At this point in time, with the offseason officially underway but activity at a standstill, it remains unclear what exactly the Red Sox’s plans are. We don’t know how competitive they plan on being in 2021, which in turn means we don’t know how aggressive they plan on being this winter. Throw in the uncertainty around both the trade and free agent markets this winter, and everything is mostly a mystery at this point.
There is one very clear truth about this winter, however, that remains the truth almost regardless of plans: The Red Sox need to add starting pitchers. The quality of pitchers they add can vary wildly based on plans, but they literally just need bodies at the very least after spending most of 2020 with one of the worst rotations the league has ever seen. And so while there are certainly other holes to fill on this roster — center field, second base, bullpen, just to name a few — the rotation is top of mind for fans, and is likely taking hold of that mental real estate for the front office as well.
Looking at the rotation more closely, right now they can tentatively plan their Opening Day unit to be Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Tanner Houck, Nick Pivetta, and Chris Mazza. Gonna go with a big fat yikes on that one! Chris Sale likely won’t be back until June at the earliest. Who knows what condition Rodriguez will be in after his COVID issues this summer. Eovaldi’s health is always a question. Houck and Pivetta were good in small samples but still have plenty of questions. Mazza shouldn’t be higher than eighth on a good depth chart.
So, they need a lot, and while they can certainly make a big splash they are also likely to limit spending a bit this winter. Remember, earlier this year they laid off 10 percent of their full-time staff. To turn around and splurge on free agency after that would be bad optics, to put it lightly. That’s not to say they won’t make any splashes, but rather than they will also be on the lookout for high upside at a relatively low cost. That is where Corey Kluber comes in.
We know what Kluber’s upside is because we’ve seen him hit it during his prime in Cleveland. What it ultimately looked like was two Cy Youngs, two more top three finishes, five straight top ten finishes, and a firm place in the conversation for best pitcher in the game. Granted, that was a few years ago so you can knock the current upside down a peg or two, but there’s plenty of middle ground between Maybe Best Pitcher In Baseball and No Upside, ya know? And that peak wasn’t that long ago, as Kluber finished third in Cy Young voting back in 2018.
The issue is that this was also the last time he really got to pitch very much in a season, as the righty has made just eight starts combined over the last two seasons with the injury bug catching up with him. To be fair to Kluber, the injury in 2019 wasn’t the result of wear and tear or aging. Instead, he was hit with a line drive that fractured his forearm. He ended up tweaking his oblique while rehabbing that injury, too. This past season with the Rangers he left his first start after only one inning with a shoulder injury that kept him out for the rest of the year.
It is because of that, along with the fact that Kluber is set to turn 35 shortly after the 2021 season gets underway, that he will fall into the relatively cheap with upside portion of the market this winter. These predictions are nothing more than that, of course, but it’s worth mentioning that both MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs readers peg the former Indians star for a one-year deal worth $12 million. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Red Sox have a shade under $36 million to spend under the luxury tax threshold, though again we don’t know whether or not that is even the plan this winter.
So, price-wise and commitment-wise, Kluber would not command anything too large from the Red Sox this winter, which likely makes it an easier case. But they don’t just need to worry about price. They need to worry about whether or not these players are actually good! And it needs to be mentioned that when Kluber has been able to pitch the last couple years he has pitched to a 5.65 ERA over 36 2⁄3 innings with 39 strikeouts and 16 walks.
That’s obviously a small sample, however, and there were reasons to think he was better than that inflated ERA back in 2019 when he was able to make seven starts. Even while he was struggling with run prevention, the peripherals suggested he should have been better. Kluber’s park-adjusted ERA came in 21 percent worse than league-average, but his park-adjusted FIP was 12 percent better. It was also a small enough sample that a couple of ugly starts have a much bigger effect on his overall numbers than they would in a normal season. That’s certainly not the ace-like upside we’d seen from him in the past, of course, but that’s also not going to be the kind of contract he can expect this winter either.
At the end of the day, Kluber certainly wouldn’t be a signing that comes without risk, but there is also legitimate upside here with a former Cy Young winner looking to rebuild his value after a pair of lost years. In the best-case scenario, or at least realistic best-case, he would be a really solid number two who would slot in perfectly behind Sale after the latter’s return from Tommy John rehab. In the event the rest of the team continues to struggle, Kluber would then be able to bring back some prospects in a mid-season trade as a rental. And even if things go sideways, the Red Sox almost certainly would not be hamstrung with any long-term money. There are a lot of potential targets for the rotation this winter, but the combination of upside and lack of commitment should move Kluber towards the top of that list for Boston.