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The Corey Kluber trade was an easy bet and absolute steal for the Rangers

The Rangers needed average pitching to become a winning baseball team. They just picked up a two-time Cy Young winner.

Photo of Corey Kluber in an Indians uniform winding up to throw a pitch.

The Texas Rangers will open a new stadium in 2020, and they have plenty of shiny new toys to show off at Globe Life Field*. The latest addition is two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, who joins a suddenly strong starting rotation.

*Not to be confused with Globe Life Park, their old ballpark, which is across the street.

The AL West is a tough nut to crack, with the Astros at the top having averaged 104 wins the last three years and the Athletics coming off back-to-back 97-win wild card berths. But the Rangers are trying anyway, bucking the current tank-if-you-cannot-win-your-division trend in baseball.

On the other side of the deal, what the hell is Cleveland doing? A team that won 93 games and didn’t get eliminated from playoff contention until the final weekend of the regular season shouldn’t be trading away ace-level pitchers on below-market contracts. Kluber is due $17.5 million in 2020, with an $18 million club option for 2021 that becomes a vesting option with this trade. In other words, Cleveland seems like team that would rather dump salary than try to win.

A Texas-sized rotation

Kluber is one of three starting pitching additions for the Rangers so far this offseason, along with free agent signees Kyle Gibson (3 years, $28 million) and Jordan Lyles (2 years, $16 million). They needed the help.

Lance Lynn — 3.67 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 246 strikeouts, 141 ERA+ — and Mike Minor — 3.59 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 200 strikeouts, 144 ERA+ — were excellent atop the Rangers rotation in 2019, but the rest of the rotation was exceptionally poor. The Rangers had a putrid 7.22 ERA in the 97 starts made by pitchers other than Lynn and Minor last year. Seventeen pitchers made those starts, and none of the 12 who did so in non-opener fashion (i.e., a reliever who pitched one or two innings before a “bulk” pitcher came in) had an ERA as a starter below 4.96. Truly dreadful.

2019 Rangers starting pitching

Pitcher(s) Starts Innings IP/start Walks Strikeouts ERA ERA+
Pitcher(s) Starts Innings IP/start Walks Strikeouts ERA ERA+
Lance Lynn 33 208⅓ 6.31 59 246 3.67 141
Mike Minor 32 208⅓ 6.51 68 200 3.59 144
Everyone else 97 391⅓ 4.03 178 311 7.22 69
Totals 162 808 4.99 305 757 5.37 92

Had the Rangers gotten even league average pitching — an estimated 4.96 ERA at Globe Life Park based on league and park effects — out of those 97 starts, that would have meant 98 fewer runs allowed over the same number of innings, and that doesn’t even account for the less easily quantifiable benefits of having starters who might average more than four innings in those games.

The bet is Kluber, Gibson, and Lyles will be better than league average in total for Texas, at least. But even at that low bar, subtracting 98 runs allowed from last year’s Rangers team likely would have produced a winner. That’s a very good start, especially if the Rangers can add some offense the rest of this winter.

The risk

Kluber has two Cy Young Awards, and finished third place in two other seasons. His history is excellent. The right-hander also made just seven starts with a 5.80 ERA in 2019. The campaign was marred by a broken right arm on a comebacker on the first day of May, then an abdominal strain nearly four months later that halted his rehab. On top of that, Kluber will be 34 in April, and his 1,136⅔ innings from 2014 through 2018, including the playoffs, were the most in baseball.

Kluber also averaged 246 strikeouts in those five years, and put up a 152 ERA+ that ranked second in MLB during that span. At the very least, Kluber is well worth a gamble.

Texas got Kluber for a steal, sending triple-digit-throwing Emmanuel Clase and outfielder Delino DeSheilds Jr., the latter a now 27-year-old defensive stalwart who slugged just .315 over the course of 2018 and 2019, the two most home run-friendly years in the history of the sport. Then Rangers aren’t risking much, and if Kluber is anything close to the pitcher he was before getting hurt, Texas will have gained an ace.

The Rangers were in search of any kind of competency from their pitching staff. What they got is something potentially much more, and that’s an exciting way to open a new ballpark.