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Rays Free Agent Target: RHP Corey Kluber

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The two-time Cy Young winner is looking for a one-year deal, and the AL East is his likely landing spot.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays are coming off a six-game World Series run, but are also in something of a 90-win rebuild year.

With finances tightening the Rays moved on from Charlie Morton so they could keep their core assets together, and hoped the market would come to them. The market did, and it demanded Blake Snell at a price the Rays could not refuse.

The result is a good team in need of more moves.

Part of that equation is most assuredly finding top flight pitching to compliment Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, Michael Wacha, Luis Patiño, and eventually Brendan McKay. Two rookies, with one starting the year on the injured list, is not the best foot forward into a new season as the reigning American League Champions.

Earlier this week, Homin profiled the various tiers of free agents the Rays could pursue, with the top-tier highlighting only two names: James Paxton and old-friend Jake Odorizzi. The latter is surely seeking a multi-year deal, not a one-year reset on his value, and Paxton is sure to be priced out of the Rays market.

But there’s another top flight pitcher we didn’t name, a former two-time Cy Young winner who pitched a showcase this week, with the Rays in attendance:

Kluber has essentially missed two years of pitching, with just 30 innings — and not great ones — since 2019, but backing up to 2018 for the three pitchers in that top tier, you can see the quality:

Free Agents: 2018-2020 results

Name Age K% BB% K-BB% FIP EV Barrel% IP vFA MLBTR Fangraphs
Name Age K% BB% K-BB% FIP EV Barrel% IP vFA MLBTR Fangraphs
James Paxton 32.3 30.7% 7.6% 23.1% 3.59 89.7 8.0% 331.1 95.2 1 year - $10MM 1 year - $15MM
Jake Odorizzi 30.8 24.6% 8.8% 15.8% 3.88 89.2 7.5% 337 92.0 3 year - $39MM 1 year - $12MM
Corey Kluber 34.8 25.8% 4.9% 20.8% 3.26 87.8 6.3% 251.2 91.9 1 year - $12MM 1 year - $12MM
Free Agent Comparison 2018-2020

Kluber was the AL-leader in innings thrown when he was healthy in 2018, and is looking for a one-year reset deal. If the Rays still had Charlie Morton or Blake Snell on the roster, this would not be a conversation, but the Rays may be perfectly positioned to step in and offer Kluber the right environment to physically reset for a contending team.

Mike Axisa detailed the Kluber contract situation very well over at CBS Sports, writing:

Last offseason Rich Hill, a similar highly regarded veteran with a scary injury history, received a one-year contract worth $3 million guaranteed, with incentives tied to starts and innings that could’ve pushed the total value to $12.5 million. Kluber is likely looking at a similar contract. A low base salary with incentives that could push the total value perhaps close to the $18 million he would’ve earned in 2021 had the Rangers picked up his club option.

For what it’s worth, FanGraphs projections have Kluber (2.5 WAR) as the third best unsigned free agent starter, behind only Trevor Bauer (3.8 WAR) and Masahiro Tanaka (2.9 WAR). Those projections are based in part on good health and a return to form, which is a risky proposition. Still, it shows Kluber’s upside. He has pedigree and ability, and some team will gamble on it.

Axisa also detailed the top landing spots for Kluber, and mapped out well how the Yankees are the front runners for his services. If the bombers did not see a fit, the Rays would have to beat Boston and the Angels — two teams who could easily contend next season — with the best offer.

Tampa reportedly has some money to spend and they’re a premier pitching organization. Any free agent starter looking to rebuild value would be smart to explore a deal with the Rays, including someone with Kluber’s pedigree.

It’s here the Rays reputation should precede them, both in the ability to rehabilitate the careers of injured starting pitchers, and the quality of the team.

Again, the market needs to come to the Rays. The Yankees need to decline his services, and teams in Boston, Anaheim, and Toronto all need to not throw massive, guaranteed deals on the table (in which case it’s back to the trade market). Incentives seem to be the name of the game, but that base might be creeping higher than what Hill commanded previously.

With a couple months to go, that’s a fine place to be on the velocity, and the 40-50 scouts in attendance surely got a read on his breaking ball. If he’s good to go, this could be a strong addition for the Rays as they pivot toward the future, with the added benefit of addition by subtraction.

With all three AL East competitive rivals in the top-five candidates for Kluber’s services, who wins Kluber’s contract could tip the scales in 2021. Then again, the Rays might also have the most to lose. An incentive laden $6 million contract is nothing to most teams, but for the Rays that’s sadly significant.