FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Rays have come to fully appreciate the value of a veteran presence over the last few years. First came Charlie Morton, who pitched well and left a significant impression on Tampa Bay’s talented young arms in 2019 and ’20. Then they targeted experienced pitchers Michael Wacha and Rich Hill and DH Nelson Cruz, also held in high esteem for their sustained performances and professionalism, at different points last year.
The Rays believe they’re getting a solid veteran starter in Kluber, the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner who joined Tampa Bay as a free agent just before the lockout began. And they know they’re getting a hugely positive example for the rest of their rotation, someone whose focused work ethic manager Kevin Cash has compared to the legendary drive displayed by late Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. The Rays jumped on him early this winter for a reason.
“We’ve over time talked about the importance of those veteran examples that have life experiences in the game,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said earlier this month. “The accomplishments he has, that's huge.”
Already in Spring Training, rehabbing ace Tyler Glasnow said he wants to “pick [Kluber’s] brain, as cliché as that is,” and learn from his extensive experience in the Majors. Left-hander Shane McClanahan, who was in high school when Kluber won his first Cy Young with Cleveland in 2014, said he simply wants to watch Kluber go about his business. Right-hander Drew Rasmussen, who was drafted (but not signed) by the Rays the same year Kluber won his second Cy Young in 2017, said he wants to understand how Kluber chooses to attack hitters.
And they’re all excited to pitch alongside him.
“We've got our veteran presence and the man that's going to lead our staff, and then on top of it, we've got a lot of really young talent and big arms,” Rasmussen said. “We saw it last year, the success we had as a starting rotation. I don't really expect a whole lot less.”
Kluber said at the start of camp he wouldn’t seek out a leadership role, but the 35-year-old’s corner locker inside the home clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park puts him near most of the Rays’ young arms every day. Cash figured it wouldn’t be hard for the rest of the group to get a sense of what’s allowed Kluber to pitch at a high level as long as he has. Everything he does comes with a purpose.
“If you're in the weight room when he's in there, you're seeing it. If you're in the training room, you're seeing it,” Cash said. “Like, how meticulous he is in his catch game, throwing program -- they're probably seeing that.”
Of course, the Rays didn’t just sign Kluber to be a good influence in the clubhouse. They expect him to be a productive member of a starting staff that’s high on talent but light on experience. When healthy last season, Kluber filled that role with the Yankees by posting a 3.83 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 80 innings over 16 starts, including a no-hitter on May 19.
Entering his 12th season in the Majors, Kluber knows better than to worry about the results of an outing like Saturday’s. He allowed four runs on six hits, including three homers -- two of them by Rafael Devers – while striking out four over 3 1/3 innings.
“If I would have given up no runs instead of four, obviously, I wouldn't have been disappointed with that,” Kluber said. “But if you take a step back and look at the big picture, it's not important at this point.”
There were encouraging signs. Kluber’s fastball consistently clocked in at 89-90 mph, where it was last season, and it’s bound to tick up when the regular-season adrenaline sets in. He induced plenty of swinging strikes with his slider. He filled up the strike zone, with 36 of his 50 pitches going for strikes, even if his control was better than his command overall.
Most importantly, he pitched into the fourth inning his first time taking the mound during this compressed Spring Training schedule, which should put him in line to comfortably work at least five innings by the time his first start of the season rolls around.
“Trying to be smart about the progression and not just say, 'This is where we want to be Opening Day,'” Kluber said. “Not do something just trying to chase an artificial deadline of Opening Day or anything like that, but really trying to be smart about the progression and make sure that we're all feeling good.”