Making Sense of the Corey Kluber Return

When the Corey Kluber trade announcement broke on Sunday afternoon, it seemed as though an eternity ticked by before any news broke about which Rangers personnel would be breaking for Cleveland. As time ticked away, Indians fans anxiously awaited a new player to inundate with an inordinate amount of hopes and dreams. The fact that the best Indians pitcher of this century had been cast off because he was due too large a piece of the meager Indians salary pie settled in like an overcast April sky. 

Before fans could come to terms with saying goodbye to yet another organizational beacon, the news leaked that Emmanuel Clase was part of the return. There was nothing to dislike about a 21 year old with big league success under his belt and a rocket launcher for a right arm. As exciting as Clase’s arm built for warfare may be, the Indians were trading away a staple with two Cy Young awards carved out into franchise lore… there just had to be more.

The next hour or so was mired in uncertainty and doubt. Though Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff have been rock solid wheelers and dealers within the boundaries of trade, the only other player that had been included was a middling outfielder by the name of Delino DeShields Jr. Middling might even be a tad generous in this particular case. As enticing as the Clase portion of the package may be, the DeShields portion was equally perplexing. 

It’s not that DeShields has no value. There are margin plays to be had with a bona fide speedster who has the ability to cover a few more blades of outfield grass than most of his peers. The perplexing lies in the redundancy. The Indians outfield, as uncertain as its pieces may be, holds one absolute — a glut of misfit fourth outfielder types, including a pair that contain eerily similar skill sets to DeShields in Greg Allen and Bradley Zimmer. Frankly, one could easily craft an argument that DeShields is a better bet than either of those two, but I prefer the unknown to known in some cases. In this one, DeShields has nearly 2000 plate appearances convincing us that he lacks any oomph at the dish.

The question eventually becomes apparent. One of the primary motivator in moving a franchise icon was his price tag. Yes, secondarily there were regression markers and health uncertainty, but Corey Kluber’s price tag of $18.5 million simply didn’t jive with the Indians payroll plans. No one would argue that Kluber is incapable of returning to form, but it became an unnecessary amount of risk for a team with an apparently capped payroll to incur. This part of the deal is somewhat easy to reason, but why accept the contract of Delino DeShields Jr. despite the previously mentioned redundancy?

The Indians likely didn’t have a choice. Given the way events transpired, it seems as though DeShields was a forced acquisition as a condition to acquiring their designated target, Emmanuel Clase. The designated target being a reliever is interesting, at the very least. With new three batter minimum rules and the importance of relief pitching unicorns being apparent, the Indians’ hunt for this type had to revert back a step — to the “about to break out” level.

It is readily apparent that the Indians hunted down Clase as a potential Kluber return. They adored him, obviously much more than your prospect list of choice. Just days prior to the Texas Rangers interest in Corey Kluber, their general manager was advertising that they were in the market for guys with one or two years of control.

So, what changed? A working theory is that the Indians went out of their way to call the Rangers and dangle Kluber with hopes of landing Clase. The general manager himself was singing a different tune prior to landing Kluber’s two years of control.

This, in turn, helps explain the DeShields portion of the deal. He wasn’t sought out; he was, in a way of speaking, forced upon the Indians as a means of paying down $2.4 million of the 18-plus Kluber was owed. This mitigates a bit of the risk on the Texas side and the Indians figure they can allow the once supremely intriguing DeShields to hang around a bit, if only to see if they can unlock anything in him. This plan has potential pitfalls.

The Indians glut of fourth outfielder types includes a prospect named Daniel Johnson, a product of last year’s Yan Gomes trade. Johnson is coming off a rejuvenating year in Triple-A and projects as a near average major league bat right now. With Oscar Mercado and Jordan Luplow deserving of a lion’s chunk of outfield plate appearances and Franmil Reyes slated to try his hand out there occasionally, Daniel Johnson might be fighting for his share. Adding DeShields a guy with back-to-back years of hitting incompetence is frightening for Johnson’s chances, especially given the current manager’s penchant for erring on the side of experience.

If Delino DeShields is batting more than Daniel Johnson at the major league level this spring, the problem is magnified and the Kluber deal looks much worse. The deal was for Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields was the forced casualty.

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