Is Corey Kluber the Key to a Bryce Harper-Dodgers Pairing?

Indians White Sox Baseball
Cleveland Indians starting pitcher walks back to the dugout during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

Trying to keep up with all the latest rumors surrounding the Los Angeles Dodgers during this year’s Winter Meetings has been insane.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have been linked to just about every player since the Winter Meetings kicked off on Sunday. They’ve also have had several players on their 40-man roster named or mentioned in possible rumors to bring in new faces to the Ravine.

Last night, Vince Samperio condensed most of the Dodger rumors into a Cliff Notes-like article to bring fans up to speed on all the madness that has taken place over the past four days. I’ll make an attempt to put some make sense of all these rumors in the coming days and throw some reasoning behind each one, starting with Corey Kluber and Bryce Harper.

Heading into this offseason the Bryce Harper to LA narrative was all but a pipe dream. MLBTradeRumors.com has Harper projected to receive a contract worth $420 million over 14 years. While that projection seems quite egregious, several reporters around the league expect Harper to eclipse at least the $300 million mark.

As Samperio mentioned in his article yesterday, for the Dodgers to pay Harper $300 million would be uncharacteristic of Andrew Friedman and would go against everything this franchise has done since he’s been in LA.

But yet here we are two days away from the conclusion of the Winter Meetings, and the Dodgers are seemingly doing everything possible to maneuver their cap situation to bring in a big-name player.

Whether that’s Harper will be determined on whether they’re able to finalize the other moves they’ve been rumored to be in discussion about. So I’ll get back to the likeliness of Harper to LA once I cover all the other rumors since it’s very likely that Harper is the final domino to fall after all this madness.

Let’s go back to Corey Kluber, who I believe is the first domino that will determine how the Dodgers offseason goes. As Jon Morosi reported earlier this week, the Kluber trade talks have “intensified,” and the Dodgers were one the teams involved.

This report brings progress to what the Cleveland Indians front office could be finalizing to help balance their cap situation. From the beginning of this offseason, Cleveland has been reportedly exploring trades scenarios involving their veteran players like Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco.

Just last week, Carrasco signed an extension with the club through 2022, so that brings us back to either Kluber or Bauer getting traded this offseason.

So what may the trade look like for the Dodgers to acquire the 32-year-old right-hander?

We know the Dodgers are actively shopping their excess outfielders and starting pitchers (coincidentally the same positions as Harper and Kluber). We also know that the Indians are interested in Alex Verdugo and have been connected to Yasiel Puig. Given that Cleveland hopes to lower their payroll but still maintain relevance in the AL, either one of these outfielders seems like an ideal fit for Cleveland.

Verdugo, 22, has yet to find an open roster spot with the Dodgers. Puig, 28, is coming off of a solid overall season and is projected to make just over $11M in 2019. He’s also an unrestricted free agent after the 2019 season so the Indians could choose to let him walk after this season.

Some other Dodger outfielders that could be a fit in Cleveland are Joc Pederson (27) and Chris Taylor (28).

Pederson is projected to make $4.3M heading into his second year of arbitration and isn’t an unrestricted free agent until 2021.

Taylor is entering his first year of arbitration and would provide the Indians with more positional flexibility and team control over the next three seasons while only making $3.2M in 2019.

Obviously, not all four will be included in a deal with the Indians, but it gives both teams realistic options for a starting point. So assuming Cleveland would take one (or two) of the outfielders mentioned, now that brings us to replacing Kluber on their pitching staff.

That conversation could start with one of Ross Stripling (29), Alex Wood (27), or Kenta Maeda (30).

Stripling isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2020 and is an affordable pitcher who can start or come out of the bullpen that is under control through 2022.

Wood is entering his final year of arbitration but is also projected to make an affordable $9 million before becoming a UFA in 2020.

Kenta Maeda has a highly incentivized, team-friendly contract that keeps him under team control until 2024. If Maeda were to fulfill all of his contract incentives, the max he would receive over a season would be just over $11M.

And then there are prospects. The Dodgers have one of the best farm systems in the entire MLB, and Friedman’s love for a strong farm system is a big reason why. So while I expect this move to be centered around MLB level talent, some prospects could find their way in this deal.

