Mike Clevinger Activates San Diego’s Full Win-Now Modeon August 31, 2020 at 8:13 pm

Mike Clevinger Activates San Diego’s Full Win-Now Mode

The San Diego Padres and Cleveland Indians reached a whopper of an agreement on trade deadline day, with Cleveland sending pitcher Mike Clevinger, outfielder Greg Allen, and a player to be named later to the Padres for shortstop Gabriel Arias, catcher Austin Hedges, pitcher Cal Quantrill, first baseman Josh Naylor, pitcher Joey Cantillo, and shortstop Owen Miller. A nine-player trade is a significant deal, and with so many familiar names and a legitimate major league ace in the mix, this is one that will be looked back on for a long time, regardless of how it works out for either side.

The Padres have seen the wisdom of pushing in all of their chips for some time, though not always with the right cards in their hand. Just a few months into A.J. Preller’s stint as the general manager, the team decided to go all-in coming off a 77-85 season, bringing in Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, James Shields, Derek Norris, and Will Middlebrooks in a two-month period over the 2014-2015 offseason. Problem was, the team wasn’t holding a high pair in that particular card game, and with the team’s talent otherwise generally unimpressive, San Diego actually won fewer games in 2015 than in 2014. Those moves cost them money, time, and players such as Yasmani Grandal, Trea Turner, Max Fried, Joe Ross, and Zach Eflin. That the team later turned a bag of lemons into liquid gold by landing Fernando Tatis Jr. for a struggling James Shields was a nice post-credits vignette for this tale of tragedy and heartbreak, but was hardly a reasonable expectation at the time of these moves.

In 2014, the Padres traded players they needed for players they didn’t.

2020 is a whole different story. This time around, the Padres are indisputably a serious contender, a 21-15 team, one that our projected standings now peg with a 98% chance of making the playoffs. Nor does this kind of performance appear to be any kind of fluke, at least in the eyes of the ZiPS projections. ZiPS saw Wild Card upside for the Padres in 2019 — which didn’t happen — but forecast an even better team in 2020, one it projected with an 87-75 record and a 52% chance of making the playoffs back before the season’s postponement.

When reshuffling the projections for 2020’s playoff system, the Padres gained more than any team in baseball from the previous format. Again, this was hardly a surprise, as a 16-team playoff structure minimizes the negative consequences of playing in the same division as the Los Angeles Dodgers. This boost is a phenomenon I’m fairly certain the team was aware of when making their dealine plans.

There were nine players in this trade, but in this epic, Mike Clevinger is the clear star of the story. He’s the ringbearer, the one who will defeat the empire, or the boy with the lightning scar. This trade doesn’t happen without Clevinger and how this trade is perceived in the future will likely depend largely on what his career with the Padres looks like.

As a pitcher, there’s little not to like about Clevinger. It would be a bit of an exaggeration to call him Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens in their primes, but he’s firmly established himself in the top tier of starting pitchers. He already has two four-WAR seasons under his belt, one of which he pulled off despite being held to just 21 starts due to a back injury and then an ankle sprain. Even a quick return after his back injury wasn’t enough to keep him from hitting the upper 90s on the radar gun at will. His repertoire is deep and varied, with four pitches (fastball, slider, curveball, changeup) that batters missed on with at least 30% of their swings in 2019. There was even time this year to add a cutter to his arsenal, giving him yet another weapon.

Even projecting only 146 2/3 innings to hedge on his health, ZiPS predicted a 3.56 FIP, 175 strikeouts, and 3.2 WAR 2020 back before the season was cut down by more than half. Time has been missed in 2020, but that’s not due to some scary arm injury, but rather to Clevinger’s own unfortunate judgment, which we can only hope is unlikely to be an issue in a normal season. Before 2020, ZiPS projected Clevinger to be 13th in ERA+ among major league starters from 2020-2022:

That’s impressive company, and if a team doesn’t develop its own starters of that caliber, they’re quite expensive to add to the roster:

If Clevinger stays healthy and throws 180-200 innings, those are All-Star projections.

By making this trade, the Padres fulfill one of my important qualifications for a blockbuster in this shortened season: swinging a trade that has dividends well past 2020. While Clevinger obviously strengthens the top of the Padre rotation now, one can argue that this trade is even more about 2021 and 2022 than it is about this season. As noted above, the Padres are quite likely to play in October, with or without Clevinger; this year’s postseason format makes being the best team in the field less important than at any other time in history. What this trade does for the Padres is pull the team even closer to the Dodgers for the next couple of seasons, close enough that they can pounce on the slightest signs of weakness from the boys in Chavez Ravine.

