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Mike Clevinger’s Tommy John: Reassessing the Padres, Past and Future

We planned to talk about Clevinger’s Tommy John surgery on MLB Network, and then didn’t. My research and thoughts have a new home here!

Mike Clevinger by Erik Drost is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mike Clevinger’s Tommy John: Reassessing the Padres, Past and Future


Estimated Reading Time: 11 Minutes

On Monday, the Padres announced that they were signing Mike Clevinger to a two-year, $11.5 million deal, and in the same breath, that he would be getting Tommy John surgery. This apparent good news/bad news scenario is even a little light on the good news, since this is not a contract extension but a buyout of Clevinger’s final arbitration years.

Still, the Padres are getting a price that has Clevinger’s injury, surgery, and rehab baked in. He will make $2 million for his 2021 rehab year, and $6.5 million in 2022, with performance bonuses. The remaining $3 million is a deferred signing bonus.

This is clearly less than Clevinger would have made, otherwise. For example, his former teammate Trevor Bauer got $17.5 million in his final year of arbitration.

But still, this is nothing but a blow for the Padres. The “good news” part of it is a mirage.

Because Clevinger did not contribute much to the Friars in their 2020 playoff push. He won two games with another decent start that ended in a loss, and then succumbed to elbow issues. He pitched one inning the NLDS, after missing the Wild Card series.

San Diego’s blockbuster trade with Cleveland at the deadline this summer was predicated on the notion that they would be getting two full years of Clevinger’s talents to anchor their rotation. How does it look now?

Revisiting the Clevinger Trade

Hindsight is the winner of any trade in sports. But with the future veiled, if I’m AJ Preller, I absolutely make that trade, and not just because I am AJ Preller in this hypothetical, and I’m poised to acquire the rest of Major League Baseball on the incredible wealth of my farm system. (If you don’t recall, AJ Preller made history by trading 26 players in a three-day span.)

At the time, I even thought this trade was weak for Cleveland, thinking that they should have gotten a better big-league-proven outfielder to address their own needs for their playoff aspirations. Now, they may be the winners of this bargain. Having made a similar trade shipping off Corey Kluber, who would pitch one inning in 2020, the Indians may actually be able to puncture the veil to the future, after all.

Here are the six players—yes, six—that the Padres gave up for Clevinger’s contract:

Josh Naylor

The 23-year-old outfielder hasn’t quite hit his stride at the major league level, but he hasn’t yet played 162 games. His minor league track record was excellent, with 125 wRC+ in his last two seasons, and he comes with a first-round pedigree.

Cal Quantrill

Also a former first-round pick, this 25-year-old right-hander limits hard contact well: the 85.5 MPH average exit velocity was in the top 9% of the league. He had a 2.25 ERA this season, mostly in relief.

Joey Cantillo

Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs considered Cantillo the best prospect in the trade. The lefty is only 20 years old,  and could be a back-end of the rotation arm if stays on his current trajectory, or a top 100 prospect with a velocity bump. And now he’s in Cleveland, an organization well known for developing, say, both 2020 Cy Young winners.

Gabriel Arias

Also just 20 years old, Arias is a plus defender with raw power, but could be an everyday shortstop if he cuts his strikeouts.

Owen Miller

This 24-year-old can play second, third, and short, with good contact and power and might be able to slot in next season, given that Cleveland may be losing a pair of middle infielders.

Austin Hedges

I only list the superior pitch-framing backstop Hedges last because the Padres did an Austin-the-catcher swap and acquired Austin Nola to man the dish. (And how.) Though I am known for nothing if not my extreme, fundamentalist, pro-Nola stance, it’s not the loss of the 28-year-old Hedges, so much what they lost in order to fill his vacancy, that may haunt them. In acquiring Nola, along with Dan Altavilla and his 5.75 ERA and Austin Adams and his torn ACL, the Padres gave up Taylor Trammell, Luis Torrens, Ty France and Andres Munoz.

