The Phillies took a small gamble today in their quest to right a bullpen that was wrought with problems in 2020 by receiving relief pitcher Jose Alvarado from the Tampa Bay Rays and sending relief pitcher Garrett Cleavinger to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a multi-team deal between the three clubs.
Alvarado is a 25-year-old fire-balling left-hander that is coming into his fourth season of service time in the Majors and likely stands to be an integral part of the 2021 Phillies bullpen.
His first three plus Major League seasons were a mixed bag for the Rays. Alvarado was downright dominant in 2018, posting an ERA of 2.39 and 80 strikeouts in 64 innings pitched. In 2019 however, control issues and injuries were major factors as Alvarado walked 8.1 batters per 9 innings, leading to an inflated ERA of 4.80. The year also found Alvarado taking multiple trips to the injured list, including a bout with elbow inflammation that ended his season prematurely.
The lefty reliever only pitched 9 innings worth of work in the shortened 2020 season, marred by both another bad walk rate of 6 walks per 9 innings and shoulder inflammation that ended his season in mid-August. Still, if Alvarado is healthy and right, there is reason to believe he could return to his 2018 form.
For one, Steamer projections state as much as they currently suggest Alvarado will post a 3.48 ERA and 55 innings pitched for the 2021 season. This sounds feasible, given his history of success and his repertoire.
Alvarado throws three pitches: a heavy sinker that averages out at 96-97 mph, a cutter that sacrifices some velocity for more movement and a curveball that changes speeds and creates a third direction for the batter to worry about in terms of break. When going well his sinker will generate a lot of ground balls (55% ground ball percentage in 2018 when 44% is league average) and the cutter will create swings and misses (58.5% whiff rate in 2018 when league avg was 24.9%).
The Phillies will hope he has his health and all three pitches working in 2021 as they posted a league worst 7.06 bullpen ERA this past season and are in dire need of help for the late innings. Alvarado is capable of facing both lefties and righties, proven by the fact that right-handed hitters have a worse batting average and on base percentage against him in nearly twice as many career plate appearances. For that reason, Alvarado could indeed slate into the 7th or 8th inning setup role in front of presumed closer Hector Neris.
Naturally, for the Phillies to receive Alvarado they had to give someone up. That someone was another left-handed reliever, Garrett Cleavinger who is now a member of the Dodgers organization.
Cleavinger is a 26-year-old relief pitcher and former 3rd round pick of the Baltimore Orioles who became a member of the Phillies organization during the Jeremy Hellickson trade at the 2017 trade deadline. Cleavinger spent all of 2019 at the Double A level for the Phillies and made his first and only Major League appearance against the New York Mets on Sept 17 of this past season. He pitched 2/3 of an inning and surrendered a home run in that effort.
Ironically, Cleavinger is best known for being a groundball pitcher in the minors himself, only allowing 14 homers in 221 minor league innings and featuring a curveball that Fangraphs’ 2017 Prospects Report rated at 60 (basically, well above average) on a 20-80 scale. Once considered a player that could make the Majors by 2018, he leveled off in Double A in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and never reached a higher level until his one September appearance at Citizens Bank Park. The biggest reason for that would be injuries that cut his 2018 campaign short and his own control struggles. He has never allowed fewer than 5.2 walks per 9 innings at any level.
In some way, he feels like a slightly older version of Alvarado that has done less to prove it in the Majors. To get that opportunity to prove himself, he will have to compete with a well-established stable of bullpen arms for the Dodgers. Still, there is some suggestion that Cleavinger has had a spike in velocity and that could play into the Dodgers future plans.
The three-way deal was completed with former Dodgers minor league infielder Dillon Paulson heading to the Rays along with a Player to be Named Later. The cost-cutting Rays likely benefit from no longer being on the financial hook for the arbitration eligible Alvarado and receive a left-handed 23-year-old first baseman who slashed .293/.423/.500 in 39 games at High A ball in 2019 in the process. He was a 13th round pick of the Dodgers in 2018.
Feature photo courtesy of Last Word On Baseball