Reigning Cy Young Kluber Looking to Build on 2014 Breakout

It is not very often that a starting pitcher can have the season Corey Kluber had in 2014 and enter the next year with even a smidgeon of lingering doubt.

Fresh off winning last season’s American League Cy Young award following a breakout campaign, there are those – as few as they are – who question whether Kluber’s monster campaign was merely a one-year mirage or the beginnings of a great career.

The Tribe right-hander led the A.L. in wins with 18 against just nine defeats and had a stellar 2.44 ERA. Both of those were career highs for a guy who entered 2014 as someone thought to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm. Big things were never projected for Kluber. Yet, there he was, leading Cleveland to the doorsteps of a second straight postseason berth.

While some may doubt whether or not Kluber will maintain the status he reached a year ago, Tribe manager Terry Francona has no worries that his first-time Opening Day starter will remain at the top.

Kluber, who will turn 29-years old on the day of Cleveland’s home opener on April 10, is not exactly as young as some guys who finally put things all together in the big leagues. However, what is encouraging is the progression his career has taken.

Through parts four previous years, Kluber has progressed from a guy his former team, the Padres, as well as the Indians had tabbed as a possible reliever, to a guy who could perhaps have success at the back of the rotation, to a guy who could fill a No. 3 spot to finally an unquestioned ace.

A fourth round pick in 2007 by San Diego, Kluber was not thought to be a surefire Major Leaguer, much less one of the top hurlers in the game. He plodded through San Diego’s minor league system until the 2010 trade deadline when a struggling Indians team traded away Jake Westbrook to the St. Louis Cardinals. Kluber was sent to Cleveland as part of a three-team deal that saw the Padres get outfielder and former Indian Ryan Ludwick from St. Louis. At the time, the Padres were grooming Kluber as a reliever.

When Kluber made his 2011 MLB debut with the Tribe it was out of the bullpen. He appeared in three games in a relief role with little success. The Indians, in need of starting pitching, put Kluber back into a starters spot in 2012 to mixed results. In 12 starts, he was 2-5 with a 5.14 ERA.

It was 2013 in which Kluber finally proved he was Major League material and could be a key part of a team with playoff aspirations. In Cleveland’s Wild Card season, he went 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA career best numbers to that point. It propelled him into the discussion to be the Tribe’s No. 2 starter behind Justin Masterson when 2014 training camp opened.

No one could have ever seen what happened last year, in what became a wild ride. Masterson fizzled out and was traded. Meanwhile, Kluber pitched better than almost any other starting pitcher in team history having one of the better seasons for a Tribe starter in quite some time. As the Indians were charging hard in the second half and contending for the playoffs, it was Kluber leading the way. He was lights out and nearly unhittable for many of his second half starts last season. He was the leader of a rotation that led the league in ERA over the season’s final two months.

Those last couple of months were what ended up clinching the Cy Young hardware for Cleveland’s ace.

Now Kluber enters 2015 with expectations like never before. No longer is Kluber considered to be just a piece to the championship puzzle. Now he is one of the most important pieces, if not the most important piece in that puzzle.

If the Indians are going to be the championship contenders that they hope to be and that many national pundits think they can be, Kluber will need to continue to build on last year’s success.

Heading into what was to be his last spring start last night, Kluber seemed to be right on track with where he needed to be. On March 27 he mowed down the Arizona Diamondbacks, fanning nine batters, walking two and allowing six hits in six-plus innings. He surrendered just one earned run in that start, throwing 108 pitches. He said he is right where he needs to be to pick up where he left off a season ago.

After winning one of the game’s top pitching prizes last year, Kluber should not have to prove much, but it seems he does. His huge season did come a little bit out of nowhere, pegged as the No. 3 starter for the Tribe out of spring training. He may also have a little more to prove to the Indians management team in terms of securing a long-term contract. Currently on just a one-year, $601,000 deal, Kluber is under team control through the 2018 season, when he will be 32. He can go to arbitration for the first time next offseason. It may be wise for the Tribe to lock up its ace for a couple years beyond the arbitration years soon. However, Kluber may also have to prove for his first couple starts that is picking up where he left off a year ago.

He will get the opportunity right out of the chute. On Monday, in Houston, Kluber will start a regular season opener for the first time in his career. It is something he is excited about, but keeping a level head.

They all count the same and the Indians are hoping to count many more of them as wins than losses as they look to get to the postseason for the second time in three seasons and perhaps finally unseat the Detroit Tigers from the top of the American League Central Division. If the Tribe is to do all of that it will need Kluber to stay at the top of the league and rotation as one of the better No. 1 pitchers in the game. It is lofty heights from where Kluber started off, but heights it seems he is up for the challenge of meeting and heights that many think he can attain despite a few who may still have their doubts.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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