The 85th annual MLB All-Star game has come and gone, with the American League besting the Senior Circuit. The AL secured home-field advantage in the World Series for the second year in a row..yadda yadda. As a fan what I care about is watching my favorite players, and for an Indians fan that meant only getting to watch one of my teams’ players: Michael Brantley. While Brantley was more than worthy of being called an All-Star this year (3.7 fWAR is tops on the team), I couldn’t help but be disappointed that he was the only Tribe All-Star. Plain and simple, Corey Kluber should have been in that game. He has been a top 6 pitcher in the AL in WAR, FIP, and K/9 to this point, and there were much worse pitchers on the team than Kluber, including Scott Kazmir, Mark Buehrle, and all of the relievers. However, in addition to my disappointment at his snub, I couldn’t help but wonder if this couldn’t be a blessing in disguise. With these off days coming up, could the Indians look to extend Corey Kluber?
We don’t see in-season extensions too often, and when we do, they usually happen right at the start of the year after they’ve been worked on most of the winter (see Jason Kipnis this past winter). However, it’s not unheard of for a team to sign a guy to an extension mid-season. In fact, the Cleveland Indians have done this before using the All-Star break to re-open negotiations and hammer out an extension. Back in 2007, the Indians worked out a team record 4 year, $57M extension with slugger Travis Hafner. The deal was made official the Thursday after the All-Star game. Now, this was a bit of a different situation than Kluber was in. Hafner was a veteran who was coming off back-to-back 1.000 OPS seasons before having a bit of a down first half in 2007. Still, Hafner was under control for another year (team option for 2008) so the Indians didn’t have to extend him over the summer; they easily could have waited til the offseason. However, the Tribe saw an opportunity and both Hafner and his agent were interested in an extension. Should the Indians look to do the same with Kluber?
I mentioned in my very first article on the site how the Indians would regret not extending Kluber this past winter. His FIP/xFIP really suggested that he was primed for a big year, and the Tribe had the opportunity to “buy low” on Kluber. However, to this point he’s more than delivered on that potential, and it’s not unrealistic to think he has a chance at being a 6-win pitcher this year with how he’s pitched. The more Kluber pitches, the more expensive he’s going to get. Now, you’re probably thinking, why would Kluber agree to come to the table if he knows he’ll keep getting more expensive?
Well, for starters Kluber is still not arbitration eligible. Even for 2015 he’s only going to be making near the league min, no matter how great he pitches. Could have the best 2nd half in the history of the sport and still will making around $500-550K next year. Now obviously the better he pitches the more likely he is to set himself up for a huge payday in 2016 when he is arbitration eligible for the first time; however, there’s a lot that could happen between now and then. As great as Kluber has pitched, he’s not invincible and we’ve seen already this year that injuries to pitchers can happen to just about anyone. We’ve seen young kids need TJ surgery (Jameson Taillon), rising stars (Masahiro Tanaka) and vets with no prior history of injury (Bronson Arroyo). Kluber can’t be blind to this and signing a guaranteed deal, while possibly leaving some money on the table, would give him financial security going forward. On the flip side the Indians can’t be blind to the rash of injuries to pitchers this year either. Signing any pitcher to a multi-year deal is a huge risk these days, but some risks you just have to take. Kluber isn’t an aging veteran; he’s 28 and entering the prime of his career. He’s becoming the Tribe’s version of James Shields and is the type of pitcher you want at the front of the rotation for the next half decade.
