Free-agency grades: Rays look to solidify rotation with Kluber

Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays won 100 games in 2021, proof that a great starting rotation need not be necessary in this era of baseball, at least not with every team. It’s not that the Rays’ rotation was terrible — it finished a respectable sixth in the American League with a 4.08 ERA — but the team had obvious holes. Consider:

  • The Rays’ top two starters in terms of innings pitched were Ryan Yarbrough (5.11 ERA) and Michael Wacha (5.05 ERA).

  • Rays starters finished 14th of the 15 AL teams in innings pitched.

  • The Rays were 13th in quality starts, finishing ahead of only the Twins and the Orioles.

So it’s no surprise the Rays would look to bolster their rotation this offseason, especially since Wacha has already departed to the Boston Red Sox. On Sunday, they agreed to terms with two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber on an $8 million deal that could earn him up to $13 million.

Kluber, coming off two seasons of injuries (he made seven starts with Cleveland in 2019 and one start with Texas in 2020), signed a similar deal with the Yankees ($11 million) in 2021. It started well — a 5-3 record with a 3.83 ERA and a no-hitter through May 19 — but then Kluber missed three months with a shoulder strain. His final six starts came in late August and September, after he returned from his shoulder injury, and in those outings he pitched more than 4⅔ innings just once with a 5.40 ERA.

Obviously, Kluber isn’t the pitcher he was a few years ago. He still has that wipeout curveball, but he was never a flamethrower, and, much like Zack Greinke, he now has to rely on guile and experience more than pure stuff. In 2021 he averaged just 90.7 mph on his two-seamer, down from 93 to 94 in his heyday. That puts him in the ninth percentile of all pitchers in fastball velocity. A lot of his other advanced metrics were still positive in 2021: 82nd percentile in hard-hit rate, 66th percentile in swing-and-miss rate and 64th percentile in expected slugging percentage. He’s still pretty good at inducing soft contact.

Tampa has gone down the veteran starter route a few times in recent seasons, with mixed results:

2021: Wacha (3-5, 5.05 ERA). Meh. They got 23 starts and 124 innings out of him, but he was the same back-end starter he had been the previous few seasons.

2021: Rich Hill (6-4, 3.87 ERA). He was fine — exactly what you would have expected — before they traded him to the New York Mets.

2021: Chris Archer (1-1, 4.66 ERA). Hoping for an injury comeback, Archer only made five starts.

2019: Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05 ERA). This was a home run. Morton set career highs in wins, ERA and innings and finished third in the Cy Young voting.

2018: Nathan Eovaldi (4-4, 4.26 ERA). Coming off Tommy John surgery, he was traded to the Red Sox for Jalen Beeks.

Where will Kluber fit in on this spectrum? It depends partially on how much the Rays need from him. He made 16 starts for New York last year — the Rays would love to get 25 from him (they’ll hope for at least 20).

That means the success of this deal will come down mostly to his health — and who else the Rays can get to eat innings. With Kluber, the Rays rotation looks something like this:

1. Shane McClanahan
2. Shane Baz
3. Kluber
4. Yarbrough
5. Drew Rasmussen
6. Luis Patino

Also in the mix: Josh Fleming, who spent time in the majors and Triple-A last year, and a few pitchers returning from injuries — Yonny Chirinos, Beeks, Brendan McKay. There’s also Tyler Glasnow, who had Tommy John surgery in early August. The Rays have options with Glasnow: Hope for a late-season return, eat his 2022 salary (an estimated $5.5 million) and keep him prepping for 2023, or look to trade him to save on payroll.

One potential sleeper is Tommy Romero. Acquired from the Mariners in 2018 for Alex Colome, Romero has always been a statistical standout. In recent years, his stuff has taken a step forward — his fastball sits 92-94 — and he had an excellent 2021 season between Double-A and Triple-A with a 2.61 ERA over 110 innings, holding batters to a .189 average.

So there is some interesting depth here. McClanahan looks like, if not an ace, a solid No. 2 after an outstanding rookie season (10-6, 3.43 ERA, 141 K’s in 123⅓ innings). Patino has one of the best arms around, although his ability to get left-handed batters with his fastball/slider repertoire remains in question (he’s working on both a changeup and curveball). Rasmussen was a big surprise, excelling as a starter in short outings after coming over from the Brewers. Certainly, innings limits will remain an issue for McClanahan, Baz and Patino, but the Rays don’t have their starters pitch deep into games anyway.

It’s a pretty strong group with a really high ceiling if everything clicks. There is always an injury risk with Kluber, on top of the youth risk with the unproven starters. But overall, I like the roll of the dice on Kluber — especially if they get 130 innings out of him.

Grade: B

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