Corey Kluber and the Uncertainty of Everything

At the trade deadline in 2010, the Padres found themselves in an unexpected position: first place in the National League West, 60-42, 1.5 games up on the Giants and at least seven games up on the rest of the division. Take away the powerhouse AL East and the Padres had the best record in baseball, and it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors. San Diego’s plus-90 run differential was best in the NL, fourth-best in the majors.

That Padres team was coming off two straight losing seasons and featured a generally uninspiring roster. Sure, there was Adrian Gonzalez, a promising 22-year-old pitcher named Mat Latos, and the usual solid bullpen, but the outfield’s greatest asset might have been Chris Denorfia and a soft-tossing quartet of Clayton Richard, Jon Garland, Kevin Correia, and Wade LeBlanc flanked Latos in an all-around lackluster rotation. That the Padres were probably a year or two ahead of then-general manager Jed Hoyer’s five-year plan didn’t negate the reality of an upcoming late-season playoff charge.

On July 31st, Hoyer decided to pull off a Completely Obvious Trade, dealing minor league pitching depth in the form of Corey Kluber and Nick Greenwood to Cleveland and St. Louis, respectively, in exchange for Cardinals outfielder Ryan Ludwick as part of a three-team deadline swap. Ludwick, in theory, would boost a Padres outfield group that had a propensity to hit like a glove-first shortstop. Kluber and Greenwood, in theory, would continue to toil in the minor leagues on their way to forgettable professional careers. Reality had different plans.

Ryan Ludwick was so bad down the stretch — .211/.301/.330, 78 OPS+ — that the Padres probably would have been better without him. In fact, you could argue that his poor play actually cost the Padres a playoff appearance. A late-August 10-game losing skid shrunk the Padres division lead from six games to one, and they eventually fell two games short of the Giants for the NL West crown and a game shy of the Braves for the Wild Card. Ludwick was a half win below replacement level in 59 games, per Baseball Reference (both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus rated him similarly). Ludwick stunk.

Corey Kluber also stunk — briefly — as a rookie in 2012, throwing 63 innings while posting a 5.14 ERA. He stunk less in 2013, recording a near league average ERA in 147 and a third innings, with an impressive 4.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He didn’t stink at all last year, winning the AL Cy Young award thanks to ridiculous numbers across the board — 234 and two-thirds innings, a 2.44 ERA, a 2.32 FIP, a 152 ERA+, 5.27 strikeouts per walk.

Ludwick’s poor performance can sort of be explained away. After all, it was only 239 plate appearances and Ludwick was 31 years old at the time of the trade with a checkered past. But how could Kluber transform from a sort of throw-in to a legit Cy Young winner in half a decade? How could Jed Hoyer and a smart Padres front office allow such a seemingly routine deadline trade to go so spectacularly wrong?

In short, baseball.

If you look back at this trade in a results-oriented way, you’ll find yourself perpetually scratching your head. The Padres gave up Corey Kluber for a half season* of Ryan Ludwick … for a playoff run that was probably destined to fail from the start? It’s impossible to look back at this deal and truly understand it without first considering what things felt like on July 31st, 2010.

*Ludwick stuck around for part of 2011, where he improved his OPS to .674. The Padres had seen enough by the 2011 trade deadline, allowing the Pirates to purchase his contract. Ludwick had a final hurrah in 2012 with Cincinnati, slashing .275/.346/.531 in 472 plate appearances. Overall, he had a fine career, especially for a guy who didn’t see significant major league playing time until his late twenties. Just didn’t agree with San Diego. 

Addendum: As RJ’s Fro reminds me, Ryan Ludwick isn’t retired; he signed with the Rangers this offseason

At the time of the trade, Kluber looked a lot more like minor league trade fodder than a future ace. In fact, Baseball America didn’t even have Kluber ranked in the Padres top-30 prior to the 2010 season. After 2010, BA they ranked him 26th in the Indians system, noting that: “Kluber doesn’t have high upside, but he has good feel for pitching and could be a back-of-the-rotation starter.” Back-of-the-rotation work looked like a stretch after Kluber, as a 25-year-old in Triple-A, posted a 5.56 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio just a tick over two in 2011, his first full season in Cleveland’s system. That campaign prompted Baseball Prospectus, in the 2012 Annual, to write:

Acquired in the three-way trade that sent Jake Westbrook out of town in 2010, Kluber could eventually wind up as a major league contributor but is more likely to dwell in Triple-A. He’s a fly-ball pitcher with below-average control and command, so he needs to rely on his stuff to succeed. The problem is that his stuff is mediocre. Kluber’s average-grade fastball sits around 92 mph, and he complements it with a change-up and slider, but neither is a true plus pitch. Kluber will reside in the deep end of the Indians pitching talent pool, and if he gets more than a handful of starts it will be an indication Cleveland may be sinking in the Central.

Kluber wasn’t supposed to be good until he was. And now he is, and every once in a while in an office somewhere near Wrigley Field, Jed Hoyer probably wonders how he didn’t see it. Of course, it’s not like Kluber is an isolated case. These kind of out-of-nowhere success stories are as familiar to baseball as a good “best-shape-of-his-life” spring training fluff piece is to the beat writer’s repertoire.

Front offices — even smart front offices — miss on players all the time. In fact, even when they hit on players, they often miss on them. The St. Louis. Cardinals, for instance, stole Matt Carpenter in the 13th round of the 2009 draft. Those same Cardinals also passed on Carpenter 12 times in favor of players named Robert Stock (second round), Virgil Hill (sixth round), and Alan Ahmady (11th round). A recent article by Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs shows that 39 percent of players that posted a WAR of 3.0 or higher in 2014 were never listed as a Baseball America top-100 prospect, a factoid that includes Corey Kluber.

The Red Sox have book-ended a 2013 World Series title with two last place AL East finishes. The Yankees have seemingly unlimited resources and plenty of smarts, and they’re projected to win just 80 games this season — per PECOTA — after back-to-back mid-80 win campaigns. Even the Giants can’t figure things out in odd years. Nobody really knows what’s going on.

I certainly don’t. One thing I do know — I think — is that we’re a month away from another unpredictable baseball season getting underway, where any number of Corey Klubers are waiting for their chance to surprise. I’ll be watching, for sure, and in between I’ll be writing articles while pretending to know what I’m talking about.

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  • ballybunion

    Excellent article, especially for us Padres fans who may be actually, you know, expecting something, like results, from all the off-season activity. As Porgy told Bess, or vice versa, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

    • Thanks.

      The Padres should be pretty good this year, at least better than recent years — but yeah, baseball has a way of making pre-season proclamations look silly in a hurry.