 I won’t break down everything in this trade, but I will note that Taylor Trammell is the real heartbreaker here. The Padres’ fourth-ranked prospect at the time, Trammell boasts 70-grade speed, 55-grade raw power and a 55-grade hit tool. Longenhagen considered him the best prospect moved by any team at this year’s trade deadline. The Padres upgraded their Austin, too, but I still feel like Trammell, Torrens, France and Munoz are collateral dominoes, here.

San Diego also acquired the contract of Greg Allen in the trade, to be fair. Greg Allen can run like the wind. But Allen also has a career 69 wRC+, which in this case, is not nice.

Tommy John 2: The Revenge of the UCL

The main concern that gives me pause about the contract given to Clevinger is the fact that this will be his second Tommy John surgery. With so many pitchers putting their ligaments under the knife, we’ve become accustomed to penciling in a date for their return, a year and a half later, and assuming we will have, for instance, our old Clevdog back.

But that is frequently not the case, with the return year from Tommy John surgery often being rocky.

And a second TJ procedure makes it even less projectable.

Nathan Eovaldi presents the blueprint for success following a second Tommy John. But it was only a couple of months shy of two years between his final game with the Yankees, on August 16, 2016, and his first game with the Rays, on May 30, 2018. But Edinson Volquez, who underwent the procedure on August 4, 2017, only has 21.2 innings of a 6.55 ERA to show for it in his last two seasons. Jarrod Parker’s second Tommy John led to a string of injuries and complications, and he never pitched in the majors again.*

Obviously, none of these players are quite the pitcher that Clevinger is, when healthy. And relievers who have had the surgery twice can find their way back to be exceptionally productive for their teams, as we have seen with Daniel Hudson, Brian Wilson, and the notably panicked Pete Fairbanks. But it still seems risky to do the typical mental math for Baby’s First TJ and expect Clevinger back for 2022.

*Thank you to a researcher named Kevin at MLB Network, whose last name I do not know, for helping me dig up these names when I was intending to make this point on the show.

The Padres’ Past

Particularly since the Padres have a history of inking pitchers who spend little time on the mound for them.

Their recent two-year deal with Garrett Richards, who missed most of 2019 with Tommy John recovery, probably springs to mind first for its similar structure to the buyout of Clevinger’s contract. Richards had a decent 2020 season, and no one in 2018 foresaw a pandemic-shortened sixty-game summer. But were the 57 innings of a 4.89 ERA worth the $15.5 million the Padres gave him? I think the most charitable answer is: maaaaaybe?

But it’s certainly not the saddest example.

The long tragedy of Mark Prior and his sophomore year pitch counts (an average of 126.1 in September and 122.7 in the playoffs) began its endgame in two years with the Padres, 2008 and 2009, in which he never pitched for the major league team. But each year, they signed him for a mere (odd but true) $1 million, so it was a very fair price to pay for the gamble.

But in 2013, the Padres signed Josh Johnson to an $8 million deal, and he never ended up giving them a single inning. A strained forearm turned into TJ Number Two. The Padres re-signed him for $1 million the following offseason, whereupon he had his third Tommy John surgery.

Of course, this kind of bad luck befalls many teams. The Phillies apparently had such PTSD from paying David Robertson $23 million for 6.2 innings that they resolved never to purchase the contract of another reliever again. But the history only makes this moment more difficult for the Padres.

And the fact that it’s coinciding with Slam Diego finally looking ascendant after years of building makes it devastating.

This is what made me, when I heard this news, howl “noooo.” Not “NOOOOO!” But “noooo:” plaintive, forlorn. Multiple times. Enough that my dog became perturbed by my abandoned puppy imitation, and my husband, deliverer of the news, decided to get on with his life, and left for the kitchen.

To be clear, I really like Mike Clevinger, despite some of his less-than-excellent choices that led him to be ostracized by his former team. It may have lessened my affection, but I still really like him. I can’t help it. When he played for Cleveland, I was a huge proponent of them renaming their team “The Cleveland Clevdogs,” as I wrote earlier this year.

