The road oft traveled: The ballad of Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman

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Every year in Major League Baseball, there is an average of 137 trades made involving 276 players, millions of dollars in salary and occasionally dinners and even broadcasters. Legendary Tigers’ announcer Ernie Harwell was once traded from the Atlanta Crackers to the Brooklyn Dodgers for minor league player/coach Cliff Dapper. My favorite trade of all time happened when Dave Winfield was traded to the Indians for a player to be named later at the trading deadline in 1994. But, two weeks later, before Winfield could play for the Indians, a strike ended the season. Winfield never played for the Indians and a player was never named. To settle the trade, executives from Minnesota and Cleveland decided to go out for dinner and the Indians picked up the check. It’s not often that players get traded for a fancy dinner, but the fact that it happened at all is just one more reason to love the zany game that is professional baseball.

While most trades don’t have long last impacts on the history of the game, every once in a while we have a trade that restructures the fabric of the game. The recent passing of long-time pitcher Milt Pappas prompted me to tell my wife about the Frank Robinson/Milt Pappas trade between the Orioles and Reds in 1965. Reds’ General Manager, Bill Dewitt labeled Robinson “an old 30” and shipped him to Baltimore. They got journeyman pitcher, Milt Pappas in return, and while Pappas was solid, going 30-9 for the Reds, Robinson reshaped the American League. He won the Triple Crown and MVP in 1965, and led the O’s to World Series’ wins in 1965 and 1971 on his way to the MLB Hall of Fame.

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R.I.P. Milt; it’s not your fault.

Jake Arrieta is unlikely to make the Hall of Fame, thanks to his slow starting career, but his arrival on the north side of Chicago has undoubtedly changed the landscape of the National League. A former top-prospect in the Orioles’ system, Arrieta was pegged for greatness and even started on opening day for the O’s in 2012. He responded to that honor by going 4-11 with an ERA over 6 for Baltimore over the next season and half, effectively wearing out his welcome with the franchise.  He was summarily dumped in a trade deadline deal with the Cubs and left Baltimore with a negative Wins Above Replacement for his career. After a solid 2014 which saw him finish 9th in CY Young voting, it looked like the Cubs had stolen a solid 2nd or 3rd starter. Then last year happened. Arrieta went 10-5 in the first half of the season with a solid 2.66 ERA and 125 strikeouts. Since that point, he’s turned into Bob Gibson, going 16-1 with an ERA under 1.00, 2 no-hitters and a CY Young Award. It’s been truly remarkable what he’s done, and his continued dominance helps to put the Cubs at the top of the baseball world so far this year.

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This makes up for the Lou Brock trade. Finally.

Arrieta has been great, but there have been plenty of stories written about his resurgence, and the lopsided victory in the trade for the Cubs, so this isn’t about him. This is about the guys shipped out of Chicago: Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger.

Drafted in the 30th round in 2003, Scott Feldman was never supposed to make it as a major league pitcher. In a time where we obsess over every prospect, Feldman was a relative nobody. Drafted in the 30th round, he never even sniffed the top-100 prospect list and topped out at 15th in the Texas Rangers system after 2005. Luckily for him, performance and numbers speak louder than anything when it comes to opportunity, and after 6 and a half years of bouncing between the minors and Texas, Feldman got a full-time opportunity in the big leagues in 2008. He responded by putting up a 6-8 record and earned a shot as the clubs’ fifth starter for the following season. That season served as a breakout year for Feldman, as he won 17 games and signed a one year contract for 2.4 million dollars with the Rangers. He started on opening day the following year, and even though he struggled to a 7-11 record, Texas signed him to a 2 year, 11.5 million dollar deal. After offseason knee surgery in 2011, Feldman came back to pitch well out of the bullpen during the Rangers playoff run. When he struggled the next year, Texas declined his option and he signed a 1 year deal with the Chicago Cubs for 6 million dollars. For a rebuilding Cubs team, he was the perfect signing, posting a winning record and solid ERA, which made him the perfect guy to get traded. After he was sent to Baltimore, he continued as a solid pitcher for the Orioles as they came up just short of the postseason.

Again, Feldman switched cities, signing a 3 year 30 million dollar deal to be the de-facto ace for the dumpster fire Houston Astros. After their franchise tear down, Houston needed guys who were true professionals and could come in, be decent human beings and establish credibility and a positive culture in a young clubhouse. Feldman delivered his end of the bargain, winning 13 games, pitching 300 innings and helping to bring along young pitching prospects like Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. He was also awarded the Astros’ 2014 “Darryl Kile Good Guy Award” which is presented annually to the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros player who best exemplifies Kile’s traits of “a good teammate, a great friend, a fine father and a humble man.”

So just to recap, Scott Feldman has played 12 years in professional baseball, made approximately 42 million in salary, been one of the most successful Jewish pitchers of all time and won an award for being “a good teammate, great friend, fine father and a humble man”. That’s a pretty solid run for a 30th round draft pick.

The stories we consume are generally written about the All-Stars and starters in sports, so, as fans, it’s easy to view them as the norm, rather than the exception, for how a players’ career tends to unfold. What we don’t see or read about is the career of a guy on the fringe of the big leagues. The guys who dreamed their whole lives about just making it, and then spend their career fighting to stay in The Show. The other guy in that Cubs/Orioles trade,  . Drafted in the 7th round in 2006 out of Southeastern Louisiana University (a traditional power school, I’m sure), Clevenger entered his professional career as a second baseman before switching to Catcher as a way to increase his odds of making it to the Majors. After 5 years and 6 different stops in the minors, Clevenger made his debut in 2011 with the Cubs for all of 2 games before going back to Triple-A Iowa to start 2012. After a hot start in the minors, he was called up to be the back-up catcher for the rebuilding Cubs and appeared in 69 games, batting .201 and hitting his first career homer. He stayed up with the Cubs for the rest of the year and even though he was back in the minors for the next season,  he had made it.

After bouncing between the minors and Chicago the next season, Clevenger was sent to Baltimore along with Feldman as part of the Orioles postseason push. He was sent back to the minors and spent time in Aberdeen, Norfolk and Sarasota before getting another cup of coffee with the O’s. 2014 and 2015 saw a similar story as he settled into the career of what people call a 4-A playernot good enough to stick in the big leagues, but too valuable to stay in the minors full-time. This last offseason, Clevenger was traded again, this time to Seattle Mariners for Mark Trumbo and has settled into his role as back-up catcher as part of a platoon with fellow journeyman Chris Iannetta. To this point, he’s made a little under 2 million in major league salary, hit 4 career home runs and appeared in 152 total games. To the stars of the game, this doesn’t look like much, and even looks a bit like failure, but to me, this is a guy to look up to. He’s been traded twice, spent time with 10 different minor league teams and will go down in history as the guy traded for Jake Arrieta. Despite all that, he’s still living his dream: Clevenger turned 30 this year, has a wife and kids and has made money playing a kids’ game for the last 10 years. That’s what winning looks like.

Jake Arrieta continues to be mind blowingly dominant, and if he pitches like this for the whole season, the Cubs will breeze into the playoffs. His acquisition, along with top bullpen guy, Pedro Strop, will go down as one of the most lopsided trades of our era, but it’s important to remember that behind every trade, every stat and every column, there are real human beings. These are guys who worked their whole lives to make it in the sport they love, and just like Milt Pappas was a success, despite being traded for a Hall of Famer; Clevenger and Feldman are winners, even though they’re on the other side of history.

 

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