It’s that time of year where any conversation between adults who happen to work for baseball teams constitutes a panic-inducing Twitter rumor. One of the latest is this bizarre idea that the Indians might actually deal Mike Clevinger.
Luckily it doesn’t sound like anything is too far along, with one executive even reportedly saying the Indians’ asking price is “crazy high”. As it should be.
But, just in case anyone needs a reminder: Hey, maybe don’t trade Mike Clevinger. Even if you can be enticed with an aging reliever on his way out of the league in a couple years, just don’t do it.
Even with the emergence of Shane Bieber, Cy Young Candidate, and the hopeful potential of Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac, 2019 should have taught us the valuable lesson of pitcher depth. It doesn’t take much for one, two, or even three excellent pitchers to suddenly be sidelined and left you to watch your division opponent sweep the rug out from under you.
Clevinger was among those caught in the storm of injury that the Indians faced last season, but when he returned from a back injury and got his feet back under him, he had arguably his best season ever. In 126.0 innings, he set a new high in strikeout rate (33.9%), a new low walk rate (7.4%) only 9.7% of his fly balls hit were home runs. Which, you guessed it, was a career-high.
Watching Clevinger’s first couple starts, it looked like he was on pace to be even better than the incredible season he put up after-the-fact. He was utterly unhittable in his first starts against the White Sox and Blue Jays, striking out 22 batters and walk four in 12.0 innings of work. And roughly have of that came with a back injury already nagging him.
Looking at his Statcast measurements, Clevinger went from a very-good advanced pitcher in 2018 to flat out one of the best in the league. His exit velocity, expected wOBA, expected slugging, strikeout rate, and expected batting average were all in the top 11% of baseball. His fastball velocity was in the 83rd percentile, up from a pedestrian 64th last season. Clevinger was in the elite of the elite in 2019, and given a full season he would have been right up there with his teammate in the All-Star Game and receiving heaps of praise after the season.
Clevinger just turned 29 today as of this writing, and is entering his first year of arbitration. If the Indians intend to pay him all the way through arbitration, he won’t be a free agent until after the 2022 season. But teams have already smelled tight wallets in the water, and surely they’ll be swarming until then. In the uber-depressing way of looking at baseball where every player is a depreciating asset the second they step on the field, yes — trading Mike Clevinger might make sense. If the Indians are truly going to refuse to spend on the star players they develop, it might make sense to ditch him now before he hits 30 and won’t have the value of a used Kia.
But the goal of dealing Clevinger to expand your window makes as little sense as trading Lindor too early. You don’t need to keep creating a window to win when you’re in one now. If the Indians are going to continue this rolling window they have going — where they don’t completely tank, but don’t ever go full-in, either — what’s the sense in getting a major-league ready player or two who will give you maybe five years of being as good as Clevinger when you can just use the Clevinger you have that you already know is good for the next three years?
Clevinger is already in the top echelon of pitchers, and with his growth mindset and desire to learn using cutting edge analytics there’s no telling how much further he can ascend in the next three years.
The merits of trading an aging and potentially declining Corey Kluber for a reliever can at least be seen when you squint. But dealing away Mike Clevinger in the prime of his career, with at least three more seasons of having him on your team while you’re a contending team, is absolutely bonkers.
Whatever crazy high price the Indians are bandying about right now, they should double it. Then add a zero.