A Healthy Clevinger Climbing Cleveland’s Prospect Rankings
Bob Toth | On 20, Feb 2016
When the Cleveland Indians traded reliever Vinnie Pestano to the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, a chunk of fans who were avid supporters of “VFP” were dealt a devastating blow. Pestano, who had struggled in his final two seasons for the club, would be remembered for his hard-charging ways out of the center field bullpen to the mound while working as one of the more reliable relievers in the league. His 36 holds in 2012 in his breakout campaign were the second most in baseball that season (Tampa Bay’s Joel Peralta – 37) and established a new club record, breaking Rafael Betancourt’s mark of 31 set in 2007.
The rapid descent of Pestano’s career in the Indians bullpen was a surprise, as was the notion that a man once thought to be a potential closer option if the team needed to replace Chris Perez was traded for a minor league pitcher in his fourth professional season and still pitching in A-ball.
Several seasons later, the move is looking more and more favorable for the Indians as right-handed starter Mike Clevinger impressed many in just his second full season in the minors and his first for the Indians organization. Not only is his name now on the radar as a top pitching prospect for the club, his long locks on the mound could get him a following from fans even greater than the numbers commanded by Pestano in the past.
With a pair of full seasons now under his minor league uniform belt, Clevinger has climbed some prospect boards and may even be a factor for the Tribe in 2016 at some point. The club, impressed with his 2015 performance at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus during the playoffs, added him to their 40-man roster after the season.
He came into the pro ball circuit in 2011, when the Angels drafted him in the fourth round out of Seminole Community College. The Florida native saw just three games of action in August that season in Rookie ball and pitched at Single-A Cedar Rapids until the end of May in 2012. The arm injury that shelved him led to the increasingly common Tommy John procedure, and he did not return to the mound in game action until the end of August, 2013.
He started 2014 at the Single-A level with Burlington and after five effective starts was promoted to High-A Inland Empire. A pair of bad outings for the 66ers notwithstanding, he was acquired by the Indians the first week of August and appeared in five games for High-A Carolina.
He started 2015 in the Akron RubberDucks rotation and showed he belonged there. He made 26 starts and pitched into the fifth inning in all but one of them and into the sixth in 19 games. He limited his damage all year, only twice allowing four runs in a game. He gave up more than six hits in an outing just three times and walked three or more just seven times. He twice matched his professional career high of nine strikeouts and made 14 quality starts on the year.
He got better as the year progressed, limiting opposing hitters to a .182 average in his final seven regular season starts, striking out 44 and walking just seven. At home, he allowed just a .196 average in 13 starts for the year.
He finished the season with a 9-8 record and a 2.73 ERA. He struck out 145 batters and walked 40 in 158 innings. It was a slight drop off in his strikeout rate from the previous season, but he reduced his walk rate by one-third. After his 4-4 record and 4.42 ERA in 23 games combined in 2014 with a 1.38 WHIP, he lowered the WHIP mark to just 1.06 in 2015.
His strong season was rewarded with a promotion to the Columbus Clippers just in time for their International League playoff series and at a new level and on a big stage, he did not disappoint.
In his first taste of new competition, Clevinger instead got the taste of ice water and shaving cream postgame as he carried a perfect game into the fifth inning and a no-hitter into the eighth in his Triple-A debut to help the Clippers advance to the Governors’ Cup Finals with their win in the deciding fifth game over Norfolk. He struck out a career-high ten batters in the ball game over seven and two-thirds innings.
He returned to the mound in game five of the International League championship series as Columbus knocked off the Indianapolis Indians in the fifth and final game of that series. He threw seven and two-thirds scoreless innings again, giving up five hits and a walk and striking out seven.
“I felt like everything was working tonight,” he said following the clincher. “Changeup was definitely clutch. That was my big pitch tonight, the changeup.
His efforts in the face of adversity were well recognized by his veteran battery mate that night, Adam Moore, who is back with the organization on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
“The guy is fearless. He gets the ball, you call it, he pitches it,” said Moore. “It makes our job as a catcher a lot easier, for a guy to have the kind of stuff he does and to be able to locate his pitches and not to rely on his fastball all night. For him to contribute the way he did, the two Game 5s in the playoffs, that says a lot about him and his character. He’s a great pitcher and he’s going to have a bright future, that’s for sure.”
At year’s end, he was tops in the regular season in strikeouts for the organization and had made the third-most starts for the RubberDucks, trailing only his Akron teammates Shawn Morimando (28) and Ryan Merritt (27).
Clevinger, who had shown a lot with a low- to mid-90’s fastball, slider, curve, and changeup, had command issues in the past, but his work with the RubberDucks coaching staff to make the necessary mechanical adjustments may have increased his effectiveness on the mound. He is a hard thrower and seems to have much better control now and, therefore, more command of the strike zone.
Clevinger will likely stay with the Clippers to start the 2016 season as part of a strong and young starting rotation there, looking to pick up where he left off in the International League playoffs while he stays on the radar of the parent Indians, now fully entrenched as one of the top arms in their farm system.
Photo: Joe Santry/Columbus Clippers