Corey Kluber may be one of the last dominoes to fall this winter

Cleveland Indians right-handed pitcher Corey Kluber is one of the top players who could be playing somewhere else in 2019. What’s different about Kluber is that he’s not a free agent, but it sure feels like he is. His current team, the Cleveland Indians, are actively accepting trade offers, and many of the same teams that are in the market for free agents such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are also being linked to Kluber.

But where will Kluber go? The Los Angeles Dodgers are the team most frequently linked to Kluber. But they may be waiting to see if they can attract Bryce Harper. When they sent outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to the Cincinnati Reds the week before Christmas it was seen as a move to clear salary space for Harper. A trade for Kluber may be their backup plan, particularly with the Indians said to desire one of their top prospects Alex Verdugo.

Then there are the Cubs. The Cubs are also in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, but they have more pressing issues in their starting rotation, which may force their hand. Particularly if they get the impression that Harper is not going to sign on the north side. Jon Lester is not getting younger and Kluber could be the experienced arm that they need. The question for the Cubs is what can they give back to the Indians? The Cubs have “sold the farm” to make the run they’re on now and the Indians are said to want high minor league talent or major league players in exchange for Kluber. A package from the Cubs could include slugger Kyle Schwarber, but the question is and what else?

An interesting newcomer to the conversation as reported by Jon Morosi of mlb.com is the San Diego Padres. The Padres are said to be looking to make a splash move and the Indians and the Padres have a history of amicable dealing. The latest was their trade last season that sent relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber to the Tribe in exchange for their top prospect, catcher Francisco Mejia. While there is some speculation that the Indians could be asking for Mejia back – which would make sense considering they just traded Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals – the Padres look to be dangling a package of current major leaguers such as Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe or Austin Hedges in addition to prospects.

Of course Kluber has tremendous talent, not the least of which is his durability. But that’s not what makes him such an attractive trade target. Remember, this is Major League Baseball and while talent speaks loudly, analytics speak even louder. In regard to trades, analytics means cost certainty. Kluber will be entering the third year of a five-year deal, but here’s the key. It’s the last year he’ll have a guaranteed contract. So a team trading for Kluber’s contract will pay him $17 million this season, but have two team options for 2020 and 2021. In other words, a team can be looking at Kluber as a one-year investment that might cost them prospects or players that they could seek to get back in just one year.

The why for the Indians is also about cost certainty. However, that’s not because they view Kluber as expensive. The elephant in an otherwise buttoned-down clubhouse is the near certain free agency for their All-Star and (all-everything) shortstop Francisco Lindor after the 2021 season. While three years may seem like a long time, Lindor’s refusal to sign a long-term deal after multiple attempts is going to affect every decision the club makes from now until then. And so, while the club is said to be driving a hard bargain, they are willing to make a deal for Kluber.

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