The questions then are how much should the Indians offer and what would Kluber consider fair? The money part here may not actually be quite as important for the Indians as the years would be. The Tribe has not given a guaranteed 5-year deal to a pitcher this century. They gave Fausto Carmona, C.C. Sabathia, and Cliff Lee 4-year deals when they were yet to be eligible for free agency and that seems to be their limit when it comes to pitchers (they will add options past 4 years though). However, we’ve seen several pitchers around baseball sign 5-year deals who are around the same service time as Kluber. The White Sox have signed two pitchers in the last two years to 5-year deals: Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. So far both of those are looking very good, especially the Sale deal. The Atlanta Braves recently signed Julio Teheran to a 6-year deal, and was named to his first All-Star team this year. All three of these players were right around the same service time as Kluber is at when they signed their deals (all pre-arbitration eligible). Let’s look at how each of those three pitched the year before they signed their deals and the following year(s):
2012: 192.0 IP, 9.00 K/9, 2.39 BB/9, 3.05 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 3.24 xFIP, 4.7 fWAR
2013: 214.1 IP, 9.49 K/9, 1.93 BB/9, 3.07 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 2.95 xFIP, 5.1 fWAR
2014: 95.0 IP, 9.66 K/9, 1.52 BB/9, 2.08 ERA, 2.47 FIP, 2.89 xFIP, 3.2 fWAR
2013: 200.0 IP, 7.38 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 3.51 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 3.86 xFIP, 3.7 fWAR
2014: 119.1 IP, 8.07 K/9, 2.56 BB/9, 3.24 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 3.34 xFIP, 3.2 fWAR
2013: 185.2 IP, 8.24 K/9, 2.18 BB/9, 3.20 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.76 xFIP, 2.5 fWAR
2014: 136.1 IP, 7.66 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, 2.71 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 3.74 xFIP, 1.9 fWAR
Kluber (no extension yet):
2013: 147.1 IP, 8.31 K/9, 2.02 BB/9, 3.85 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 3.10 xFIP, 2.8 fWAR
2014: 131.2 IP, 9.71 K/9, 2.19 BB/9, 3.01 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 2.88 xFIP, 3.4 fWAR
The 2014 numbers are obviously only through the All-Star break, but it’s pretty clear that all these guys improved after signing their deals. Corey Kluber has seen arguably the biggest improvement from the four above. What does this mean? Maybe nothing, but giving the deals these three got and how well Kluber’s numbers stack up against them it’s not unrealistic to think that 5-guaranteed years will be required to extend Kluber. Would the Indians consider this or is it a non-starter?
I don’t have the answer to that, but the Tribe did give Jason Kipnis a very large 6-year deal this past winter. While 6 years were not completely unheard of (they gave it to Grady Sizemore), it’s not a “typical” Tribe extension. However, the 6-years, $52.5M that the Indians gave Kipnis is right in line with the deal that Matt Carpenter got from the Cardinals this past winter (6yr/$52M), and also similar to deals for Andrew McCutchen (6yr/$51.5M) and Jay Bruce (6yr/$51M). Did the Indians cave some to the trend around baseball to lock up their young star? Again, I am not the Indians so I don’t know but don’t believe that deal was struck without someone in the room brining up these other deals. If the Indians were willing to go that big on Kipnis, shouldn’t they at least consider going 5 years with Kluber?
The best case scenario would be 4 years and 3 options (like Carmona and Shields got), but that ship may have sailed. A 5-year deal would lock up Kluber’s final pre-arbitration year (2015, his three arbitration years (2016-2018), and his first free agent year (2019). Kluber would be 33 when the guaranteed portion of the deal would expire. Only one year older than Shields will be this year when he hits free agency. Obviously Kluber is not Shields, just because one pitched at an elite level for the duration of his contract does not mean Kluber would but that brings us back to the part about taking necessary risks. If you want to build a winner some risks will have to be taken, and if I’m the Indians, I take those risks on players like Kluber and Kipnis. Could the Indians re-open talks today and offer Kluber a 5-year, $35M deal with two team options? Perhaps a breakdown like this:
$1M signing bonus, 2015: $750K, 2016: $3.5M, 2017: $6.5M, 2018: $9.5M, 2019: $12.75M, 2020: $13M team option ($1M buyout), 2021: $13M team option ($1M buyout)
This deal gives Kluber financial security going forward while paying him fair money thru his arbitration years, yet it also gives the Indians some cost certainty going forward in addition to an extra year of control of their best pitcher. Is their risk of injury? Sure, but he’s going to get to arbitration and the Tribe isn’t just going to cut him if he were to get hurt. Tribe held on to guys like Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco, neither of which was as talented as Kluber.
Now, I don’t find a deal for Kluber over this All-Star break to be all that likely to happen. He’s still got another year before being arbitration eligible, and the urgency to sign him likely isn’t there. However, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve signed a pre-arbitration guy this late in the season as the Indians signed Cliff Lee deal to his first extension in August of 2006. The Indians are also not known to be huge players at the deadline (Ubaldo Jimenez trade being an exception). One big splash the Tribe could make this summer is locking up arguably their most valuable player long-term, and they are provided a nice opportunity to get this done right now. And one thing seems inevitable: the longer the Tribe waits, the more Kluber will end up costing them.