Phillies Add Bullpen Upside via Three-Way Deal With Rays, Dodgers

In some ways, Tuesday’s three-way trade between the Phillies (who acquired relief lefty José Alvarado), Rays (who acquired first baseman Dillon Paulson and a PTBNL/cash) and Dodgers (who acquired bullpen lefty Garrett Cleavinger) was an extension of the Blake Snell trade from earlier in the week. In that deal, the Rays got two 40-man roster players back in return (Francisco Mejía and Luis Patiño) but sent away only one, which meant they needed to clear a 40-man spot via trade in order for the move to be announced without them losing someone for nothing.

As a result, the Rays were leveraged into giving up the most exciting player in a minor swap in Alvarado, a husky lefty with elite-level stuff, a troubling injury history and frustrating control. It wasn’t long ago that he looked like the Rays’ future closer or high-leverage stopper. In 2018, when he was routinely sitting 98–101 mph early in the year, he ranked seventh among MLB relievers in WAR despite throwing just 53 innings because he was striking out hitters at a 30% clip, and generating ground balls 55% of the time his pitches were put in play. Alvarado became .giffamous (pronounced like infamous) because nobody should be able to throw a ball that moves that much that hard.

Then a combination of poor conditioning, wildness, velocity fluctuation, and injury (including shoulder inflammation in 2020) made Alvarado’s last two seasons inconsistent at best. The Rays put him on their ALCS roster after he had been on the 45-day IL for most of the year, and while he looked somewhat slimmer upon return, he was still quite wild and was ultimately left off their roster for the World Series.

Surely part of the reason the Rays wanted to offload him was because he’s projected to make about $1 million in arbitration on a crowded 40-man filled with less talented but more consistent pitchers who are making half as much. The Dodgers took a similar buy-low gamble ($10 million for a guy who was non-tendered) on Blake Treinen last year and on Corey Knebel this year, and the Twins took a $2 million swing at Hansel Robles earlier on Tuesday. Because the Phillies, who had one of the worst bullpens in baseball last year, need so much help, they should be taking a high-volume approach to finding guys like this on the market rather than doing what the Dodgers have done. This is the type of flier that they need to use their relative financial might to take, and if Alvarado can recapture his peak form, then this trade will pay off big for them.

Los Angeles’ return is Cleavinger, who couldn’t crack that terrible Philadelphia bullpen in 2020. He’s a 26-year-old reliever with two breaking balls (slider, curveball) and was up to 96 mph in his lone, rocky big league debut. Like Alvarado, Cleavinger — who has two option years remaining — has questionable control, enough that I think he maxes out as an up/down reliever. He also becomes the fourth lefty on the Dodgers’ 40-man. I thought they needed to add at least one this offseason to backfill behind Caleb Ferguson, who got hurt late in the year and will probably miss all of ’21, but I’m not sure why the Dodgers preferred Cleavinger to taking Alvarado themselves. Perhaps it’s his arb number (the Dodgers have had staff cuts, too), or perhaps they see Alvarado’s and Cleavinger’s velocities trending in different directions. While the former has lost some juice, the latter threw as hard as he ever has last season: He had been 90–94 and touching 95 or 96 in the past, but he was parked at 95 from Spring Training on through the summer.

To get Cleavinger, the Dodgers sent Paulson and either a PTBNL or cash to the Rays. A 2018 13th-rounder out of USC, he put up two mediocre underclass seasons for the Trojans, then hit for much more power as a junior (still modest pop in a vacuum) and walked more than he struck out. The Dodgers sent him to Great Lakes in his first full pro season, and while he reached base at a .340 clip there, he didn’t hit for a ton of power, which is customary for those who begin the year in the chilly Midwest League. He got a month of run at Hi-A Rancho late in 2019 and crushed it there, slashing .293/.423/.500 in the hitter-friendly Cal League.

Paulson is a lefty thrower locked in at first, with a balanced, well-timed swing and modest bat speed — the kind of player who might get a line in the honorable mention section of prospect lists. From a data perspective, his 2019 numbers are fair: He averaged 88 mph off the bat (that’s a big league average exit velo) and hit balls in excess of 95 mph 35% of the time, also big league average. But it’s tough to profile at first base or DH like that. For reference, Cody Thomas and Donovan Casey, two older Dodgers hitters who’ve been passed over in the Rule 5, have 2019 exit velo data roughly a full grade better than Paulson’s and play more valuable defensive positions. He looks like a good org guy more than anything else. Again, I think the Rays had to swallow a tough one here since they lost 40-man leverage with the Snell trade.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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2 years ago

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Rays got exactly what they wanted in this trade: cash.

2 years ago
Reply to  lesmash

This was clearly a case where they wished they hadn’t tendered him and didn’t want to pay the little bit to cut him. Maybe the PTBNL, if there is one, changes my mind on this but as far as I can tell they straight up gave him away to save money (and maybe get some).

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Rays were going to have to lose someone to create 40 man roster room. They found someone expendable and got something in return which was better than their other option which was nothing in return.