The Philadelphia Phillies left Cleveland with a 79-75 record, meaning they’re likely to snap a six-year streak of losing seasons in the final week, but are almost certain to miss the postseason for the eighth consecutive season.
The biggest gap between the Phillies and many of the teams likely to be playing in October has been the performance of the starting rotation. Counting on the trio of Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin has proven to be a significant mistake by general manager Matt Klentak, and the front office’s inability to add productive rotation depth during the season (despite attempts to) may have cost them a trip to the playoffs.
There is no question that the Phillies are going to acquire rotation help this offseason, whether it is on the free-agent market, via a trade or some combination of the two. Houston Astros RHP Gerrit Cole, Washington Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg, Los Angeles Dodgers LHP Hyun-jin Ryu, San Francisco Giants LHP Madison Bumgarner, Minnesota Twins RHP Jake Odorizzi, Chicago Cubs LHP Cole Hamels and New York Mets RHP Zack Wheeler can all become free-agents this offseason. Each of them is likely to be considered by a Phillies team with seemingly no certainty in their starting rotation behind ace Aaron Nola.
But one guy has gone under the radar thus far, and he may be available via trade or on the free-agent market: Corey Kluber.
Kluber, a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner, was unable to stay healthy this season. Kluber’s initial injury was nothing more than bad luck – he was struck by a line drive that broke his forearm in May. But Kluber suffered an oblique strain that occurred during a mid-August minor league rehab start which will cost him the rest of the regular season, at a minimum.
In the games that Kluber did start in 2019, he was not effective. His 5.80 ERA, 1.654 WHIP and 2.52 K/BB were all career worst marks, which makes projecting his future even more difficult. It is important to note that Kluber typically starts slow, so seven games in April and early May are not enough to determine what he is at this stage of his career.
Since this season didn’t go as planned for Kluber, it is easy to forget how dominant he was in the several years prior. He won the American League Cy Young Award in both 2014 and 2017, finished in the top three for the award in four of the last five years and was the ace of an Indians team that won the American League Central in each of the last three seasons. He was one of the best and most durable pitchers in baseball for a five-year stretch:
2014 – 235.2 IP, 2.44 ERA
2015 – 220 IP, 3.49 ERA
2016 – 215 IP, 3.14 ERA
2017 – 203.2 IP, 2.25 ERA
2018 – 215 IP, 2.89 ERA
Kluber signed a five-year/$38.5 million contract extension prior to 2015. The deal includes a $17.5 million team option in 2020 and an $18 million team option in 2021. Though it feels fairly likely the Indians will exercise Kluber’s 2020 option, the Indians flirted with trying to cut costs for much of last offseason.
The Phillies saw firsthand why the Indians may be willing to move on from Kluber next season despite his status as an ace in this league prior to this disappointing 2019. Right-hander Shane Bieber dominated on Friday night, and he has established himself as a top pitcher in baseball. Zach Plesac struggled on Saturday, but both he and Aaron Civale have impressed in 2019, as the Indians have really flashed their depth after losing Kluber to injury, Carlos Carrasco to his recovery from Leukemia and Trevor Bauer to trade.
With Bieber, Mike Clevinger – who has also become an ace in this league – Carrasco’s eventual return to the rotation, incoming top prospect Triston McKenzie, and strong depth in Plesac, Civale and Adam Plutko, the Indians look well set up for life after Kluber.
If the Indians decide to pick up Kluber’s 2020 option, it may be in hopes of trading him. With his disappointing 2019 and somewhat expensive price tag in 2020, it’s hard to imagine that the Indians would get a premium package in exchange for Kluber. With a window that is open now, they would likely be looking for young major league ready talent.
A guy like Adam Haseley, who has flashed the ability to become solid everyday outfielder, could interest the Indians. It’s unclear if the Phillies would be receptive to moving Haseley, their 2017 first round pick. Prospects like Adonis Medina – who struggled in 2019 but is still only 22 – and Francisco Morales – a young arm with great, raw stuff – could also intrigue Cleveland. A trade for Kluber would also give the Phillies the $18 million team option in 2021, which means they could control Kluber at an affordable rate for two seasons if he bounces back.
Kluber is obviously a risk entering his age-34 season following a season in which he struggled early before getting injured and failing to return. But the Phillies have put themselves in a position in which they need to take risks in order to win now. Kluber was dominant for years, and a return to form would greatly help a team like the Phillies to make a postseason push in what’s going to be a crowded National League East.
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