If I’d have to guess as to which prospects could head to Cleveland, it would be one, possibly two of Verdugo (#1), Keibert Ruiz (#2) or Will Smith (#5), Dennis Santana (#6), or Tony Gonsolin (#14).

By now I’m sure you are able to pick up my stance on how likely I think this deal will happen. It makes too much sense for both sides for the deal not to happen.

But for the sake of argument, I’ll address some of the naysayers for this trade.
Team: “We don’t need starting pitching, we finished 2nd in the league in ERA last season.”

This is an accurate statement. The Dodgers finished second in the league in starting pitching ERA last year only behind the Houston Astros. But if we’ve learned anything over the past two seasons is that you can never have too much starting pitching.

Last year the Dodgers used 11 different starting pitchers. Wood led the staff with 27 starts during the regular season, yet he did not start a single game in the postseason. I supposed that’s because the rotation was at full strength in October, so let’s look at the rotation individually.

Clayton Kershaw – We’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we said that Kershaw was the same pitcher that he was back when he won three Cy Young Awards. I’m not saying Kershaw is by any means a “bad” pitcher, but he hasn’t thrown over 180 innings the past three seasons, his home run total has increased, and his velocity has continually been decreasing. Let’s not get into October struggles.

Walker Buehler – There’s no doubt that Buehler was very much in contention for Rookie of the Year. In my opinion, he was the bonafide ace of the staff through September and October. But let’s not forget that he’s only 24, and is coming off of a season where he pitched the most innings (137.1) in his career. There’s nothing bad to say about Buehler here, it’s just about adding an insurance policy.

Alex Wood – As mentioned above, he was great last year by leading the team with starts. But we saw his velocity dip and his performance falter as the season went on. He also has never pitched over 200 innings in his six-year career.

Rich Hill – Over the past two seasons, we’ve gotten the Rich Hill that you can expect. He’s an 11-to-12 win pitcher with a mid-3.00 ERA and pitches about 130-135 innings. He was exceptional in the postseason, but again, similar to Buehler, the Dodgers would be investing in an insurance policy.

Hyun-Jin Ryu – I’m glad that he accepted his qualifying offer. When healthy he’s a legitimate No. 3 starter at worst. Health has always been a concern for him.

So why Kluber?

The lone blemish on acquiring Kluber is his age. He’s 32 and is entering his ninth season. Even at his age, Kluber has continued to be one of baseball’s best pitchers in the league and has done so with consistency. Kluber has five straight seasons of pitching over 200 innings, his ERA has topped out as high as 3.49 and has dipped as low as 2.25 during that span. He won the Cy Young in 2017 and also finished in the top-3 the past three seasons.

There’s really no argument that could be made that says a Dodger team without Kluber is better than a Dodger team with Kluber. He adds another ace to a staff that could potentially have three Cy Young candidates in the rotation.

So how does this all affect the Dodgers landing Bryce Harper?

We know that money, theoretically, is no object for Dodger ownership. They’ve led baseball in attendance for the past six years, and also signed an $8.3 billion TV deal back in 2013. Last year they were able to reset the luxury tax penalty by not exceeding the threshold last season and this season, if they were to exceed the threshold, would only have to pay a penalty of 20% opposed to the 50% prior to last year.

A trade in which the Dodgers are able to send a few outfielders along with a starting pitcher opens up the roster spot for Harper and allows them to allocate their salaries to bigger names like Harper.

If the Dodgers aren’t able to pull this trade for Kluber off it almost certainly takes them out of play for Harper because there is simply no need for Harper. They’ve reached consecutive World Series without him and could very well wait until Mike Trout hits the open market in 2020.

If the Dodgers could pull off a trade that sends Puig, Verdugo, and Wood for Kluber, that would match the salary cap hit for 2019. That trade then would allow them to invest in another outfielder because of the vacancy in right field.

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Author: Cesar Becerra

Cesar recently received a BA in Literary Journalism from the University of California, Irvine. Cesar is a Los Angeles native and currently employed with UC Irvine where he works with a center that assists first generation, minority, and low-income students achieve higher education. Cesar has a strong passion for Dodger baseball and is gratified to be able to hear the greatness of Vin Scully and Chick Hearn. Cesar has been publicized in the New University newspaper, ClutchPoints, Hypun, and OC Weekly.

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