MLB

Inside the Clubhouse: Why Mike Clevinger decided on Tommy John

Mike Clevinger’s decision to have Tommy John surgery has huge implications for his career and the San Diego Padres’ future. How did he decide?

When Mike Clevinger pushed to start Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series, he understood the risk.

Doctors informed him that the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow was intact, but the pain behind his elbow lingered. When it subsided and he threw a pair of bullpens without pain, the San Diego Padres reached the point where they felt comfortable allowing their prized acquisition to take the mound. But they left the final decision up to Clevinger.

Together, they agreed upon a plan to have Clevinger throw to “10 or so” batters. But Clevinger left after 24 pitches with trainers after reaggravating the injury, telling reporters after the game, “(It felt) like my bones are hitting in the back of my elbow.”

Privately, the Padres and Clevinger remained optimistic that surgery would not be needed and that he would be ready for the 2021 season. But a recent MRI revealed a “slightly damaged” UCL in his right elbow, leaving Clevinger with the decision of whether or not to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Clevinger’s decision came down to this: pitch in 2021 with UCL damage and risk further injury or undergo Tommy John surgery now, miss the 2021 season and pitch a full season in 2022 before becoming a free agent. When he consulted doctors the last couple of weeks, including Dr. Timothy Kremchek, they all recommended Tommy John.

Clevinger underwent successful surgery on Tuesday and will miss the 2021 season. Additionally, he signed a two-year, $11.5 million deal to buy out his remaining two years of arbitration. The deal can reach $12 million with incentives.

Signing a deal now lessens the financial uncertainty of his rehab with a pandemic economy influencing arbitration. But it’s a devastating blow to the Padres and leaves them with a massive hole in the rotation. Clevinger’s deal is backloaded ($2 million in 2021; $6.5 million in 2022 with a $3 million deferred bonus), giving general manager AJ Preller financial flexibility to address the rotation.

The options on the free-agent market include Trevor Bauer, Masahiro Tanaka and Charlie Morton. The trade market features Joe Musgrove, Lance Lynn and Danny Duffy. But the Padres will need their internal options to step up. Dinelson Lamet is healthy and looking to build off his breakout 2020 season. Zach Davies proved dependable. Luis Patiño, Adrian Morejon and MacKenzie Gore will have roles in 2021.

For Clevinger, the long-term impact is significant. It was possible that he would have landed a contract in the range of Stephen Strasburg’s seven-year, $245 million when he became a free agent in 2022. But pitchers who have undergone Tommy John twice have a low rate of sustained success. One of them, Nathan Eovaldi, came back and signed a four-year, $68 million deal with the Boston Red Sox. If Clevinger comes back as the same pitcher, that will likely be his floor considering his numbers are superior to Eovaldi’s. But even that is no certainty.

These are questions neither the Padres or Clevinger envisioned facing after they parted with six players in August to bring him to San Diego. It’s unlikely the Padres acquire anyone who can make the impact they envisioned with Clevinger. Preller had long coveted the right-hander and believed he was the ace the franchise needed.

Just three months after acquiring him, Clevinger is lost for next season.

Mets suddenly make sense for LeMahieu, but will it happen?

Somehow, the Mets trade for Robinson Cano found a way to look even worse.

Major League Baseball on Wednesday suspended Cano for the entire 2021 season after he tested positive for Stanozolol, a performance-enhancing drug. It marked the second time in his career that he had been suspended for PEDs, and leaves the Mets looking to replace their second baseman who hit .316/.352/.544 with an .896 OPS last season.

The obvious fit is DJ LeMahieu, who spent the last two seasons mashing on the other side of New York with the Yankees. He has established himself as an elite player and the Mets, who are now owned by Steve Cohen, have made it clear that they intend to spend this winter. But it might be more likely that the Mets spend on other parts of the roster than on LeMahieu.

First, the Mets have Cano under contract for another two years and $40.5 million. They can move Jeff McNeil to second base, his most natural defensive position, and use the additional $20.25 million that Cano’s suspension saved to address needs at catcher and center fielder.

The top free agents at both positions, J.T. Realmuto and George Springer, have both been connected to the Mets. Their interest in Springer is strong, and he is the leadoff hitter and impact hitter the team has long desired. Adding him would allow the Mets to shop Brandon Nimmo and others while they look to upgrade other parts of the roster.

Of course, the Mets could turn to LeMahieu if they decide to part ways with Cano when he returns for his age-39 season in 2022. But his latest suspension made an already terrible trade look even worse, and it won’t get any better if Jarred Kelenic reaches his potential.

Theo Epstein future: owner or commissioner?

When Theo Epstein resigned as the Chicago Cubs’ president of baseball operations, he described his ideal “third chapter” in baseball as being in a position to address some of the existential threats to the game.

“This is the best game in the world, by far, in my opinion,” Epstein said, via Patrick Mooney of The Athletic. “But we do face some very real challenges. There are some storm clouds on the horizon, and we have to find a way to navigate through that as an industry. I’m happiest when baseball drives the sports conversation in this country and is atop the perch as the true national pastime, hands down, no questions asked. There are a lot of threats to that with everything going on in the world and industry issues that we face over the next year or so. Now that I’m not with a team and I’m outside, maybe there’s some way I could help.”

Epstein, 46, sounded like the perfect candidate to be baseball’s next commissioner. I tweeted that thought and someone who worked with Epstein in Chicago said, “That’s a great take.” Another texted, “I don’t think he’d ever do it.”

His reason, simply, is that Epstein follows the Bill Walsh school of thought that change in leadership after a decade can be beneficial for both sides. The commissioner position would require Epstein to commit long-term (Bud Selig held the job for 22 years; Rob Manfred is entering his seventh year) and that may not appeal to him.

And as Mooney wrote, if Epstein feels burned out working with one team, how would he feel working with 30 owners who have different agendas?

Epstein’s next chapter will be something bigger, perhaps part of an ownership group. But he intends to take his time weighing his options while he spends time with family. He lives near Wrigley Field and refers to Chicago as home. He plans on getting season tickets to Cubs games. And when he decides he is ready to get back into baseball, the future Hall of Fame executive responsible for ending the Red Sox (86 years) and Cubs (108 years) World Series droughts should have no shortage of options to choose from.

Around the horn:

  • Free-agent relievers Tommy Kahnle and Darren O’Day are drawing interest, according to a source. Kahnle, 31, had Tommy John surgery in August and is aiming for a return late in the 2021 season. He could land a deal structured similarly to the two-year deal the Padres gave Garrett Richards in 2018 that allowed him to rehab for most of 2019 before returning in 2020.
  • Agent Adriel Reyes has left Octagon and is joining CAA Baseball. Among the clients he is bringing with include the Miami Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara, St. Louis Cardinals’ Alex Reyes and Tampa Bay Rays’ Ronaldo Hernandez.