People are complicated. I still like Clevy.

But I howled “noooo,” again and again, descending in pitch, because I really love this Padres team. Who doesn’t? I defy anyone to look into the sweet, shimmering eyes of this Padres team and not melt. And this is sad, sad news for them.

The Padres did everything right.

They stocked their farm system. They developed talent. (And how.) They signed free-agents to big-time deals, even when it didn’t make sense at the time (Eric Hosmer, I’m looking at you). And now, when they pushed all of their chips in, they didn’t get what they expected when the dealer flipped over the river.

The Padres’ Future

Because without Clevinger, the Padres rotation is a basket of question marks. Dinelson Lamet continues to carve up batters with just two very excellent pitches, but he has a lot of injury history—including a Tommy John surgery in 2018—and suffered from a nebulous arm ailment that left the Padres stranded in the postseason.

On the record for a biceps injury, Lamet is currently getting PRP injections in his elbow. Even if he’s back on Opening Day, it’s hard to imagine him pitching through an entire season, an exacerbated case of innings workload considerations going into 2021.

Chris Paddack, meanwhile, didn’t follow up his spectacular rookie season with an encore. It’s worth noting that in 2020, he had a monstrous home-run-to-fly-ball rate of 25% that should regress closer to the 14.9% league average. However, his average exit velocity also jumped up by 3 MPH, suggesting a good portion of his poorer results were deserved. With perspective, we can also call his rookie year BABIP unquestionably low at .239. With something closer to an average BABIP of .300, he may simply be more of a 4.00 ERA pitcher.

It must be mentioned that Zach Davies had a nice season, with a 2.73 ERA. But even without parsing his peripherals, I think I am not alone in my hesitancy to cast Davies in the role of rotation anchor.

Trust the Prospects?

And perhaps the most important question in the bouquet of questions is: will their prospects be ready to step up? Mackenzie Gore was arguably the best pitching prospect in MLB coming into 2020, which made it all the more mysterious that we never saw him in 2020. Maybe adding Clevinger removed the need to bring up Gore this year, but on the other hand, it seems odd that they didn’t want to deploy him when Clevinger’s health faltered. If only to have Gore acclimated to the big leagues in case they ended up needing him in the postseason, which, of course, they did. It feels unlikely that they were merely manipulating Gore’s service time when they were also in win-now mode enough to trade Taylor Trammell, so I can’t help worrying if there’s something we don’t know, behind the veiled mystery of the alternate training camp.

The Padres did, of course, elect to bring up another one of their star prospects, Luis Patino, who only pitched out of the bullpen this year. That he struggled a little bit might have been expected, given that he had only advanced as high as 7.2 innings in AA ball before the 2020 season. However, his superb 2019, with a 2.57 ERA, also showed notable progress in-season with his control and command, so perhaps more could have been expected, too.

And another of their young pitchers, Adrian Morejon, may not live up to his potential without a turnaround. Plagued with injuries, Morejon has had a difficult time sustaining the development of his pitches. Over the past two seasons, Morejon has a 6.26 ERA in 27.1 innings of work. This also gives him a career 69 ERA+ which is also not nice, in this case, but at least gives Greg Allen some company.

But the fact is, San Diego may need all three of these pitchers to contribute in 2021.

And either way, getting a starting pitcher just became their number one priority. Having just paid Mike Clevinger.

Nooooo.

Ellen Adair is an actor, probably best known as Janet Bayne in “Homeland,” Bess McTeer in “The Sinner,” and Bridget Saltire in “The Slap,” but has been in a lot of other TV shows, films, and theater that the truly curious can investigate at www.ellenadair.com. As a human being, she is best known for her unhealthy love of baseball. It says so on her business cards. She loves baseball in general, but the Phillies are her life partner. She is the author of "Curtain Speech," from Pen & Anvil Press, and is working on bringing to life a TV series about baseball writers. Connect with her on Twitter at @ellen_adair or Instagram at @ellenadairg.

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