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The Yankees, the trade deadline, and the matter of team chemistry

Two of the biggest possible pitching upgrades come with massive red flags in the clubhouse

Cincinnati Reds v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Yankees need pitching help. Luis Severino and Domingo Germán have not and will not throw a pitch for the team this season. James Paxton is out at least another two weeks. Two of the biggest workhorses in the bullpen, Tommy Kahnle and Zack Britton, are both out, - one for the season and one indefinitely. J.A. Happ sucks. It’s not a great place to be.

The team may call up top prospect Clarke Schmidt, but has so far resisted moving him to the 40-man roster and starting his service time clock. The other option is of course the trade market, where two legitimate studs could be available. Trevor Bauer is, right now, the best pitcher in baseball, with an ERA below one in his last season before free agency. Mike Clevinger was one of the best arms in the game in 2019, and comes with two years of control, making him an attractive piece on a team that probably can’t afford him.

These are two incredibly talented pitchers, who would make any team better. They’re also among the most problematic personalities in MLB.

Mike Clevinger is a major player in a minor scandal - he and Cleveland teammate Zach Plesac snuck out of the team hotel on a swing through Chicago, potentially exposing themselves and the rest of their team to COVID-19. When Plesac was caught, and immediately sent home, Clevinger stayed silent, only owning up to his choices after boarding a flight with the entire team.

Most of the reporting from inside the Cleveland clubhouse has teammates disappointed in Plesac, but furious with Clevinger. We all screw up, but letting your teammate and friend take the fall by themselves is reportedly seen as near-unforgivable by the clubhouse. Not only can you not trust a teammate to follow the rules keeping everyone safe, but you can’t even trust him to have your back. I can’t imagine either player will be welcomed back by the club with open arms.

Trevor Bauer, meanwhile, hasn’t violated any team rules around the pandemic; he’s just an incredibly emotionally underdeveloped person. He’s a notorious Twitter user, with some of his tweets being very insightful on the science of pitching, others valid deconstructions of the legacy forms of baseball coverage, and with some of those tweets being transphobic, or tweets siccing thousands of followers on a college student.

He’s caused rifts with teammates at nearly every level he’s played at, throwing - literally - a temper tantrum on the field last year that contributed to Cleveland’s decision to deal him to the Reds. Per The MVP Machine (p. 149) he openly feuded with teammates in the aftermath of the 2016 election. His troublesome personality extends all the way to the beginning - at UCLA, his former teammate Cody Decker remarked having spoken to Bauer exactly one time. “I’ll never do that again”, Decker told USA Today. “I’ve had my fill for a lifetime”. His rivalry with Gerrit Cole is legendary, and depending on who you ask, is based in jealousy of Cole’s natural talent, or spite at Cole’s dismissive attitude toward Bauer’s unorthodox training methods.

All of these problems are generally handwaved away with the explanation that Bauer is just “ultra competitive”, while of course going unaddressed is the fact that players like Fernando Tatis Jr. are not praised for less-offensive, more competitive behavior. Certainly Bauer’s talent is going to buy him more slack for his disruptive personality, but that’s not the only trait he has that often allows him to continue being so emotionally underdeveloped.

We know the histories, personalities and problems implicit in a team acquiring either Clevinger or Bauer. They’re also very, very good pitchers, and to Bauer’s credit, he has always been open to helping teammates and opponents who want to improve. The calculus teams have to make is the tradeoff between the increased chances of winning a World Series that players like Clevinger or Bauer bring, and the risk of a less-cohesive clubhouse.

Chemistry is a funny thing - simultaneously overrated and underrated. It’s not as valuable as the oldest of old-school folks will say. The frigid relationships between guys like Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds, or Alex Rodriguez and most of the players he played with, didn’t stop them from performing at incredibly high levels.

However, because it’s hard to quantify, it’s also more important than the pure sabermetric analysis of a Good Baseball Team. Human interaction matters - one of the reasons Joe Girardi was allowed to walk and Aaron Boone was hired was because the latter was seen as being better for the clubhouse atmosphere.

I don’t know what to recommend to the Yankees in the case of either of these players. Clevinger has completely lost the faith of his teammates, it’s possible he would come to the Bronx with a much more open mind, eager for a fresh start and learn what it is to be a good teammate. It’s also possible that a 29-year old dumb enough to violate team safety protocols and then lie about it isn’t that interested in learning how to develop better relationships.

Bauer is even harder. He’s been given multiple chances to be less abrasive, and thumbed his nose at every opportunity. In one of the most politically-charged summers since 1968, he mocks the valid protests against police brutality and the killing of people of color:

At the same time, the Yankees are one of the most closed-vest teams in the game. Clubhouse leaders like Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole have reputations for setting high bars for behavior, and the team retains well-respected minds like CC Sabathia who help with that as well. The “Yankee way”, with hair rules, jerseys unchanged for almost a century, and explicit endorsement of legacy media - no team has more boring Twitter engagement by players, or more direct television and newspaper engagement - is built to break down individuality and problematic personalities. However you feel about the “Yankee way”, it’s not the kind of approach that’s likely to permit the kind of action we’ve seen from Bauer or Clevinger.

I’ve said before that adding Trevor Bauer to the Yankees would be one of a very few possible decisions that would make me question my fandom of the team. Mike Clevinger’s disrespect for his teammates also makes me wonder whether he could “work” in an organization that is blatantly as businesslike as possible. Both players are black sheep, who run the risk of alienating yet another clubhouse if the Yankees traded for them.

They’re also among the best in the game, and the Yankees would win more games with them than without them. That’s an equation the front office is going to have to balance.