For the better part of the last decade, the Guardians have been as good as any team in baseball at identifying and developing young pitchers, which has kept the rotation strong despite several notable departures. Due to Cleveland’s limited payroll, the pattern has been pretty simple — the Guards trade away a prominent name (i.e. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger) when he gets too expensive, and then the club replaces that starter with a fresh face from the farm system, or perhaps a pitcher acquired in the trade. More often than not, that new hurler then becomes a quality arm in his own right, until his price tag also starts to rise and the pattern then repeats itself.
Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale are different kinds of possible trade candidates, as their status isn’t tied to their salaries. Both pitchers have just reached arbitration eligibility, with Plesac projected for a $2.9MM salary and Civale for $2.2MM in 2023. These modest starting points mean that even if Plesac or Civale have a pair of excellent seasons in 2023 and 2024, their salaries over his three remaining years of team control should still be manageable even for a cost-conscious organization like the Guardians.
On paper, these are the kinds of pitchers the Guards would seemingly want to hang onto as rotation depth, given their arb control and the decent track records that both hurlers have posted over their four MLB seasons. The two even have rather similar career numbers, though Plesac has 445 1/3 innings pitched to Civale’s 353 frames. However, the Guardians are one of the few teams who might have starting pitching depth to spare, and with Plesac and Civale sitting at the back of the rotation, at least one might be expendable enough to move for other roster needs.
Which is the more expendable of the duo? As noted, their resumes bear a lot of similarities, plus both right-handers are 27 years old (Plesac is about five months older). The innings gap is perhaps the most notable difference, and though Civale has been the less durable of the two, he might have the more upside.
Civale had a 60-day injured list stint in 2021 due to a sprained middle finger on his right hand. This limited him to 124 1/3 innings, and that number then dropped to 97 innings last year due to three separate 15-day IL visits. A wrist sprain, glute strain, and forearm inflammation all kept Civale off the mound, and the bigger-picture concern of the forearm problem dissipated when Civale was able to return after only a minimal absence. These injuries contributed to a 4.92 ERA for Civale, even if his 3.55 SIERA presented a much more favorable view of his performance.
Civale had an excellent 5.4% walk rate, and above-average strikeout and chase rates. With a fastball that averaged only 91.2mph, Civale relied on his curveball and sinker, and his spin rates (on his heater and his curve) were among the best in baseball. Unfortunately, Civale was hit hard in his lone postseason appearance, allowing three runs while only retiring one batter as the Game 5 starter in the ALDS. This put Cleveland in an early hole that it couldn’t escape, as the Yankees eliminated the Guards from the playoffs.
Plesac posted a 4.31 ERA/4.46 SIERA over 131 2/3 innings in 2022, with an above-average 6.7% walk rate but not much else in the way of secondary metrics. The right-hander also isn’t a particularly hard thrower and he doesn’t miss many bats (18.7% career strikeout rate). In fact, Plesac has posted some of the lower strikeout rates of any pitcher in baseball over the last two seasons, also sitting near the back of the pack in barrels, barrel rate, and hard-hit ball rate overall. With a career .265 BABIP, Plesac has gotten some help from the Guardians’ strong defense in limiting the damage from all that hard contact.
While Plesac has been healthier than Civale, Plesac has also spent some time on the IL over the last two seasons, which brings us to the other X-factor in this discussion of trade candidates. Only those inside the Guardians clubhouse and front office would know the truth of the matter, but there have been some rumblings that Plesac may have worn out his welcome in Cleveland due to concerns about his maturity level.
On the injury front, Plesac didn’t pitch in September of this season due to a fractured pinkie finger in his throwing hand, as Plesac reportedly hurt himself punching the mound in anger over allowing a homer to Seattle’s Jake Lamb on August 27. He also missed a little over six weeks in 2021 due to a right thumb fracture, which occurred while Plesac was “rather aggressively taking off his undershirt,” in the memorable words of manager Terry Francona. This made it two temper-related injuries in as many years for Plesac, and that followed his most well-publicized controversy during the shortened 2020 season.
In August of that year, Plesac and Clevinger violated league COVID-19 protocols by leaving the team hotel for a night out in Chicago. The two pitchers were subsequently placed on the team’s restricted list and then sent to the alternate training site that was served as a de facto minor league camp during the pandemic season. Plesac was eventually recalled back to the big league roster at the end of August, while the situation was one of the factors in Cleveland’s decision to deal Clevinger to San Diego.
The pitchers’ actions were very poorly received within the clubhouse, as multiple teammates were angered both by their lack of honesty about their actions as well as the health risk created by the protocol violation. As well, Plesac attempted to defend himself in an Instagram video by claiming the media had overblown the situation, and that ill-advised video also didn’t sit well with teammates.
This incident occurred over two years ago, and to reiterate, it isn’t known if any hard feelings still exist towards Plesac within the Guardians clubhouse. It may help Plesac that many members of that 2020 roster are no longer with the team, and he is now actually one of the longer-tenured players on a very young Cleveland team. Still, if weighing which of Civale or Plesac to move in a trade, this past situation might still be a consideration in the front office’s mind.
Prior to the trade deadline, reports suggested that the Guards were open to offers for controllable pitchers, at least as a matter of due diligence. This immediately sparked a plethora of Shane Bieber rumors, but it doesn’t really seem like a Bieber deal is on Cleveland’s radar in the near future (Steve Adams recently addressed the possibility of a Bieber deal in a piece for MLBTR subscribers). Triston McKenzie had a breakout year and is controlled through 2026, and Cal Quantrill is another 27-year-old pitcher in his first year of arb-eligibility. While Quantrill’s projected $6MM salary is significantly higher than Plesac or Civale, Quantrill has also done more to establish himself as a reliable arm. Cleveland turned to Quantrill for two postseason starts, while Civale and Plesac were both somewhat reduced to afterthought status in the playoffs.
Konnor Pilkington made 11 starts for the Guardians last season, and Hunter Gaddis, Xzavion Curry, and Cody Morris were among the other young starters who made their Major League debuts last season. Daniel Espino is one of baseball’s top pitching prospects and seems ready to make his debut at some point in 2023. Tanner Bibee and Gavin Williams are also top-100 prospects who could be late-season callups, and there are other pitchers within Cleveland’s upper tier of arms that might factor into their 2023 plans. There is enough depth and potential here that the Guards might feel like they can readily replace Civale’s 1.3 fWAR or Plesac’s 0.9 fWAR from the 2022 season.
That said, quite a few teams would happily take Civale or Plesac’s contributions in their rotations. Either pitcher could be seen as a change-of-scenery or even a buy-low candidate, though the three seasons of arbitration control would still allow Cleveland to ask for an interesting return. The Phillies reportedly checked in on Plesac in July, and purely speculatively, Civale or Plesac might have particular appeal to ex-Cleveland staffers now working for other teams. Former Guardians assistant GM Carter Hawkins might want to reunite with either pitcher now that Hawkins is the Cubs’ general manager, or former Cleveland assistant director of pitching development Matt Blake might feel he can get either right-hander on track in his current role as the Yankees’ pitching coach.
As always, the “you can never have too much pitching” credo must be mentioned, as the Guardians aren’t under any real pressure to move any of their arms. A strong rotation is such a backbone of the Guards’ team, in fact, that they might even be a little less willing to deal from their surplus just in case the younger pitchers aren’t ready to contribute to a contending team. Still, teams in need of pitching will unquestionably be sending a lot of offers in Cleveland’s direction, and Civale and Plesac might be the two most logical names to be dangled.