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Yankees taking quite a gamble with Corey Kluber (and possibly no Masahiro Tanaka)

Rangers starting pitcher Corey Kluber throws against the

Rangers starting pitcher Corey Kluber throws against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning on July 26, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. Credit: AP / Louis DeLuca

One thing is certain about Corey Kluber:

He’s rested.

Kluber, the Yankees’ $11 million gamble, threw one inning for Texas last season. The former two-time American League Cy Young Award winner suffered a shoulder tear and missed the rest of the season.

That was after a broken forearm and an unrelated oblique injury in 2019 limited Kluber to 35 2⁄3 innings for Cleveland.

Kluber will turn 35 on April 10. Assuming he passes his physical and the Yankees announce the free-agent contract he agreed to on Friday night, by the time he blows out his birthday candles, he already will have started two of the Yankees’ first seven games.

That also assumes two things: that the 2021 season will start on time and that Kluber will be physically able to throw more than the 18 pitches he threw for Texas in that July 26, 2020 inning.

That’s the gamble the Yankees are taking with Kluber. From 2014-18 with Cleveland, he was as ferocious as any pitcher in baseball. If he’s able to replicate that form, the Yankees will have a co-ace to go along with Gerrit Cole and a better chance for a season that stretches deep into October.

Remember the Game 2 shenanigans the Yankees pulled in the ALDS last season, with Deivi Garcia opening and J.A. Happ replacing him in the second inning? Remember how well that worked out? That ill-conceived, ill-fated desperation ploy wouldn’t have been necessary if the Yankees had a top-shelf No. 2 behind Cole.

That could be Kluber. That’s why the Yankees were one of about 20 teams who watched him throw in a showcase session last week and why many of those 20 were willing to throw guaranteed money at him.

There’s also a decent chance the Yankees will get zero, zip, nada, zilch from Kluber in 2021. As in, shoulder tears are as bad as they sound, and throwing a bullpen session on a Wednesday in January isn’t proof he can get through a 162-game schedule and postseason. It’s not even proof that Kluber can get through a full spring training unscathed.

You’re probably thinking, "Who cares? The Yankees will just buy someone else if Kluber doesn’t work out!"

Sorry, but you’re confusing the Hal Steinbrenner Yankees with the Steve Cohen Mets.

At least that’s how it appears — that the Mets are willing to flex their financial muscles (taking on the $27 million guaranteed to Carlos Carrasco to get mega-talent Francisco Lindor from Cleveland, for example) while the Yankees are stretching out DJ LeMahieu’s $90 million contract to six years to reduce the annual value.

Who knew baseball contracts could include a layaway plan?

The Yankees aren’t giving LeMahieu six years because they think he still will be a batting champion when he’s 38. Every machine gives out at some point, even The Machine.

No, the Yankees structured LeMahieu’s contract (also agreed to on Friday, according to a source) for the long game to give them wiggle room to spend on the 2021 roster and still make every effort to stay under the $210 million luxury tax threshold.

With that money, enter Kluber. And, apparently, exit free agent Masahiro Tanaka, unless he’s willing to take a drastically reduced salary to return.

Choosing Kluber over Tanaka, if it comes to that, is a high-risk, high-reward move. With the current state of the Yankees’ rotation going into an uncertain 2021, Tanaka was the safer bet — not a great pitcher, but a dependable one, and not a potential zero.

Even if it means going a teeny bit over the threshold, the Yankees should bring Tanaka back. He’s certainly worth as much as Kluber for one year and would give the Yankees some certainty in a rotation that has almost no one behind Cole.

Here’s are the current candidates (assuming the Kluber deal is finalized): Cole. Kluber. Jordan Montgomery. Domingo German (didn’t pitch in 2020). Garcia (seven games, including that one postseason inning, in 2020). Clarke Schmidt (three games in 2020). Michael King (nine games in 2020). In midseason, Luis Severino (didn’t pitch in 2020).

It’s legit to wonder where the innings are going to come from with that bunch. Cole threw the most of any Yankee in 2020 (91 1⁄3, including the postseason), and it’s going to be difficult enough for him to jump back into 200-inning mode. How’s it going to be for someone who threw zero, one or 10 to 20 innings last season?

The Yankees have exciting young arms — none more so than Garcia — and one or two of them might light up the mound in 2021. With the Yankees’ offense and bullpen, that could be enough.

But does it feel as if it’s enough?

New York Sports