ST. PETERSBURG -- The final days of November brought a breakneck stretch of big transactions throughout Major League Baseball, and the Rays’ part in that flurry of moves continued on the first day of December as they announced the signing of veteran starter Corey Kluber.
Eight days before Kluber discussed his one-year deal at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay agreed to a massive, blockbuster extension with 20-year-old star shortstop Wander Franco. The deal became official on Saturday, a day before the Rays agreed to terms on Kluber’s one-year contract. On Monday, Tampa Bay formally announced Franco’s deal and finished negotiating with free-agent lefty reliever Brooks Raley.
Raley officially signed on Tuesday. A few hours later, the Rays traded popular infielder Joey Wendle to the Marlins for outfield prospect Kameron Misner to clear a roster spot for Kluber, avoided arbitration with first baseman Ji-Man Choi and tendered contracts to their 13 arbitration-eligible players.
It’s been a frenetic stretch for president of baseball operations Erik Neander and the Rays’ baseball operations staff, but a productive one in which they completed three of their top goals for the offseason: add a veteran to the rotation, get a lefty for the bullpen and commit to their future franchise player for the long haul.
“Kluber was a priority target for us as a starter, and Brooks Raley was a priority target for us out of the 'pen,” Neander said. “Truly, those were the two guys that we really pressed on and recruited and tried to make our pitch as to why we felt that they were best positioned to have success individually and collectively here. And we got them both done, so that was big for us. Between that and the Wander extension, those were our big items for November.”
The last bit of business came Wednesday morning, when Kluber officially joined the Rays on an $8 million contract that includes up to $5 million in incentives based on the number of games he starts next season. The Rays view the three-time All-Star and two-time AL Cy Young Award winner as an ideal, proven complement to a rotation that should feature the talented young foursome of Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Luis Patiño and Shane Baz.
Meanwhile, Kluber views Tampa Bay as a perfect place to accomplish his primary goal.
“I'm at the stage of my career where I'm trying to still win a World Series,” Kluber said. “The success that this team has had the last few years, I think it makes it pretty obvious that they're in a position to do that.”
This was not the Rays’ first attempt to sign Kluber, as Neander said they’ve been after him “for a few years” in trades and free agency. They pursued him last offseason after cutting ties with experienced starters Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, only to see him sign with the AL East-rival Yankees.
Tampa Bay has made an effort to surround its younger players with hard-working veterans who provide a good example -- Morton, Michael Wacha and Rich Hill for starters, Nelson Cruz for hitters, etc. The 35-year-old Kluber will play that role, leading by example for McClanahan, Rasmussen, Patiño and Baz while also trying to rebound from another injury-interrupted season.
“We've been fortunate to have a few here, but there aren't many that are a better example for young players than Corey Kluber,” Neander said.
“Work ethic-wise, it’s off the charts,” added Rays manager Kevin Cash, who worked with Kluber in Cleveland from 2013-14 and compared his intensity to that of late Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. “Certainly doesn't need to go preach about it to anybody, but knowing that he's in the weight room or he's out on the field running or doing his arm maintenance and arm care program, just [having] our young pitchers watching that will be a benefit.”
Kluber is three seasons removed from being one of the most dominant starting pitchers in baseball. While a resurgence is not out of the question, injuries have been an issue. He pitched well enough when healthy last season, posting a 3.83 ERA over 80 innings -- highlighted by a no-hitter on May 19 -- but a right shoulder strain cost him nearly three months.
Heading into his age-36 season, there is some uncertainty regarding Kluber’s potential to recapture at least some of his old form. His average fastball velocity declined from 92 mph in 2018 to 90.7 mph last season, although Kluber’s strikeout rate remained solid at 24 percent, and his quality of contact metrics (hard-hit rate and barrel rate, in particular) were pretty much in line with ’17 and ’18.
Kluber said he finished the season with “no restrictions,” leading into a “normal” offseason routine at his Tampa-area home. The Rays are confident he’ll be strong enough to handle a significant workload next year, but they’re prepared to ease him into the season to keep him fresh down the stretch.
“The feel to pitch, the moxie, the guile, the cutter, the slider, the breaking balls, the feel for all of that is still very, very good,” Neander said. “We saw it in our division last year that once he got rolling pretty good, there's more than enough there to compete at a high level.”
So what comes next for the Rays?
Before Tuesday’s non-tender deadline, reports emerged that the Rays were discussing longtime center fielder Kevin Kiermaier along with Wendle. They have plenty of outfield options with Kiermaier, Randy Arozarena, Austin Meadows, Manuel Margot, Brett Phillips and No. 4 prospect Josh Lowe. The Rays don’t have to make a move, but they have the flexibility to do so if they want to create more room for further additions or lighten their 13-player arbitration class.
Additionally, Neander said the Rays will “continue to be on the lookout for” a right-handed-hitting, bat-first player -- someone like the recently traded Mike Brosseau and Jordan Luplow. Finally, expect the Rays to continue enhancing the depth that’s been so critical to their success the last few years.
“You've got to feel good about the depth. I'll be the first to say you never can say that you have enough,” Cash said. “We've seen it time and time again that we're going to continue to have as many pitching options, because we know it's a long season. And our track record has shown that we dive into our depth pretty hard on a yearly basis.”