Almost every team probably has some degree of interest in Clase. He has led MLB in saves and games finished in each of the last two seasons. The 25-year-old righty has made the All-Star Game in consecutive years. He has essentially been an elite reliever from the time Cleveland was able to put him on the mound.
Cleveland acquired Clase in what turned out to be a very lopsided trade sending former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber to the Rangers during the 2019-20 offseason. His tenure with the club couldn’t have begun much worse, as Clase was suspended for the shortened season after a failed PED test. Once he took the Progressive Field mound, he was dominant. The fireballing righty turned in a 1.29 ERA over 69 2/3 frames as a rookie.
The Guardians signed Clase to a $20MM extension the following April. He responded with a 1.36 ERA over a league-leading 77 appearances. Clase’s numbers took a step back last season, as he allowed 3.22 earned runs per nine. After running a 27.5% strikeout rate between 2021-22, he fanned a slightly below-average 21.2% of hitters last year. Ground-ball rates that had sat north of 60% in each of his first two years in Cleveland dropped, albeit to a still excellent 55% clip.
Even if Clase wasn’t quite as dominant last season, he’s still one of the best relievers in the game. His primary pitch, his cutter, averages more than 99 MPH. He’s one of the sport’s top ground-ball pitchers and rarely issues free passes.
The contract only adds to the appeal. Clase will make just $2.5MM next season. He’s due respective $4.5MM and $6MM salaries in 2025-26. The deal contains $10.5MM club options (with $2MM buyouts) covering 2027-28, although he’s likely to escalate the value of those options to $13MM apiece. He’d also receive a $1MM assignment bonus in the event of a trade. That’s nevertheless affordable enough to comfortably fit in the budget for any team, including the Guardians, at least for the next three seasons.
That seemingly makes it a long shot Cleveland pulls the trigger on a deal. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported shortly before the Winter Meetings the Guardians were open to offers, however. They’d presumably only do so for a package built around multiple top prospects given Clase’s ceiling and five years of club control.
Clase is one of a number of possibilities. Top free agent reliever Josh Hader remains unsigned. So does Robert Stephenson, arguably the top righty reliever in this year’s class (and a player in whom the Cubs have shown interest). Hector Neris and Phil Maton are solid middle relief options.
A run at anyone in that group would require a pivot from the Cubs’ general approach to the relief corps. Chicago has shied away from notable free agent investments since their signing of Craig Kimbrel. As shown on MLBTR’s Contract Tracker, the Cubs haven’t guaranteed more than one year or $5MM to a free agent bullpen arm over the past five offseasons.
Hoyer spoke generally about that reluctance to commit top dollar in the relief corps. “The elite, elite closer, the leverage they pitch in can make a difference,” he said (via Levine). “But the bullpen performances are the most volatile on the baseball field. … The pen is a higher volatility and aggression area. So you want to put your dollars to use in the areas you are most certain about.”
That could point to a preference to add to the group via trade if possible. The bullpen and third base are potential targets a month from Spring Training. At least week’s Cubs Convention, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer downplayed the chances of signing another starter after the four-year deal for Shota Imanaga (link via Sahadev Sharma of the Athletic).
Hoyer and skipper Craig Counsell have each suggested trade pickup Michael Busch could address their first base vacancy (link from Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times). If the Cubs are content with Christopher Morel at designated hitter and the combination of Mike Tauchman and Pete Crow-Armstrong to handle center field, that leaves the hot corner and bullpen as the biggest areas of concern.