Could this be Kluber's Last Stand in an Indians' Uniform?

Peter G. Aiken

Corey Kluber is set to make his 2nd minor league rehab start in his long road back from a broken right forearm suffered on May 1st. Indians’ fans everywhere are excited about the prospect of having Kluber return to Cy Young form just in time for the pennant race and postseason. While this is good news, one can’t help wonder what the future holds for his career in an Indians’ uniform.

The Indians have Kluber under contract for two more years, but both years are club options. And for an organization that has a history of tightening the purse strings, Indians’ fans actually have to fathom the possiblity that Paul Dolan would instruct the front office to cut payroll once again and not pick up his option for 2020.

"That’s crazy. Why would you not pick up an option on a 2-time Cy Young award winner, potential Hall-of-Famer, who has 98 career Tribe victories?" Well, as with most personnel moves with the Indians since the Dolan family took over in 2000, you gotta follow the money. Kluber has a $17 million club option for 2020, and 2021. Taking a chance on Danny Salazer for the last 2 years for $9 million total was one thing. It didn’t work out - but it didn’t break the bank. But doling out $17 million for a pitcher whose best years may be behind him, who has lost some velocity, and who has had a dubious postseason stretch in 2017 and 2018 makes it a reasonable argument to not pick up his option – especially when you factor in the budget constraints Paul Dolan puts upon the front office.

Larry Dolan infamously gutted the franchise’s payroll for years. Tribe fans were rejuvenated when Paul Dolan took over and embarked on increasing payroll and legitimately competing for the playoffs and World Series. An ominous cloud of "fiscal responsibility" hung over the wigwam at the close of last year’s campaign. The directive came from Paul Dolan to slash payroll once again, but nothing like his father demanded, thank god. The front office stepped into action, got creative, cut payroll, and did a masterful job of fielding the 1st place team you see before you today.

The only free agent leaving that truly hurt was Michael Brantley. And losing him to the Astros, a league rival, for a quite affordable 2 year/ $32 million deal made Dolan’s financial constraints even more depressing. One can’t help wonder what a difference just a little more payroll (say $16 million) would have done for this season when it comes to winning a World Series.

Kluber isn’t just coming back to help the team in their 2019 playoff push. He is also auditioning for the 2020 season by how he pitches in the last few months of 2019. Is that fair? Probably not. But there’s only so much money to go around in the clubhouse, and one has to determine if $17 million would be better spent on filling other holes, especially with a team so rich in starting pitching.

Most likely what will happen is the Indians pick-up the option for 2020, barring any major injury in the last 2 months of this year. The health and performance of the other 5 young Tribe' starters will affect The Kluber Decision as well. (Oddly enough, the Trevor Bauer' trade significantly helps Kluber's chances of staying with the Indians in 2020 by reducing payroll for 2020, and vacating one top-tier starting pitcher spot)

The Indians took a chance in 2018 by picking up Michael Brantley’s $11.5 million option after a injury-riddled 2016 and 2017, and the gamble paid off. Boston, New York and LA can all throw more money at their problems. But with a team like Cleveland, with an owner like Dolan, trying to contend for a championship, and doing it on a tight budget, decisions like these can be make-or -break and be the difference between another playoff exit or raising the oh-so-sought-after World Series’ trophy.

Talking about his long road back from a broken arm, Kluber said, "I can see the light at the end of the tunnel." Well, when it comes to his impressive career with the Indians, that light may very well be a Dolan family cost-cutting train bearing down on him. Tribe fans everywhere hope that’s not the case.

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