before Opening Day. Enthusiasm was high for Tribe fans, yet there were still plenty that focused on the player that did not sign an extension, team “Ace” Justin Masterson.
Some have said the Tribe will regret not extending their “team Ace” and with that I agree. I agree that they will regret not extending the guy that finished 10th in FIP and finished 6th in xFIP in the AL last year (min. 140 innings), both bests on the team. They will regret not signing the guy that is currently 6th in all of baseball in fWAR and on pace for a near 6-win season. They will regret not extending their Ace this winter….they will regret not extending…Corey Kluber.
I know what most are thinking, Justin Masterson is the Tribe Ace. He got the Opening Day start and finished with the best ERA and best WAR of any Tribe starter last year. That’s all fine and dandy, but Kluber is still the Ace that the Tribe needed to extend this past offseason.
Don’t get me wrong, Justin Masterson was Cleveland’s “team ace” in 2013. He was our #1starter and was our best pitcher from start until (near) finish. He was the anchor that held the rotation together. However, he was more team ace in name only, not so much results/ability. That’s not a knock on Masterson, who is still a very good pitcher. He is simply more a #2 type then a true Ace. Sure you can debate what an Ace really is, but 2013 was simply a very good, solid year for Masterson. He had a near 3.5-win season where he posted a 3.45 ERA and 3.35 FIP to go along with a career best 9.09 strikeout rate. Was also the 3rd straight year where he posted 190 innings. Masterson has been great for Cleveland and if he walks he’ll be missed. So why do I say the Tribe will regret not signing Corey Kluber this winter? Because Corey Kluber is the Indians best pitcher, both now and going forward.
I’m sure to many, Corey Kluber’s breakout 2013 season came as a huge shock. How could a guy that had an ERA over 5.5 in AAA as recently as 2011 and an ERA of 5.14 in the big leagues as recently as the previous season breakout in such a way that he could be considered an Ace? A small history lesson and a quick glance at some important numbers though and one may not have been so surprised. Most know the Tribe acquired Kluber during the summer of 2010 in the 3-team Jake Westbrook deal. Seemed like a lackluster move at the time for a borderline prospect who could strike guys out but was pegged as a 5th starter at best and a bullpen arm by most. His first season with Cleveland did nothing but confirm many people’s belief that he was a nobody. His ERA rose to 5.56 (though his FIP was 4.53) and walk rate was above four. For many the question was when would Kluber be moved to the bullpen, not if he’d move to the bullpen. But then something (or someone) happened that turned everything around. AAA pitching coach Ruben Niebla and minor league pitching coordinator Mickey Calloway (name rings a bell for some reason) convinced Kluber to try throwing a 2-seam fastball as opposed to his straight 4-seam fastball, a pitch that he was able to get away with in the lower levels. 2012 saw Kluber’s ERA drop to 3.59 and FIP even better at 3.34 while repeating AAA. He got his first extended look in the bigs, throwing 63 innings for the Tribe. While that 5.14 ERA was ugly, he posted a respectable 4.29 FIP and very promising 3.99 xFIP. In addition, his walk rate dropped to nearly 2.5 per nine. Bottom line, Kluber pitched much better in 2012 than his 5.14 ERA indicated.
Enter 2013 and Kluber lowered the walk rate to an even better 2.02, his K-rate rose half a K per nine, and his FIP was now down to a team best 3.30. In fact, Kluber’s FIP in 2013 ranked the 10th best in the entire American League (min. 140 innings). His xFIP was an even more impressive 3.10. The list of players with a lower xFIP (again min. 140 IP) was Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, Anibal Sanchez, Chris Sale, and Alex Cobb. Not bad company to be in. The biggest key to Kluber’s success was not just the 2-seam fastball, but his cutter developing into one of the best pitches in baseball. In 2013 his cutter was one of the best in baseball. According to Fangraph’s pitch value, Corey Kluber’s wCT, which denotes the runs above average for a cutter, was 13.2 which was only behind Travis Wood of the Cubs. This year his cutter rates out again as the 2nd best in all of baseball (behind only Jon Lester). Kluber’s K-rate not only has been gradually going up, but it appears to be a sustainable skill. He’s generating more swings and misses. Last year he was top 25 in all of baseball (min 140 innings) with a 10.2% swing and miss rate, which was also tops on the Tribe (just ahead of Kazmir). This year he’s up to 17th in baseball with an 11.0% swing and miss rate, which is tops among Tribe starters. The beautiful thing with Kluber too is he can get swings and misses on several pitches: the cutter, change, curve and even the 2-seamer.
