Free agent Corey Kluber is out to prove he's healthy, as the right-hander prepares for a bullpen session in front of major league teams Wednesday in Florida.
The two time Cy Young winner has pitched in just eight games over the past two seasons but says his injuries are a thing of the past.
"I don't have a mindset that I need to prove myself to anyone, so to speak," the 34-year-old said in a phone interview recently. "I just need to show people that I'm healthy. I'm not putting pressure on myself to go out there and do X, Y and Z. It's just about showing teams I'm progressing through a normal offseason."
The 25- to 30-pitch tryout in front of scouts from about two thirds of MLB teams is necessary for Kluber after three separate injuries sidelined him over the past two years. He fractured his right arm after getting hit by a line drive in a game early in 2019, then was shut down during his rehab due to an abdominal injury. The latest ailment may have been the most frustrating, as Kluber missed all but one inning for the Texas Rangers in 2020 after experiencing a muscle issue in the back of his throwing shoulder. His season ended just as baseball was returning.
"Jumping from intrasquad to a game that matters, probably had something to do with it," Kluber said.
It was a classic pandemic-related injury. Kluber lives in Massachusetts, so when spring training was halted in mid-March, he wasn't exactly sure how to continue his preparation. Throwing against a fence -- which is how Kluber kept up his arm strength at first -- isn't exactly the ideal way to stay ready. Like all players, his normal routine came to a halt.
"I don't think anyone was really prepared to figure out how to train in that environment," Kluber stated. "Now, having gone through it, I think I have a better idea of how to get the work you need in. It helps to have Eric's place in Massachusetts and in Florida."
Eric is Eric Cressey, pitching guru to a handful of major league baseball players. But his training facility in Massachusetts was closed early on in the pandemic. It's why heading to Florida, where there are fewer restrictions, has been helpful for Kluber and other pitchers. Cressey's Florida facility will be where Kluber's bullpen session for scouts will take place.
"No one had a lot of access to sports medicine resources or hands-on manual therapy or gyms and stuff," Cressey said of the shutdown. "Had this been a longer season he could have come back if the Rangers had been in the mix."
Kluber added: "If we had done [the tryout] in a state like Massachusetts, where I live, it probably would have been more difficult."
Kluber was already trying to find his best form after the injuries in 2019. Even before the broken arm, his delivery was off, leading to some struggles and a higher than usual ERA (5.80) that season, even though it was compiled in only seven starts. It's why he was excited for 2020 despite the awkward training routine during the shutdown.
"My low moment was after that first inning in Texas just because I had spent over a year working my butt off to get to that point," he said. "One of the things I wanted to make sure that I did while I was hurt [in 2019] was piece together that puzzle and what had gone sideways and how do I get on track. And I think we did that."
The form he showed for that half decade run, when he won two Cy Young Awards, was as good as anyone in the game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, from 2014 to 2018 Kluber struck out 10 or more in 44 games, second in the AL to Chris Sale. Opponents chased his pitches outside the strike zone at a 33% clip, third in baseball. He also threw the fourth-most pitches in the game over that timeframe.
"In the spring of 2020 I got a text from Corey saying he felt like, in the first time in years, he could do whatever he wanted to do with the baseball," Cressey said. "He had some subtle things he needed to be addressed. And he did."
But Kluber never got a chance to showcase it in a big league game. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said he was as surprised as anyone when Kluber went down in his first outing for them after coming over from Cleveland before the 2020 season.
"I felt like he was in a really, really good spot, had had really no physical issues at all," Daniels told The Associated Press and other reporters when Kluber was injured in July. "Really no indication that this was coming. He was throwing the ball really well."
And so Wednesday is his next step in his comeback. In his last bullpen session over the weekend, he was sitting between 87-89 mph, right where Cressey says he should be at this point in his comeback.
"You don't need to see Corey Kluber go out and throw 95 in the bullpen to know he's back," Cressey said. "He's ahead of everyone else."
One executive, whose team won't be in Florida to watch Kluber, calls him the classic "buy-low" candidate.
"He might be a middle of the rotation guy to start the season, but you're getting a two-time Cy Young winner," the executive said. "By the end of the year, he could be leading your staff."
Kluber says he actually thinks he's stronger in certain areas after all the rehab, while the rest of his body isn't worn down after two seasons of fluky injuries.
"I didn't have to spend the first month of the offseason piecing things back together," Kluber said. "But I tried the whole silver lining approach last year. I think I've stopped questioning why after this latest one. It is what it is."
That's been the prevailing thought from many players during the past 10 months. For those on a long-term contract, it's less of an issue. For those coming back from injury, like Kluber, while also searching for a team to play for, it hasn't been the easiest of situations to navigate. Kluber admitted he has had moments when he wondered, "What if the pandemic never happened?"
"I spent more time dwelling on it than I should have," he said. "What could I have done differently? It's not going to do me any good to keep thinking, 'What if?' I did as much as possible. I don't think I lacked any preparation in summer camp ... I'm in a spot now where I can contribute to a team that's looking to compete."
As for Wednesday, Kluber isn't putting more pressure on himself than he needs to. This isn't a minor leaguer looking for a spring invite. This is a player with a decorated track record.
"I'm confident in throwing whatever pitches and not holding back," he stated. "No hesitancy in going after it. That's the goal more than showing I'm Corey Kluber from whatever year."