Kluber’s Puzzling Return and Bumgarner’s Stunning Move

AP Photo/Matt York

As the New York Yankees introduce their $324 million man, Gerrit Cole, and teams are scouring the landscape to fill their needs while maintaining some semblance of financial sanity not evident in paying one pitcher $36 million annually, two of the more decorated names on the market via trade and free agency found somewhat surprising landing spots. As money and prospects are viewed as the capital today, the deals for Corey Kluber and Madison Bumgarner contradict that narrative.

Let’s look at some under-the-radar reasons why this might be the case.

Corey Kluber traded to Texas

Generally perceived as one of the smarter and most forward-thinking organizations in baseball, the Cleveland Indians’ trade of Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Delino DeShields and pitcher Emmanuel Clase seemed like a light return for a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner. Kluber has a reasonable short-term contract and is still at an age, 34 in April, where reasonable effectiveness can be expected.

Even if Kluber declines from CYA candidate to good mid-rotation starter, that return is weak. That Kluber has long been underestimated should also give pause before thinking he is on the downside.

Kluber was a fourth-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres from small Stetson University (which also produced Jacob deGrom). He was eventually traded to Cleveland in a three-team trade which sent Jake Westbrook from the Indians to the Cardinals, and Ryan Ludwick from the Cardinals to the Padres. Terrible in his first two chances in the big leagues in 2011 and 2012, Kluber became a passable starter in 2013 before finally blossoming into a Cy Young Award winner in 2014 at age 28.

So, it is unwise to doubt him.

As analysts try to find a justification for the Indians’ perceived desperation to get Kluber and his salary off the roster. Some point to his slightly diminished velocity, age, and to a lesser extent, injury. But there are likely behind-the-scenes factors that sparked the club to accept the first offer it could live with.

It’s possible that the Indians’ payroll constraints are such that ownership told baseball operations they could do absolutely nothing until they cleared that $17.5 million Kluber is due in 2020. Trades, signings, non-tenders and other maneuvers are subject to an immediate reaction. If a club does not get a known return in a trade, chooses to let a free agent walk or seemingly overpays for a certain player in free agency, or non-tenders a Cesar Hernandez or Jonathan Villar when there should have been a trade available, then there will be assumptions that the front office made a mistake or doesn’t know what it is doing.

It’s important to note there are always unseen, unheard and unknown factors at play.

The big question here is why other starting pitching-hungry teams like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim did not trump that offer. They certainly could have. Did the Indians jump at it before shopping it around? Were other clubs balking at the ask no matter how meager it seemed?

The deal could be what it appears to be on the surface. Or there could be other reasons why they conceded to a deal essentially dumping the reasonable, short-term salary of a two-time CYA winner for a player like DeShields, whose copies can be found relatively cheaply, and Clase, a young reliever with a searing fastball and troublingly low strikeout numbers for someone who throws 100+ in an era where everyone is striking out.

Diamondbacks sign Madison Bumgarner

The Arizona Diamondbacks signing Bumgarner will be equated with their aggressive contract for Zack Greinke after 2015 amid questions of why they would do this while trapped in a division with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But under no circumstances is it an apt comparison. Besides, the financial disparity of paying Greinke $206.5 million over six years and Bumgarner $85 million over five years is so simple that even those who are inept at math can figure it out.

Other clear differences include the intensity and postseason bona fides that Bumgarner brings and that he is two years younger than Greinke was at the time of the contract.

The key, however, is the management.

When the Diamondbacks signed Greinke, Tony La Russa was serving as the Chief Baseball Officer with Dave Stewart his general manager. As notable as their careers were – key word “were” – they were building a team that was a better fit for 1990 when LaRussa was managing the dominant Oakland Athletics and Stewart was his sturdy and intense ace with postseason bona fides, much like Bumgarner. In short, they were throwing things at the wall without an actual plan.

The current Diamondbacks under Mike Hazen are not run in that way. They have a relatively young team that is competitive while maintaining a palatable payroll.

When looking at that contract and putting it next to Cole’s deal or even the deal Zack Wheeler got from the Philadelphia Phillies, this was a no-brainer for the Diamondbacks. Even if financial constraints make it necessary to trade him at some time during the deal, the short-term nature and Bumgarner’s postseason history will get them a decent return regardless of his age and salary. Since Bumgarner has been in the majors for so long, it’s easy to think he’s “old,” but he’s only 30.

He’s scheduled to be paid $6 million in the first year of the contract after which it will escalate. On paper, the Diamondbacks are no match for the Dodgers, but the Wild Card Game as a safety net with Bumgarner ready to pitch is not an unsound strategy.

Regarding other fan bases demanding to know why their club was not in on Bumgarner if that was the price, it’s a good question. For him to take that contract in the first place, it needed to be a locale where he felt comfortable and would be able to hit – which he loves.

The Dodgers would have paid Bumgarner much more than the Diamondbacks, but Bumgarner is a rarity in that he will allow personal animus to influence his decisions.

The Giants and Dodgers are historic rivals and he had a dust-up with the Dodgers when he protested Max Muncy admiring a home run off him for, in his estimation, too long. The Dodgers do not act in a way that suits Bumgarner’s hard core sensibilities. Other clubs had negatives for Bumgarner. For example, he’s not a New York-type even though he would undoubtedly perform well there or anywhere else.

As for his former team, the San Francisco Giants, there’s no explanation for their refusal to engage and re-sign him at that price. Were they going for a full-blown rebuild under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and new manager Gabe Kapler, then fine. They’re not. They’re pushing an “expedited” rebuild where they intend to contend again relatively quickly. Why wouldn’t they want Bumgarner to be a part of that?

It might have been due to Bumgarner more than the Giants. An uncompromising personality who wants to compete and not be plugged in as a statistic, coexisting with Kapler is a tough sell. A similar personality, Jake Arrieta, clashed with Kapler in Philadelphia as the manager initiated pure stat-based strategies, shifts and cold-hearted adherence to the charts. Eventually, out of necessity to keep his job and avoid losing the support of the entire roster, he relented.

Since he and Zaidi are of similar mind, it’s possible that the change was not due to an ideological shift, but because he had no alternative. If he goes back to what he was in his early days as Phillies manager, then he and Bumgarner in the same clubhouse would not have worked.

There have been headline-splashing moves in the offseason. Cole because of the massive investment and Kluber and Bumgarner because of the seeming lack thereof. There were reasons for both. With Cole, it was clear; with Kluber and Bumgarner, he inscrutability is the story.