Can Kluber Repeat 2013 Performance?

After a surprising 2013 Cleveland Indians season the organization has higher expectations for 2014 than any season dating back to 2008. The Indians and their fans will expect a playoff team and World Series contender. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians became a contender, but most importantly, How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?

When training camp broke in April, Corey Kluber was not a part of the Cleveland Indians 25-man roster. By the end of the season, Kluber had proven to be one of the Tribe’s best starters. He has also now become one of the more promising young players on the team.

As a rookie in 2012, Kluber had his ups and downs. His final numbers were far from great as he was 2-5 with a 5.14 ERA in 12 starts. He showed just enough to make Cleveland management think he could have a decent future with the club.

Though he had a decent Cactus League showing, the Indians felt the 27-year-old right hander needed a little more seasoning in Triple-A Columbus. He made one very good start for the Clippers before the call back to the big leagues came. After Carlos Carrasco was tossed out of a April 9 start for plunking the Yankees Kevin Youkilis, Cleveland optioned Carrasco to Triple-A and brought Kluber to the majors.

Kluber actually began his 2013 Major League campaign in relief. He twice came out of the bullpen.
When he finally got a chance to start on April 28, he shined in allowing two runs over seven innings of a Tribe win over Kansas City. His strong season just took off from there as Cleveland management was simply unable to send Kluber back to Columbus.

By Aug. 5, Kluber was arguably Cleveland’s No. 2 starter behind Justin Masterson. On that date, he was spectacular in an outing against the Tigers, allowing just two runs in seven and one-third innings. He was in line for a victory before Chris Perez blew a save in the ninth. At that point, Kluber was 7-5 with a 3.54 ERA and poised to be one of the Tribe’s more important pitchers over the season’s final two months.

That is when a bit of disaster struck. After the quality performance against Detroit, Kluber felt pain in his right middle finger. It was sprained and he was put on the disabled list. Kluber was able to return about a month later, on Sept. 7.  However, over five September starts, he did not look like the same pitcher as he was before the DL stint. He went 4-0, but had a 5.33 ERA in the final month of the campaign. He was the beneficiary of an offense that scored a combined 49 runs in his five September starts.

Now, as the offseason has hit, there are questions about the Tribe righty. Just when it seemed he was coming into his own, one now has to wonder just how damaging the finger injury was and if it is was something he was still dealing with down the stretch.

Kluber’s September was enough of a disappointment that manager Terry Francona did not call his name for last week’s AL Wild Card game despite it falling on the day Kluber normally would have pitched. He would have been on four days of rest. Add that Masterson was just coming back from injury and Ubaldo Jimenez only had two days of rest since his last start and Kluber would have seemed like a good possibility to get the nod. Instead, Francona turned the ball over to the rookie Danny Salazar.

Questions will likely persist into next season as to whether Kluber’s difficult final month was the product of an ailing finger or the matter of a player having an unexpectedly good year and coming back down to Earth.

For the Indians sake, it had better be the former in that scenario. The Tribe will need Kluber to be a productive and, possibly, vital part of the rotation. This offseason could well see the departures of both Scott Kazmir, a free agent and Ubaldo Jimenez, who has a mutual option he will not pick up. That would leave Masterson, second-year starter Zach McAllister and Salazar to go with Kluber. Of that quartet, Kluber has been the second-most successful, behind Masterson. The Indians are going to need Kluber to be what he was through the first four months of this past season if they are going to make a real run at contention in 2014. He may need to be the team’s No. 2 starter if Jimenez leaves and the team does not sign a suitable replacement.

The thought is Kluber probably was feeling the effects of both the injury and rust upon his return to the rotation. By spring training, one would assume the finger pain would certainly be behind him. He’ll have time to get his arm back into top shape. When Kluber first got hurt, the thought was he would be lost for around six weeks. In the throes of a pennant race, he may have been slightly rushed back.

At 27, it was time for Kluber to come into his own. That is usually around the age many young players blossom. There is no reason to think Kluber could not continue to improve and maintain his standing as a strong No. 2 or 3 starter in a playoff-ready rotation. The Indians need that to happen and all indications are that it will.

Photo: Getty Images

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