Dave Dombrowksi said that a big focus was going to be placed on finding bullpen help for the Phillies after having a historically bad one in 2020. The first domino in that search fell, when DD made his first trade as the head man in the front office.
This is a very interesting move, and one that could be a low risk/high reward result if all goes correctly. Alvarado made his debut in the Major Leagues in 2017, pitching 29.2 innings with an ERA of 3.64. A solid first year was followed up by a dominant 2018, a year in which he became the clear closer for the Rays, sporting a 2.39 ERA, with the underlying ERA statistics (2.77 FIP, 3.15 xFIP) backing up the success he had. He was one of the most dominant relievers in the game, with an electric sinker/slider combination that fooled hitters consistently.
As strong as his 2018 was, his 2019 season was almost the polar opposite. While his still had the electric stuff, for some reason, Alvarado had an incredibly hard time finding the strike zone. His BB/9 number shot up from the 4.08 in 2018 to 8.10 in 2019, and we all know how hard it is to be successful in the MLB when you are averaging almost a walk per inning, especially as a reliever. He also did have his fair share of bad luck, as the batting average of balls in play against him was .346. The hitters were not generating harder hit balls, as evident by the lower hard contact percentage (35% vs 37.3% in 2018), it just seems that they were finding more holes.
In a short sample size in 2020 (nine innings), Alvarado gave up six earned runs, while walking six and striking out 13. His average fastball velocity was down from 98.2 mph the year before to 96.9 mph, but the movement on his fastball was still clear. He was sidelined in August with a case of left shoulder inflammation, a year after having two stints of elbow inflammation on the same arm. Relievers have proven time and again that they are volatile, but with that being said, relievers with the explosive stuff that Alvarado has do not grow on trees. The price to acquire him was not that high either, making it a win-win for the team.
The pitcher they gave up, Garrett Cleavinger, was originally acquired by the Phillies in the Jeremy Hellickson trade with the Baltimore Orioles. Kind of a late bloomer, Cleavinger had recently experienced an uptick in his stuff the last few years and has posted some really good strikeout numbers in the minor leagues. While he definitely could have been a piece the Phillies could have used to help with the bullpen, picking up Alvarado, who has better pure stuff, is the type of upside move the Phillies should be making. Alvarado is over a year younger and has more MLB innings pitched (132.2 vs 0.2) than Cleavinger, making Alvarado a better fit for the timeline and needs of this team than Cleavinger was.
There is definitely risk to this move, as shoulder/elbow inflammation for a pitcher, paired with decreased velocity, is not something you want to see. However, if that was just a mirage and the Phillies are acquiring an Alvarado closer to the 2018 version than the 2019, then this was a home run move. Dombrowski made it clear he was going to be aggressive in searching for bullpen help. No stone was going to be left unturned, especially after the team’s bullpen finished the 2020 season with an ERA over 7.00.
I would prefer that the Phillies go out and sign a more proven closer to bolster the backend of the bullpen, but if that type of signing isn’t in the cards, Alvarado at the back of the bullpen wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Of course, that is if he can perform like he did in 2018.