CLEVELAND -- The Indians proved as recently as last season's Trade Deadline that it is possible to improve by losing a top-tier starter. Now, they're hoping they received enough in return to win another blockbuster deal.
The club announced on Sunday that it had traded Corey Kluber to the Rangers in exchange for outfielder Delino DeShields and right-handed reliever Emmanuel Clase. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Indians designated infielder Mike Freeman for assignment. Cleveland will also send $500,000 to Texas in the deal.
"There were a lot of teams that had interest in Corey," Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. "We had a variety of different packages, some of whom had players who were a little further away from the Major Leagues. One of the things we did like about what the Rangers offered were two players that could come back and help us in 2020 and help us try to sustain the level of competitiveness we've had over the last seven years."
There was uncertainty as to whether the Tribe would be able to get someone to match its asking price for a hurler who spent the majority of the 2019 season on the injured list. Kluber fractured his forearm on May 1 and worked his way back to a rehab assignment in August before straining an oblique muscle that kept him out for the remainder of the year. But the Indians found him a new home. Now, it's a waiting game to see if they ended up selling too low.
He's certainly the bright spot of the deal. Clase will bring velocity to a bullpen that collectively averaged the slowest fastball velocity in the Majors this season. Let's put that in perspective:
Clase's average fastball velocity in 2019: 99.2 mph
Indians' bullpen fastball velocity in 2019: 90.8 mph
In 2019, Clase threw 238 pitches that clocked in at 98+ mph, while all of the Tribe's pitchers only threw 12. Coupled with prospect James Karinchak, who's expected to be a hard-throwing regular face on the Tribe's roster in '20, Cleveland's bullpen -- which posted the third-best ERA in the Majors last season -- could come back much stronger next year.
"We think Clase will fit really well into the back end of our bullpen and help provide a different look for guys that are out there," Antonetti said. "We saw a little bit of it with James Karinchak toward the end of the year, another guy with really electric stuff, so when you start to look at the group of pitchers that could be out there, we've got a diverse group that's able to attack hitters in a variety of ways."
Last season, Clase made 21 appearances for the Rangers and posted a 2.31 ERA with 21 strikeouts, two homers, six walks and a 1.114 WHIP in 23 1/3 innings. He split the first half of the year between High A and Double-A, pitching to a combined 2.82 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 44 2/3 frames while holding opponents to a .226 average.
"He's been up to 102 [mph], averages around 100 [mph] with his fastball that has a unique cutting profile that makes it really hard to center up," Antonetti said. "He complements that with an above-average slider, and we think he will slot into our bullpen and help be a weapon out there for us."
With the new three-batter minimum rule that will go into place in 2020, forcing pitchers to face at least three hitters or pitch to the conclusion of an inning before getting pulled, using guys like Adam Cimber or Óliver Pérez in the eighth inning may become more of a challenge. Clase could be an answer, as the 21-year-old posted nearly the same numbers against right-handed and left-handed hitters:
Clase vs. LHB: 11 1/3 innings, 10 hits, one homer, two walks, 10 strikeouts, 1.06 WHIP
Clase vs. RHB: 12 innings, 10 hits, one homer, four walks, 11 strikeouts, 1.17 WHIP
DeShields may not be the answer the Tribe is looking for offensively, but the Indians seem set on making the 27-year-old more than just a fourth outfielder. DeShields is known for his speed and defense and could compete with Oscar Mercado for the starting center-field job during Spring Training.
"We expect Oscar will get everyday at-bats," Antonetti said, "whether that's mostly in center field, mostly in left field, it's too early to say, or even in right field for that matter because Oscar is such a good defender out there. How we configure the roster, we'll get a better sense of that as we approach Spring Training, but we see both of them playing equal roles on our team in 2020."
What he may be lacking with the bat, the Tribe is hoping he makes up for on the grass. DeShields ranks in the 95th percentile in Outs Above Average (OAA), which, as Statcast defines, is "the cumulative effect of all individual catch probability plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them." The Indians were tied for 14th in OAA as a team in 2019. He also ranks in the 97th percentile in sprint speed.
"[He's] an experienced Major League outfielder with extraordinary defense in center field," Antonetti said, "[He] makes an impact on the bases and we think he complements our roster really well."
In 2019 DeShields hit .249 with a .672 OPS, four homers, 32 RBIs, 15 doubles, four triples and 24 stolen bases.
What does losing Kluber mean for the Tribe?
The Indians are parting ways with a two-time Cy Young Award winner. He's arguably been their most valuable player over the past decade. The soon-to-be 34-year-old began the decade as a piece in a three-team trade that shipped him from the Padres to the Indians in July 2010. He's spent parts of the last nine seasons with the club and was selected to three All-Star Games, won two Cy Young Awards, posted a 3.16 career ERA and a 98-58 record, and struck out 1,461 batters (third-most in club history).
"Obviously trades like this are always tough, not only on the baseball side, but on the personal side," Antonetti said. "I think we had a chance to see Corey grow into one of the best pitchers in the American League. He went from an unheralded prospect when we acquired him and through a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication, he turned himself into one of the best pitchers in the American League."
However, the club has reached a point where losing him may not be detrimental. The Tribe showed off its starting depth when three of their starters landed on the injured list and one was traded at the Deadline. Even without Kluber for much of the year, the team went on to win 93 games.
As he heads to Texas, he leaves behind these starters to fill a five-man rotation: Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, Scott Moss, Adam Plutko, Jefry Rodriguez and Logan Allen. Kluber now becomes the seventh pitcher to be traded by a team with which they won multiple Cy Young Awards, joining Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver, Denny McLain, Bret Saberhagen and Johan Santana.
Not only is Kluber leaving the rotation in capable hands, but he's freeing up the Tribe's payroll enough that it should have some more financial flexibility for next season. Prior to this trade, the Indians were projected to open the year with approximately $99 million in payroll, according to Baseball-Reference. MLB Trade Rumors projects that DeShields will earn $2.4 million in his second year of arbitration, which means about $14 million was freed up in Cleveland's budget.
But the question remains: Will the Indians truly benefit from losing their former ace?
"Obviously we've all seen what Corey's capable of doing when he's healthy and contributing," Antonetti said. "But at the same time, we did win 93 games last year, and we had a group of pitchers that stepped up in Corey's place and really helped fuel one of the best pitching staffs in the American League. All of those pitchers are set to return in 2020. We do feel good about those pitchers we have and that those pitchers will be able to help us be a successful team next year. And we've added two other components that we feel can help us with Clase in the bullpen and DeShields in the outfield."