How close? To find out, I ran the ZiPS projected standings for the 2021 season, using only players who are not due to hit free agency after this season. Obviously, these aren’t remotely final projections — it’s August 2020 after all — but they do give us a sense of where teams stands in relative terms:

With their current system and after the trades made in recent days, the Padres have the second-best roster in the National League in terms of 2021 competitiveness. This is a top-tier team.

For Cleveland, one wonders if this signals some kind of rebuilding phase, or at least a bit of major retooling, in a way that the Corey Kluber trade didn’t. Kluber was a tremendous risk due to his 2019 injuries, while Clevinger is a pitcher at the top of his game. It’s difficult to replace a pitcher of his stature quickly, something that is also reflected in the very preliminary ZiPS 2021 projections, which now have the Indians just behind the White Sox:

Unlike the Padres, you don’t get the sense of the Indians going all-out, which is concerning given that Francisco Lindor, one of the few players who is even harder to replace than Clevinger, is a free agent after the 2021 season. As my colleague Craig Edwards noted earlier today, Cleveland went for quantity more than quality with the return, with none of the prospects ranked in our Padres preseason top 10.

That’s not to say Cleveland received nothing in return, but only a few of the players are likely to have an impact in the majors in the next couple of seasons, and none of them are likely to be anywhere near Clevinger’s level. Quantrill, the son of former major leaguer Paul Quantrill, is a former first-round pick of the Padres but had largely been eclipsed by other arms in the organization over the last couple of seasons. Some longball issues in 2019 left Quantrill in the bullpen in 2020 where he’s been adequate, with a FIP of 3.94. The team hasn’t had faith in Quantrill in high-leverage situations, electing not to use him in any since a near-disastrous 10th-inning appearance against the Rangers when he hit Derek Dietrich on the elbow and fumbled a bunt by Jose Trevino. Tim Hill was left to clean up the mess, allowing a run, and Quantrill was only bailed out by a Manny Machado grand slam.

The jury’s still out on Quantrill long-term, but he would have found it difficult to get another shot at the rotation with higher-upside arms like MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patino coming up behind him. Cleveland will likely at least try him in the rotation, which is where I’m projecting him since that’s where his upside likely lies:

At some point, San Diego was going to need to choose between Francisco Mejia and Hedges. In the short term at least, the team has apparently chosen “none of the above,” acquiring both Jason Castro and Austin Nola in the last few days. That left Hedges third or fourth on the team’s depth chart.

Thanks to his glove, Hedges had just about the best possible season in 2019 that anyone hitting .176/.252/.311 could possibly have, managing to put up 1.4 WAR despite an offensive profile that looked like that of a bad 1960s shortstop. The hope with Hedges was that he would at least develop a little bit offensively, but 2018’s green shoots didn’t blossom, and the contending Padres are out of time to wait around for him.

For Cleveland, Hedges will take Roberto Perez‘s role for the moment, another typically offensively challenged catcher with serious defensive chops. Cleveland’s long been willing to carry a catcher of this type on the roster, so they likely don’t have any unrealistic notions about Hedges’ offensive upside:

Naylor isn’t ideally suited as a defensive outfielder, but with the Indians, he might eventually find an opportunity at first base, his natural position if he has any. Naylor’s shown surprisingly good plate discipline in the majors, but the raw power the team hoped to find has largely been missing and he hits an awful lot of grounders for a plodding slugger. The Padres, with the acquisition of Mitch Moreland, didn’t really have a place to play Naylor, and Cleveland’s thin outfield gives him a better chance to find his breakout:

ZiPS sees a lot to like in the futures of Arias and Miller, ranking them more highly than most prospect watchers. ZiPS doesn’t think Arias will ever hit for a high average, but his defense fared well in my minor league Gameday tracking and the computer thinks that he could peak in the mid-20s for homers. Miller projects with a fairly low ceiling, but ZiPS think there’s a good chance he has a Bret Barberie/Dale Sveum type of career (ZiPS tends to like high floor guys better than most scouting gurus). The computer has much less to say about Cantillo, as low-level minor league pitchers with limited professional experience are wild gambles in most cases. Eric Longenhagen will have more on the prospects shortly.

There’s one last player to talk about, Greg Allen, who quietly also goes to San Diego. It’s unlikely that this deal will ever be known as the Greg Allen trade, but he does have some use to the Padres as a fifth outfielder who can play a little defense:

Overall, it’s hard to not love this trade for the Padres. As I said many words ago, the team’s mistake in 2014 was trading players they needed for players they didn’t. This time around, they’ve learned the lesson, trading players they didn’t need for the player they do. They added the best pitcher likely available for trade, with the possible exception of Lance Lynn, will have him for two additional seasons, and kept all of their most highly valued prospects. What curmudgeon could hate a trade like that?

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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