Braves: It’s time to make a splash and trade for Mike Clevinger

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The August 31st trade deadline is fast approaching, meaning MLB’s pool of contending teams should have some idea as to what direction they intend to go by now. With roughly 30 games completed (for most clubs), it should be obvious where reinforcements are needed.

For the Braves especially, no aspect of the team has struggled more than their starting rotation — a unit that has collectively posted both the fifth-worst ERA and FIP in the majors (5.37 ERA / 5.34 FIP). And though pitcher wins aren’t as crucial as once thought, through 28 combined starts this season by Braves’ starting pitchers, the staff has managed to tally just four wins — tied for the second-fewest wins by any rotation in the league. All-in-all, the Braves’ starting staff hasn’t been much help in 2020. However, if this team is interested in making it three-straight NL East titles, perhaps it’s time for a blockbuster trade.

Here’s where Indians’ starter Mike Clevinger comes into play…

Despite Clevinger’s — and rotation-mate Zach Plesac’s — questionable decision to leave the team hotel a few weeks ago (a choice that resulted in both pitchers being reprimanded and sent to Cleveland’s alternate site), the 29-year-old starter comes with a ton of upside.

2020 has not been perfect for Clevinger, featuring an obvious issue with walks (5.40 BB/9) and home runs (2.16 HR/9). Still, thanks to some incredible luck stranding runners (97.6 LOB%), he has hidden his 6.26 FIP with a much more acceptable 3.24 ERA through three starts (16.2 innings). Although the right-hander’s appeal doesn’t derive simply from a small sample of innings during a shortened 2020 campaign. 

It’s what Clevinger has been able to accomplish over the last three seasons that make him the most prominent name that could be moved at this year’s deadline.

Since he was selected by the Angels in the fourth round of the 2011 MLB Draft, the man they call “Sunshine” has averaged 2.2 fWAR during his five-season big league career, featuring back-to-back seasons of 4+ WAR in 2018 (4.2 WAR) and 2019 (4.5 WAR). His repertoire includes an elite mid-90s fastball and one of the league’s most dominant sliders (ranked 11th among starters in the majors from 2018-19, via FanGraphs’ Pitch Value), leading to a career 3.20 ERA and 10+ strikeouts per nine. 

Even better… the Indians make for a perfect trade partner, given their own present roster issues.

According to FanGraphs’ WAR leaderboard, when looking at outfielders, Cleveland ranks dead-last with minus-0.8 WAR, behind the Pirates (-0.6) and Angels (-0.3). And it’s easy to see why: entering Monday’s slate of games, Indian’s outfielders were slashing just .166/.273/.249 collectively — a line that equals a pitiful 45 wRC+. Meanwhile, the Braves are sitting right in the middle of the pack, with their outfielders managing to accrue 1.2 WAR so far (tied for 11th-most in MLB). From day one, Atlanta has had quite a surplus in outfielders, and with a duo of top prospects like Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, the organization can probably afford to cash in for more assistance in the rotation.

But what kind of package are we talking about? Wouldn’t it cost the Braves a fortune in talent to acquire a pitcher like Clevinger?

Yes, of course it would. We’re talking about an All-Star-caliber starter with two more seasons of team control after this one, currently pitching on a $4.1-million salary in his first season of arbitration. These guys don’t grow on trees, and just days away from the trade deadline, there’s already plenty of interest… which does nothing but drive the cost up.

To make matters worse, the postseason landscape is a bit murkier this season because of the added teams (playoffs will feature 16 clubs instead of the usual 10). The American League is already becoming rather clear, but the National League is still a complete toss-up, and that’s probably not going to change in the next week. No one knows if they are truly in it or not, which is illustrated by the fact that 12 of the NL’s 15 teams currently hold 25% or better odds at making the postseason. Hell, the Marlins sat at 17.7% entering Monday night!

However, if there’s an organization that can put together a talented trade package, it’s the Braves. Though Anthopoulos may have to get a little creative as far as who he decides to headline the deal. Sure, the Braves are chalked full of outfielders (both from the majors and minors), but when actually looking at each player on a case by case basis, there are certainly some concerns, at least in regards to guys that are major league ready. 

If including Pache or Waters is out of the question, then Anthopoulos may be forced to consider featuring one of the organization’s top-tier starting pitching prospects (like Ian Anderson, Tucker Davidson, or Kyle Muller). The logic with such a proposal is simple: give up some future pitching talent in exchange for a talent that can help the rotation now. Still, it sure would hurt seeing someone like Anderson traded, given we’ve waited this long to see him finally fully developed.

Either way, whether it’s a household name like Clevinger or someone that flies a bit under the radar, the Braves can’t afford to be complacent during this season’s trade deadline. The current rotation is in shambles, and it’s going to take much more than merely adding a veteran to help stabilize the staff. They need a difference-maker — someone that can consistently toe the rubber every five days and actually help the Braves win some games. Max Fried can’t carry the rotation on his back all season.

The Indians have flirted with trading Clevinger before. And after being recently exiled, there may even be some bad blood between Cleveland and the righty (several Indians’ players were prepared to opt-out of the season if management didn’t move Clevinger and Plesac to the team’s alternate site). This could be an opportunity for the Braves to pounce on a much-needed addition, while at the same time bringing in someone that can help lengthen the starting rotation for the next couple of seasons. It’s going to cost a pretty penny, but as bad as the Braves’ rotation has been so far this year… something must be done.

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