Corey Kluber’s Road to Cy Young-Land

Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians’ 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.

Where were you on July 31, 2010? A day I like to call “K-Day.” The day the Cleveland Indians traded Jake Westbrook to the St. Louis Cardinals in a three-team deal with the San Diego Padres. The Cards sent the Padres outfielder Ryan Ludwick and the Padres sent the Indians Class Double-A right-hander Corey Kluber. Yes, the same Corey Kluber who just completed one of the best seasons ever by an Indians pitcher. A season that has him a frontrunner for the 2014 American League Cy Young award.

Prior to the trade, Kluber had never pitched in a major league game. A fourth round pick in 2007 out of Stetson University in Florida, Kluber was quite effective in college and saw flashes of success in his young professional career in the Padres farm system. In fact, he was named Class Double-A Texas League pitcher of the week just days before being dealt to Cleveland.

After the trade, Kluber reported to Class Double-A Akron where he spent the remainder of the 2010 season.

In 2011, he was placed on the Indians 40-man roster but spent most of the 2011 season in Class Triple-A Columbus, where he went 7-11 with a 5.56 ERA in 27 starts and helped lead the Clippers to International League West Division and Governors’ Cup titles. On September 1, Kluber was called up and made his big league debut with the Indians. In three relief appearances, he posted an 8.31 ERA in 4.1 innings of work.

Kluber returned to Columbus for the 2012 campaign and flipped his stat line in his favor. In 27 starts, the right-hander went 11-7 with a 3.59 ERA. He struck out 128 batters and walked just 49 in 125.1 innings.

A strong year in Columbus led to a call-up on August 2 to replace Josh Tomlin in the starting rotation – Tomlin was moved to the bullpen. Eventually Tomlin was forced to have Tommy John surgery. Kluber joined the club that day in Kansas City and made his first major league start against the Royals. He lasted just 4.1 innings, allowing six runs on nine hits in a 7-6 loss.

Kluber kept his spot in the rotation for the remainder of the season, posting a record of 2-5 and 5.14 ERA in 12 starts. In 63 innings of work, he fanned 54 and walked 18. After losing his first six starts, Kluber tossed six strong innings to notch his first major league win at Detroit on September 3.

For the third straight season, Kluber found himself in Columbus to open the 2013 campaign. After a couple of starts, he was promoted to Cleveland and worked two games out of the bullpen before he got his big break. Veteran right-handed starting pitcher Brett Myers, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason, went on the 15-day DL with right elbow problems. Terry Francona called on Kluber to replace him as the third starter in the rotation.

Filling in for Myers on April 28, Kluber pitched seven strong innings to lead the Tribe to a 10-3 win at Kansas City. He went just 2-4 in his next eight starts, but pitched well in those games and watched his ERA get lower and lower. He quietly became one of the most consistent pitchers in a rotation led by 2013 All-Star Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Scott Kazmir.

While Tribe fans were well aware of Kluber’s rapid improvement on the mound, he was little known on the national scene. However, the rest of the league began taking notice of Kluber when he threw eight shutout innings in a 2–0 victory over the Washington Nationals on June 16.

Kluber was “Klutch” when the Indians needed him most that season. In the midst of their 2013 postseason run, Masterson went down with an oblique injury and the Indians desperately needed someone to step up. Kluber was that guy, winning four of his five September starts after returning from the DL with a finger injury.

When the 2013 season was in the books, Kluber’s first full season as a starting pitcher in the big leagues was a successful one. He finished 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA in 26 games (24 starts), striking out 136 and walking just 33 in 147.1 innings of work.

In the offseason, Kazmir and Jimenez left for big contracts elsewhere, opening the door for Kluber to slide up in the rotation as the number two starter behind Masterson. Zach McAllister, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco filled out the rest of the 2014 opening day five-man rotation.

Masterson struggled out the gate and was never able to find his form, eventually leading to him being dealt to St. Louis at the trade deadline. After being the Tribe’s best pitcher in April, McAllister fell apart and found himself in Columbus for most of the season. Salazar couldn’t build off 2013’s success and found himself in Columbus with McAllister. After going 0-3 with a 6.95 ERA in his first four starts, Carrasco was moved to the bullpen. With four-fifths of the Indians opening day rotation depleted, Kluber found himself as the team’s ace.

Saying Kluber made the most of the opportunity is probably an understatement. In 34 starts, Kluber went 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts to just 51 walks in 235.2 innings. His 18 wins tied Max Scherzer and Jered Weaver for most in the AL and his 2.44 ERA was third to Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale. Kluber’s 269 strikeouts ranked second to David Price (271) and are the sixth most in Tribe history behind Sam McDowell and Bob Feller.

On September 22, Kluber became the first pitcher to fan 14 batters in consecutive starts since Randy Johnson did it in 2004.

With the announcement of the Cy Young Award winners just a few weeks away, we don’t know if Kluber will be bringing the hardware back to Cleveland with him. Is he a frontrunner? Yes, but so is 2010 Cy Young winner, Hernandez, who led the AL with a 2.14 ERA.

While the award will be determined by the voters, one thing is for sure – Kluber will be the Indians undisputed ace and opening day starter when the 2015 campaign opens. And with this will come new expectations. Where does he go from here?

Come next season he’ll be 29 with just two full seasons as a big league starter under his belt. Is it realistic and fair to expect him to do it again in 2015? We hope so, but also don’t want to set unfair expectations just yet.

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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