PHOENIX — Corey Kluber was a backup plan. Sometimes a backup plan to a backup plan.
The starter-hungry teams needed to work through not only the top of the free-agent market with Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, but also the next tier with Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner.
Kluber had two Cy Youngs for the Indians, but three factors were working against his appeal — he would be 34 by the third week of the 2020 season, the 2019 campaign was a disaster in performance and health (5.80 ERA in just seven starts), and it was possible to believe 2019 was a reflection of his age combined with being an extreme workhorse (the second-most innings in the majors from 2014-18).
Still, there was interest. The Angels, for example, struck out on Cole and Wheeler, but thought they were going to get Kluber. However, their reluctance to include well-regarded outfield prospect Brandon Marsh left an opening for another AL West club. The Rangers landed Kluber shortly after the Winter Meetings for hard-throwing reliever Emmanuel Clase and outfielder Delino DeShields. The lack of a star prospect in return indicated just how far Kluber’s appeal had fallen.
But the Rangers believe they just might not only have acquired Corey Kluber — but that Corey Kluber, the one who was the AL Cy Young winner as recently as 2017 and finished third in 2018.
“I think we have,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “For an elite guy to still say he has a lot to prove, that is pretty significant. He has a chip on his shoulder, wanting to prove he is still Corey Kluber.”
Kluber made his Rangers debut Sunday with mainly positive results against the Dodgers. His fastball was in a familiar 90-92 mph range, he pitched three innings comfortably, he struck out the side in the second and induced six groundouts. On the downside, he allowed just one ball out of the infield, an Enrique Hernandez homer in the third. He felt it was a good pitch. Also, one of the foremost control pitchers walked two and hit one, but explained he was not missing by much.
Rust would be expected. Kluber missed most of last season with a broken forearm and an oblique strain. He said there was a bit of nerves before Sunday’s game, but once he moved into his standard routine, all was familiar.
“It was encouraging to get out there and feel good,” he said.
The main encouragement is for the Rangers. Last season they were a strong club when Lance Lynn or Mike Minor started, that underappreciated duo going 30-21 with a 3.86. All other Rangers starter were a combined 15-39 with a 7.22 ERA. They signed Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyle to provide capability and stability to the back end. The gambit for Kluber was about something more.
“I think we have a chance,” Woodward said, “to have three aces.”