Brent Clevlen plays baseball with a quiet, effortless glide that makes the game appear easy, and there was a time when it seemed particularly easy for him.
It was 2006 when Clevlen, a fast-moving outfield prospect in the Detroit Tigers system, was promoted to the major leagues for the first time at 22. Clevlen, brought up to hit against left-handed pitching, hit just about everybody and everything during a 39 at-bat initiation.
He smashed three home runs and had a .652 slugging percentage as he seemed to lock down a spot in the Tigers’ outfield, and their good graces, for years to come.
“I didn’t really think anything of it,” Clevlen said. “I just came up, and when I got my opportunity to play I took advantage of it. I just had fun with it, I really didn’t put a whole lot of pressure on myself. I wish I could have gotten more steady, everyday playing, but that wasn’t the situation I was up there for.”
The Tigers won 95 games in 2006 and became even more serious about contending in the years following, acquiring Gary Sheffield for 2007 and trading for Miguel Cabrera before the 2008 season. Those moves, and others, helped make Clevlen the odd man out, and he was unable to carve out even a part-time role in Detroit while surrounded by proven veterans.
Clevlen had 34 more at-bats for the Tigers, then four for the Atlanta Braves in 2010, but has spent most of his career in the minor leagues. More than searching for another opportunity to play in the big leagues, which is still a goal, Clevlen is looking for comfort.
He believes he has found it with the Wingnuts, with whom he will begin his third season on Thursday. Clevlen has started each of his other 12 professional seasons in affiliated ball, but places such as Toledo, Reno and Mobile haven’t felt as much like home. That’s why he’s spurned offers from major-league organizations in the past to play in Wichita, where baseball is fun and he’s in the lineup every day.
“I think this will be nice,” Clevlen said. “The last few years, we’ve been bouncing around a lot of different places. This year might be a little different, being able to stay in one place all year if nothing else happens. We’re looking forward to it, and if something else comes along later where someone wants me to sign, we’ll obviously look at that option.”
Clevlen has made the game look plenty easy in Wichita, where he has helped two playoff pushes as an early or mid-season acquisition. In 2011, he clubbed 10 home runs and had 32 RBIs in 46 games, and last year the 30-year-old center fielder delievered 14 homers and had a .582 slugging percentage in 70 games.
Even against a lower level of competition, Clevlen’s tools are evident. The talent that enabled him to become a second-round draft pick out of high school in 2002 has come agonizingly close to blossoming in mutliple organizations. The most common reaction from representatives of those organizations, though, is to move on even after Clevlen has shown big-league potential.
During his nine years in the Detroit system, Clevlen was often multiple years younger than his league’s average age. He hit 18 homers and drove in 102 runs in Class-A at 22, and had 99 extra-base hits in Triple-A over the 2008-09 seasons after reaching the majors.
Clevlen hit .336 in Double-A with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011 and .377 in Triple-A with Arizona in 2012, both in stints of about a month. Those teams, though, left Clevlen to toil in the minors before releasing him.
“I never really got that one shot to play every single day,” Clevlen said. “I’m fine with that. Who knows, though? I’m young enough and in shape to keep on playing for five years on. You never know what’s going to happen in this game, but I’m still playing for that goal to get back to the big leagues. I’m not going to worry too much about what happens, I’m just going to go out there and play.”
Clevlen’s skills are revered with the Wingnuts, where he’s the foundation of a lineup that manager Kevin Hooper believes could be the franchise’s best in its seven seasons. Clevlen, a right-handed hitter, is a threat to go deep each time he bats, and he occasionally enters hot stretches in which he seems to fulfill that promise.
He’s smooth in the outfield, where he chases down balls in the gap with apparent ease, sailing on the balls of his feet. He can steal bases and doesn’t run into outs. It’s a dizzying skill set that has been displayed for mutliple teams and organizations but seems most appreciated in Wichita.
“At my age, starting a new chapter of the career, the love of baseball is still there,” Clevlen said. “I just want to take advantage of it while I still have a passion to keep playing the game of baseball. I’m going to do it as long as I can. This is a great place to play, and an easy place to play, and I can’t wait for the season to start.”