How the Red Sox missed out on signing free-agent pitcher Corey Kluber

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - APRIL 14: Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians throws in the first inning during the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 14, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by John Sleezer/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - APRIL 14: Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians throws in the first inning during the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 14, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by John Sleezer/Getty Images) /

The Yankees beat the Red Sox in the Corey Kluber sweepstakes

Stop me if you’ve heard this before – the Boston Red Sox had “strong interest” in a free-agent who ultimately signed elsewhere. This troubling trend has been a source of frustration for fans this winter and it stings even more when one of the more appealing targets is stolen by our greatest rival.

The New York Yankees swooped in to sign right-handed pitcher Corey Kluber to a one-year, $11 million deal, according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale.

The salary is right in the ballpark of what many believed Kluber’s market would be and slightly less than the $12 million he was projected to earn by MLB Trade Rumors. We know the Red Sox were among the 25 teams that attended Kluber’s showcase this week where he put to rest many of the concerns about his health with an impressive display on the mound. It’s no secret that Boston needs another starting pitcher to solidify their rotation and they have room in their budget for a player in this price range.

It seemed as though the stars were aligned for the Massachusetts resident to remain close to home, allowing the Red Sox to solve their most glaring weakness with a two-time Cy Young award winner on a very reasonable short-term deal. So how is it that they failed to reel in Kluber?

While we can be fairly certain that the level of interest from the Red Sox means they must have submitted a competitive offer, we really don’t now how the deal they were willing to hand Kluber compares to what the Yankees gave him. We may never know the details that confirm how close they were to landing the three-time All-Star. This is purely speculation as to the reasons why Boston fell short in their pursuit of a presumed top target.

We should start by addressing the obvious red flags associated with Kluber, who pitched only one inning last season before he went down with a Grade 2 tear of the teres major muscle in his right shoulder. Kluber was also limited to only seven starts in a rocky 2019 campaign derailed by a fractured forearm and strained oblique. He’s fully recovered from those injuries and threw the ball well in front of the scouts who attended his showcase but there are some concerns about if the 35-year-old can stay healthy for a full season. Kluber can’t be counted on to be the 200+ inning workhorse he was in his prime, which is why he’s settling for a one-year deal at less than half what he would have been worth a couple of years ago.

Despite being an injury risk, Kluber has as much upside as any pitcher on the free-agent market outside of reigning NL Cy Young Trevor Bauer. A pitcher of his caliber is worth the gamble for short money.

Money can’t be the only factor though. We heard projections of Kluber landing a deal in the $8-10 million range. The Yankees paid slightly more but it’s hard to believe the Red Sox looked at that $11 million price tag and said, “Whoa, too rich for our blood!”

It would come as no surprise if some of the offers Kluber received were incentive based. Maybe the Red Sox were willing to go as high as the Yankees, if not higher, as long as Kluber met certain benchmarks for starts, innings or accolades. Such an offer would have some appeal if it included the upside to earn more but we can’t blame him for taking the security of a fully guaranteed deal, nor can we blame the team for wanting to protect themselves by structuring the contract so that it wouldn’t come back to bite them if Kluber was a bust.

Previous reports have indicated that the Red Sox are focused on two- or three-year deals for free-agent pitchers. Boston’s chances to contend rely heavily on players returning from injury or rebounding from disappointing seasons. There are too many lingering questions to address before we can expect the Red Sox to have a chance in the competitive AL East, regardless of what they do to improve the roster this winter. With that in mind, it makes sense that they prefer to sign options who will stick around for more than one year.

Let’s speculate that the Red Sox approached Kluber with a two-year offer in the $20-25 million range. The average annual value is about the same as what the Yankees gave him, if not more. If Kluber returns to form then the Red Sox have him on a bargain deal for 2022 when they should have more certainty regarding the rest of the roster. If he does’t pan out, the contract isn’t expensive enough to be a tremendous burden. They could even make the second year a vesting option that requires Kluber to perform reasonably well in order for it to kick in.

While the greater total value of the deal would be appealing, it’s understandable why Kluber would scoff at the offer. If he’s betting on himself then he probably only considered one-year offers so that he could prove he’s still an elite pitcher before hitting the market next year under better circumstances. In that case, Kluber didn’t fit what the Red Sox were looking for in a pitcher they could control beyond this year.

Even if all things were equal in terms of the contract, the Red Sox weren’t necessarily on equal footing with the Yankees in these negotiations. We can’t rule out that Boston was willing to match New York’s offer but missed out for reasons outside of their control.

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We assumed the Red Sox had a leg up on the competition since Kluber makes his offseason home in Winchester. Staying close to home and not having to move his family in the midst of a pandemic would seem to be a reason to favor Boston.

The Yankees had their own advantages though. Kluber has been a longtime client of renowned trainer Eric Cressey, owner of Cressey Performance Center, who the Yankees hired to oversee their strength and conditioning departments. That connection likely played a part in luring Kluber to the Bronx.

Pitching for a contender must have some value to a veteran seeking that elusive World Series ring. The Red Sox will clearly improve upon last season’s dismal last-place finish but they still have to climb out of the basement while the Yankees are already on the short list of favorites in the American League. Fair or not, the perception is that the Yankees are much closer to contention than the Red Sox. That might not stay the case as the offseason unfolds but it’s where we’re at right now, which obviously matters to a player who wants to win and plans to sign a one-year deal.

Next. Plenty of free-agent second basemen to choose from. dark

If we have to watch Kluber wearing pinstripes as he returns to ace status, the Red Sox will regret not doing more to convince him to sign with them. On the other hand, if the veteran is rusty from the significant time he’s missed in recent years or can’t top the eight starts he’s made over the last two seasons, perhaps the Red Sox dodged a bullet. Ultimately, it might not even matter if Boston’s interest in Kluber was much higher than the pitcher’s interest was in joining the Red Sox.