Finding an ace and keeping him in hand
The fact that Corey Kluber won the American League Cy Young Award this season is incredible enough on its own. What Cleveland has here, though, is a tremendous story of identifying a prospect, maintaining patience and developing him into one of the best pitchers in the game.
Now, no one in the Indians’ organization will tell you that they knew they had a Cy Young-caliber pitcher on their hands. What they will say is that Kluber always demonstrated a strong desire to improve, and was willing to work and tweak and listen and experiment and implement. The work ethic and willingness to be open to changes helped a raw Minor Leaguer develop into a fine-tuned rotation leader.
“I think it goes beyond pitching,” Indians GM Chris Antonetti said. “It’s human development, especially in athletics. It’s not always a linear path. You’d like it to be, OK, level to level, every year, get better. It doesn’t always work that way. It doesn’t always play out on typical timeline. I think the one thing that Corey deserves a ton of credit for is he is that guy that constantly looks to improve every year.
“He’s already got a list of things going into the offseason that he wants to be better at for next year, despite the incredible season he’s had. That’s been his mind-set since he came into the organization. He’s always that guy that will put in the work to get the results. Whether that’s working with coaches to improve his mechanics, or working in the weight room. He sets a pretty good standard for the rest of our staff.”
ICYMI, here are clips from Kluber’s Cy Young win:
Developing a Cy Young winner: Kluber’s trek to stardom
Kluber edges out King Felix for AL Cy Young Award
Kluber took over as leader during Cy Young season
Kluber, deGrom bring pride to Stetson University
Castrovince: Kluber was right pick for Cy Young
Within those clips, you’ll find thoughts on Kluber from San Diego’s former farm director, his college coach and plenty of others. Castrovince also has a great analysis column on why voters leaned in Kluber’s direction when comparing the extremely-close race between him and Seattle ace Felix Hernandez.
One of the best parts about this whole situation is that Kluber is still under contractual control for Cleveland for at least the next four years. Plenty of fans of written in bemoaning the Cy Young win, groaning that the Indians will surely trade Kluber now. After all, that’s what they did with CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee. Such low-hanging-fruit replies are from those who really don’t understand the landscape now vs. then.
You could see the writing on the wall in both the Sabathia and Lee cases, as they each were nearing free agency at the time of their respective Cy Young victories. With Kluber, Cleveland has found itself in an opportunistic position. Kluber is in his prime years, but is still in the early stages of his service-time years. The Indians have an elite talent under control for the league minimum, if so desired, for the 2015 season.
“The thing we’re most encouraged about,” Antonetti said, “is we will have Corey continuing to lead our staff for the foreseeable future.”
This also puts the Indians in position to explore a pre-arbitration extension for Kluber this winter. That said, there isn’t a sense of urgency on that front. Cleveland could easily wait until next winter — giving Kluber the chance to put two strong seasons together consecutively — before looking more seriously into a multiyear deal. The Indians have a history of locking up its young position players (Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, for example), but pitchers are a different story given the risk and cost involved.
What makes Kluber’s situation even more unique is his age in comparison to his service time. He is entering his Age-29 season, but is only in the 2+ rage for service. There have been long-term contracts for 2+ pitchers in recent years in the Majors (Chris Sale, for example) or just 1+ (Julio Teheran and Madison Bumgarner), but the big difference there is they were much younger at the times of their respective extensions.
I did a search of pitchers since 2000 who had 30+ wins, an ERA of 3.50 or better and at least 425 innings in their Ages 25-28 seasons (also Years 1-4 in the Majors). It’s an extremely short list, and the only two pitchers who really fit that criteria are Josh Collmenter and Doug Fister. Collmenter signed a two-year extension prior to 2014 and Fister has gone year to year in the arbitration process. So, neither case really apply to Kluber in terms of finding a comparison.
Between the 2006-09 seasons, pitchers Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright and Scott Baker signed four-year contracts (each around $15M before any club options) while in the 2+ service-time range. More recently, five-year deals have been a trend, ranging between $21-42. Jason Lukehart had a good breakdown of some of these during a July post on LetsGoTribe.
Due to his age, and now the fact that he’s got a Cy Young Award under his belt, there isn’t one singular case that can really relate directly to Kluber’s situation. That said, statistic carry more weight than age when determining possible salaries during arbitration years. Where age would become more of a factor would be in determining potential salaries for free-agent years (2019 is the first for Kluber, who will be entering his Age-33 season at that point).
If the Indians looked at a four-year contract to assume Kluber’s arbitration years, a price tag of $22-25 million seems realistic. If you begin looking at the five-year range, you’re probably looking at a deal approaching the $35-million range. Team options are a common practice for these types of contracts, so it might make sense for the Indians to explore a four- or five-year deal that includes an option or two. Given Kluber’s age, one option might be the way to go.
I’m sure the Indians will explore an extension with Kluber’s camp this winter, but I’m not convinced that there is a pressing need to get something done right now. Cleveland has shown plenty of times that it is not reactionary in its thinking, and I wouldn’t expect the front office to rush into a long-term situation for a pitcher who has one good season and one incredible season on his short Major League resume.
Either way, Kluber is under control for the next handful of seasons for a Cleveland club that suddenly has a promising young core group that is built around Brantley, Gomes, Kipnis, Santana, Cody Allen and solid young starting pitching.