Rumors about a potential trade between the Cleveland Indians and the Los Angeles Dodgers have been circulating for the past few weeks, with a Cleveland starting pitcher and a Los Angeles outfielder being the centerpieces. On the Cleveland side, former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber has been the main name bandied about, although there have always been mostly implicit “or Carlos Carrasco or Trevor Bauer” caveats attached. On the other side, Dodgers right-fielder Yasiel Puig has been the rumored centerpiece.
Last week, the Indians inked Carrasco to an extension, which presumably rules him out of the trade conversation. And while Bauer is a very good pitcher, his track record is neither as long nor as impressive as Kluber’s. Other than youth — Bauer is nearly five years younger than Kluber — there’s nothing to recommend Bauer over his more accomplished teammate. So if the Dodgers are going to pursue a starter from the Indians, it seems that Kluber is the man.
As for who would go back to Cleveland, it seems the tide may be shifting.
As Jon Morosi reports, the Indians are now interested in Dodgers top prospect Alex Verdugo. For a team like Cleveland, which has serious needs in the outfield, Verdugo makes sense. He is young — he won’t be 23 until May — and he’s under team control for six more years. He also has a .321/.389/.452 batting line with nearly as many walks (86) as strikeouts (97) in 874 Triple-A plate appearances and is excellent defensively. Simply put, he is ready to be a starting outfielder in the major leagues.
The question is, where? The Dodgers have held off on trading Verdugo countless times over the past few years. They have never declared Verdugo untouchable, but their actions have effectively spoken that truth. Giancarlo Stanton, Yu Darvish, Manny Machado — in each case, the Dodgers either moved on or found a way to make the trade without losing Verdugo. After all that, it would seem odd to trade him for a starting pitcher, especially when the Dodgers already have a starting pitcher depth chart that probably numbers in the double digits.
But Kluber is no ordinary starting pitcher. In the past five seasons, he has a 2.85 ERA, a 2.84 FIP, and has averaged 246 strikeouts in 218 innings per season. That even includes a “disappointing” 2015 season in which he led the American League in losses, but also had a 123 ERA+, 246 strikeouts in 222 innings, and finished ninth in the Cy Young voting. At his best, Kluber has a legit argument as the best pitcher in baseball; at the worst we’ve seen him since he became an every-fifth-day starter, he might only be in the top 20.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and Kluber’s age could catch up to him quickly. But he will turn 33 just after Opening Day, and it’s reasonable to assume that he will be somewhere between outstanding and solid for the next three years that he is under relatively inexpensive team control.
It’s highly likely that Verdugo will still be an effective major leaguer long after Kluber has hung up his spikes. That’s the nature of the beast when one guy is ten years younger than the other. That doesn’t mean it’s a trade that shouldn’t be made, though. Dodger fans are understandably gun-shy about trading prospects, after the debacles of Pedro Martinez for Delino DeShields and Paul Konerko for Jeff Shaw. But at the end of the day, the acquisition of Kluber would improve the team, even if it came at the expense of their top prospect.
Still, from the Dodgers standpoint, I’d rather see a package built more on quantity than quality for Kluber. The Dodgers have two areas of extreme depth: outfield and starting pitching. An acquisition of Kluber would add to the pitching depth and make guys like Ross Stripling, Alex Wood, and others even more expendable than they already are. Similarly, if the Dodgers are serious about pursuing Bryce Harper — as they seem to be — that would give them nine players who logged time in a big-league outfield last year. Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, and Enrique Hernandez all have positional flexibility and can move (back) to the infield, but even without Harper, they have Verdugo, Matt Kemp, Andrew Toles, and Joc Pederson in the outfield. A packaged built on Pederson, Toles, and Stripling could fill multiple holes in Cleveland’s roster without impacting the Dodgers’ long-term plans in the slightest.
It’s unclear whether the Indians have interest in such a package. As Morosi also pointed out, the team has shown interest in the New York Yankees’ Estevan Florial and the Milwaukee Brewers’ Corey Ray, which shows that they know they can probably get a top outfield prospect for a pitcher with Kluber’s résumé. But the Dodgers might be able to overwhelm them with numbers and let them fill multiple holes with one fell swoop.
Either way, it is clear that the Dodgers and Indians are in serious talks. Nothing is set in stone, but it seems likely that Kluber will be in Dodger Blue for the 2019 season.