Plain and simple, Kluber has made the jump from BOR/bullpen arm to legit FOR starter. The signs were there for anyone to see that Kluber’s 2013 was no fluke, but rather a sign of things to come. As with any pitcher, health is always key. Kluber did miss time in 2013 so can understand why some may have been hesitant to give Kluber an extension this winter. But let’s be clear, it was a finger issue, not an elbow or shoulder. Now I know Tribe fans are still having nightmares of Adam Miller and his finger, but that is not a typical outcome from a finger issue. Kluber is fine and the finger shouldn’t worry anyone.
As far as what the Tribe should have offered? Kluber is making near the league minimum as he isn’t arbitration eligible. He opened the season with only 1.074 years of service time so he still will not be arbitration eligible after the 2014 season. However, we saw a couple extensions this winter for guys with similar service time. The one that sticks in my mind is one from a division rivial. The White Sox extended Jose Quintana for 5yrs/$21M plus two options (had 1.133 years of service time). Now he does have some language in the deal to bump up salaries if he reaches Super Two status. Kluber, however, will not be a Super Two next year no matter what. The breakdowns are $0.85M in 2014, $1M in 2015, $3.8M in 2016, $8.35M in 2018 plus $10.5M options ($1M buyouts) for 2019 and 2020. Without a deal Quintana would have been eligible for free agency after the 2018 season, so the options potentially buyout two free agent years. Kluber is eligible for free agency after 2018 as well (arbitration after 2015). A similar 5-year deal with option would make sense. Gives Tribe cost certainty through his arbitration years and chance at keeping him beyond. Now how much could the Tribe have gotten Kluber for? Consider that Quintana produced an extra win than Kluber last year (3.7 fWAR vs 2.7 fWAR), threw 200 innings, and had a solid 2012 before (130+ innings and solid ERA/FIP) and it stands to reason that he deserved more than Quintana….at least if you ignore Kluber’s much better FIP, xFIP, K-rate, and BB-rate. Still though, the arbitration process that Kluber will go through in good time hasn’t really caught up with the times yet. Guys that don’t put up big traditional numbers haven’t really reaped the benefits in arbitration (in free agency they have though, see Tim Lincecum). Very good case can be made Kluber was better than Quintana threw 2013. Not only were his FIP and xFIP better, but in 2013 had a much higher BABIP against, higher HR/FB rate, lower LOB rate, and a higher GB-rate. These numbers were staring the Tribe in the face and screaming that Kluber was a man on the verge of taking yet another step in the coming years. Yet they seemingly failed to act. Had they made the same offer to Kluber that the White Sox made to Quintana, does he accept? I am not Kluber so I can’t say for certain, but that’s good money and very reasonable for a pitcher with his service time. Hell, even if you went a bit higher it’d have been a good deal for the Tribe…
…as we can then look at another White Sox pitcher, who was extended the year before. I’m talking of course about Chris Sale. Sale did have an extra year of service time (2.061) at the time of his extension, though a lot of that time was spent as a reliever. Only had one full year in as a starter (same as Kluber essentially). He signed for 5yrs/$32.5M with two options as well. Now has Kluber been as good as Sale? Well no, but hasn’t been as far off as one might think. Consider Sale’s 2012 season (the one right before he signed his extension)…he posted a 3.05 ERA, which was much better than Kluber’s, but his FIP and xFIP were right in line with Klubers. Sale’s FIP was 3.27 (Kluber’s was 3.30) and his xFIP was 3.24 (Kluber’s was 3.10). Sale did have a slightly better K-rate (9.00 vs 8.31) but a worse BB-rate and worse K/BB ratio. GB rate was worse though very similar (44.9% vs 45.5% for Kluber). Looking beyond ERA…Kluber in 2013 was essentially Sale in 2012. So maybe you can argue Kluber should have gotten $32M (Teheran did get this). But now consider how well Sale did for his encore…posted an even better FIP and an even lower xFIP, raised his strikeout-rate, lowered his walk-rate, raised his groundball rate, and posted a 5 win season. And what’s Kluber done in 2014 to this point? He’s lowered his FIP and xFIP, raised his strikeout-rate, lowered his walk-rate, raised his groundball rate, and is on pace for a 7+ win season (did I mention his BABIP is currently over .350?!). Sale’s deal is now considered a big-time bargain (even with the injury). Had the White Sox waited a year to sign him there would have been no chance they get him for a deal like that, so good luck to the Indians trying to get any kind of bargain deal out of Kluber come next winter. Would be lucky to get a deal similar to Sale’s, in reality you’re probably looking at $40M+…or probably close to double what he could have been had for this past winter…
Tribe still can extend Kluber as he still won’t be arbitration eligible next winter and again not eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season. But for a team that has be very smart/tight with their money…missing out on an opportunity to lock up Kluber before he got pricey is a big wasted opportunity, and one the Tribe will likely regret in the coming years…