It is a surprise to many, but not so much to Kluber.
During the offseason, Kluber was supposed to be traded to San Diego, Cincinnati, Dodgers, Yankees, Atlanta or Philadelphia — with a few more teams added to the mix. But the Indians hung on to the two-time Cy Young winner to keep one of the best starting rotations in baseball intact.
“I think I realized that’s part of the business,” said Kluber after the Indians went through their second day of spring training Wednesday. “I’m at the point of my contract where it’s starting to get more expensive. With the business of baseball, it’s part of it. It comes with the territory.”
Kluber did not attach himself to the Internet day and night to keep pace with the endless rumors that had him going from the east coast to the west and a lot of places in between. A call from Chris Antonetti, Indians president of baseball operations, helped in that regard.
Antonetti told Kluber that he had an obligation to listen to other teams if there was a chance a trade could make the Indians a better team.
“I totally understand that,” said Kluber. “That’s part of running a baseball team. You have to listen to how other teams value players and that then gives you a value for guys.
“But it’s not like they were actively looking to get rid of me. Once we had that talk, I knew if there was something worthwhile to talk about, someone would let me know about it.”
Is there still a chance that the Indians could try to trade Kluber or fellow starter Trevor Bauer? Perhaps, but right now Kluber’s biggest concern is learning the names of a clubhouse full of new teammates. Most of his buddies and locker mates, including his favorite catcher Yan Gomes, have left through trades or free agency.
“It’s definitely a little different than the situation we’ve had for the last few years,” said Kluber. “I think we’ve been lucky the last handful of years that we haven’t had much turnover. But I don’t think that’s the norm in major league baseball.
“There is some new faces that we need to get to know. That’s one of the things spring training is about. Getting to know new teammates. Each year you have to develop a new identity as a team anyways. Part of that process is to go to spring training.”
The Indians kept that group together, and made an expensive addition or two, over the last five or six years in an attempt to win the World Series. They reached Game 7 in 2016, but that’s as close as they came. Over the last two years, the core of that team has dwindled. In that time 19 Indians turned free agents, but only two were re-signed.
While most of the departed found work, that has not been the case for a lot of free agents over the last two years. An estimated 75 to 80 players are still on the market with spring camps open for business in Arizona and Florida.
“I don’t think it’s good for baseball that there are teams that aren’t trying to compete,” said Kluber. “Do you know what I mean? I think us as players and the fans, they want the competition. They want competitive baseball games. If you’re having whatever number of teams that aren’t necessarily trying to win — yes, you can say we’re trying to win each day, but your goal for the year is not trying to win — I don’t think that’s good for baseball.”
Kluber, the Indians’ assistant player representative, was referring to teams tanking, avoiding expensive free agents, and preparing to lose for several years in order to get high draft picks and start their rebuilding programs. The Indians, who traded Edwin Encarnacion, Gomes, Yandy Diaz, Yonder Alonso and Erik Gonzalez to go along with their free-agent exodus, aren’t there yet. But they’re walking a fine line.
They’re still favored to win the AL Central for a fourth straight year. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA ratings have them winning 97 games this year. For a team with so many new faces they should be wearing name tags on their uniforms, that’s a stretch.
“Everyone’s goal in here is to win a World Series,” said Kluber. “I don’t think that’s changed at all. I guess it goes back to projections. I would venture to say that people at the end of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, going into the playoffs, probably viewed us as a better team than 2016. But we went farther in 2016."
Gomes, traded to Washington at the end of November, caught most of Kluber’s starts from 2013-18. Their families are close. Now the job goes to Roberto Perez.
“Roberto has caught me plenty in the past,” said Kluber. “It’s not like we haven’t worked with each other before. When Yan had some injures, Roberto stepped in and did a great job.
“I talked to him a little bit about it. It’s just going to be an adjustment for Roberto because he has to do it more consistently. But it’s not like he has to change who he is as a catcher or try to do anything more. It’s just doing it more often.”
As for the AL Central closing in on the Indians, Kluber said, “Who knows what happens to certain teams with injuries? Who knows what happens with teams in terms of a guy like Shane Bieber, who wasn’t even in major-league camp last year and all of a sudden comes up and makes a huge contribution to the team? There are so many things that can go on between now and the end of the season. Once you get out there and play the game on the field you have a better sense of what you’ve got.”
Bieber joined the Indians last season and went 11-5 with a 4.55 ERA. He didn’t come out of nowhere, but his contributions were appreciated.
The Indians could use a lot more of that kind of help this year.