The Rangers are betting right-hander Corey Kluber still has plenty left in the tank after an injury-marred season, as they have reportedly agreed to a deal to acquire the two-time Cy Young winner from the Indians, according to multiple reports. The move figures to help the Rangers make a run at contending in the first year at Globe Life Field, but will it help Kluber re-gain his Cy Young form?
That's a tough question to answer for many reasons, not least of which is the season Kluber just had. After finishing third in Cy Young voting in 2018 — his fifth straight top-10 season — Kluber got off to a miserable start to the 2019 season. He had a 5.80 ERA through seven starts, when he was forced to leave his May 1 start against the Marlins after taking a comebacker that left him with a fractured forearm. Kluber recovered from the injury and was on the verge of making an August return, but suffered an oblique strain during a rehab start and was shut down for the season.
That left Kluber with a 35.2 inning sample size for the Rangers to go off. He was hit hard in those 35.2 innings and had his lowest strikeout rate (22.6%) since 2013, while sporting a career-worst 8.9% walk rate. More concerningly, his average sinker velocity sat at just 91.3 mph, down from 92.0 mph in 2018. Those are all alarming signs, though it's worth remembering that Kluber had a 5.06 ERA through six starts in 2017 before going on the IL and then came back to post a 1.62 ERA over his final 23 starts to win his second Cy Young award.
Kluber may have turned his season around in a similar way in 2019 but never got the chance, and those seven starts are too small a sample size to write off one of the best pitchers in baseball. However, we're also talking about a pitcher who will be 34 shortly after Opening Day who is moving on from one of the best left sides of the infield in baseball and who moves into a park where we've never seen a game.
That last part isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it introduces even more uncertainty into Kluber's 2019 projection. Progressive Field in Cleveland was a tough place to pitch, but it wasn't as bad as Globe Life Park, the Rangers' home ballpark last season. That would be bad enough, but with the Rangers moving into a new retractable roof stadium, we just don't know how the park will play. It will have similar dimensions to the Rangers' old park and is built right next door, but we don't know. How the new structure will impact wind, nor how the retractable roof may impact the way the ball travels.
It seems safe to make a few assumptions about Kluber, even with that uncertainty. First, it's probably safe to assume he isn't the same guy he was back in 2018, when he finished as the No. 6 pitcher in Fantasy. It is also probably safe to assume he won't be pitching in a good pitcher's park — whether it is as tough as the Rangers' old home park remains to be seen.
One additional complicating factor is the return the Indians got for Kluber — just Delino Deshields and Emmanuel Clase, a likely fourth-outfielder and relief prospect. The Indians know Kluber better than anyone, and they settled on what looks on the surface to be an unbelievably light return, which suggests they may not expect him to have much left in the tank. Of course, the Indians were also undoubtedly motivated by financial considerations, so maximizing the talent in return for Kluber may not have been a priority.
None of that means Kluber can't still be an ace for Fantasy. We've seen Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander continue to thrive into their mid-30s, and the last time we saw Kluber healthy for a full year, he wasn't far behind. A finish among the top-12 pitchers in Fantasy in 2020 wouldn't be a shock, even if it's not what you should expect.
As always, where Kluber ends up being drafted will be a key factor in his Fantasy appeal. In a H2H points mock draft last week on CBS Fantasy, Kluber went 68th overall, just behind Zack Wheeler as the No. 26 SP off the board. At that price, Kluber seems like a nice bargain as a bounce-back candidate, behind several pitchers who have never been nearly as good. Obviously, there is no guarantee Kluber does bounce back, and this move doesn't exactly set him up in the best position to do so. He enters 2020 as one of the biggest question marks in the league. However, with such a significant discount baked into his price, Kluber could be a solid value in Fantasy drafts next spring.