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The best bullpen move the Indians can make right now

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Or, how to love Bieber in the bullpen.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Indians are said to be talking to many teams about many trades and are reportedly willing to deal stud young guys to get long-term pieces. This is well and good, and I’m all in favor of external reinforcements.

But, what if I said best trade may come internally?

Cleveland had the best pitching staff ever in the 2017 regular season. I’m not being biased or hyperbolic, I’m sure you remember Jeff Sullivan writing about it over at FanGraphs. This season the Astros are getting all the hype and all the love for their incredible pitching staff. It’s warranted, because they’re really, really good. In fact, Houston’s arms are on pace to equal or best the Indians’ record fWAR/162 of 31.7. Because of the team’s bullpen issues, however, the Indians are poised to accumulate 10 fewer fWAR this year, on pace for 21.5 as a staff.

If the Indians can’t defend their fWAR title, though, they can steal an idea from the Astros. Specifically, using a starting pitcher as a fireman reliever.

Now, I’m not talking about turning Trevor Bauer into Chris Devenski. Instead, I’m specifically talking about how the Astros deployed Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers in the playoffs last year.

In case you’ve forgotten, in Game 7 of the ALCS, Morton threw five innings of shutout ball and was relieved by McCullers for a four-inning save. In the seventh game of the World Series McCullers started and threw 2.1 innings of shutout ball before turning it over to the bullpen, including four innings from Morton to finish the game and clinch the title.

Cleveland already has the players on the roster to execute this kind of plan. On an individual player basis, the Indians’ top 4 starters have higher fWAR than the Astros’ top 4 (when including all starters, however, the Astros edge the Tribe 13.5 to 11.6). On top of that, Shane Bieber has now firmly lodged himself in Cleveland’s rotation and has the stuff to hang with the very talented bunch (4-1, 3.47 ERA, 6.0 K/BB, 3.23 FIP, 82 ERA-, 0.8 fWAR).

But even if he can hang, there will come a time when the chance to hang disappears. That time is October. Assuming a playoff schedule with identical off days as last year, using three starters in the division series means your number one pitches on three-days rest but your number two gets regular rest. Likewise, in the championship series, all three starters would pitch their second outing on 3 days rest, with the game one starter pitching three times.

In the 2017 postseason, no pitcher, starter or reliever, threw more in any series than Clayton Kershaw’s 15.2 innings in the World Series; likewise, only 11 outings involved pitchers throwing at least 100 pitches (out of 38 games started; 28%). Because of this new reality of playoff baseball, where relievers enter early and often, it seems likely that most teams will rely on a three-man rotation in the postseason this year.

Given current performance, and barring some tragic injuries (of which we are all too familiar with, unfortunately), Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and Mike Clevinger have the strongest case as starters for Cleveland. That leaves Carlos Carrasco and Bieber either in the pen or off the roster.

Or does it?

Because of Bauer’s rubber arm and dominating stuff this year, he should remain a starter and pitch game one, as he did last year. Kluber, of course, is deserving of the second slot for reasons that don’t need enumeration. The third slot, however, should go to Carrasco, not because he has been better than Clevinger, rather the opposite: Clevinger’s numbers the first time through the order are better, as is his home rate. Likewise, Carrasco gets better as he goes through lineups (.370, .241, and .272 wOBA the first, second, and third time through the order, respectively).

Indians starters first time through and high-leverage

Player K/BB HR/9 First time wOBA First time FIP High-leverage wOBA High-leverage FIP
Player K/BB HR/9 First time wOBA First time FIP High-leverage wOBA High-leverage FIP
Trevor Bauer 4.22 0.37 0.277 2.11 .219 (4 h, 4 BB, 32 batters) 0.87
Corey Kluber 8.2 1.21 0.293 3.79 .293 (4 hits, 12 batters) 1.62
Mike Clevinger 2.75 0.57 0.256 2.81 .363 (5 h, 3 BB, 22 batters) 6.28
Carlos Carrasco 4.68 1.21 0.370 4.01 .173 (3 h, 1 BB, 25 batters) 4.05
Shane Bieber 6 0.99 0.302 2.15 .000 (4 batters) -1.38

The sample size is microscopic, but it seems Clevinger would be an ideal candidate to relieve for two or three innings in the postseason. Moving Sunshine to the pen this early in the season would be a little too optimistic, as the Indians still have work to do in the division, no matter how easy AL Central opposition wants to make that work.

But, where Clevinger is likely still needed as a starter, the case for moving Bieber to the pen is a bit easier to make. First, he’s got numbers very similar to Clevinger, only with a much more impressive K/BB ratio. And if he were to move to the pen now he would gain a more complete understanding of bullpen life and generate great camaraderie with the relief corps.

Regardless of any trade the Indians make to add to the bullpen, moving Bieber there immediately gives the mid to late innings a quality arm capable of getting many outs. A move like this would signal to possible trading partners that the Indians aren’t so desperate as to deem it necessary to include, say, Triston McKenzie in a deal for Kyle Barraclough or some equally good-but-not-Andrew-Miller-level reliever.

Moreover, I think it’s highly unlikely a move to the bullpen have a negative impact on Bieber’s long-term development. To wit, 75 innings of bullpen work in 2006 did not hurt Adam Wainwright’s development, nor did 38 appearances in relief in 2007 hinder Zack Grienke, and 79 appearances out of the bullpen between 2010 and 2011 did little to hinder Chris Sale. Overall, this kind of move would be smart for the regular season and has the potential to be a game changer for the postseason.

As for who pitches every fifth day when Bieber is bullpenning, well, Josh Tomlin is still the recipient of personal loyalty from the club, but his 3.75 (!) HR/9 is too much to trust him in the rotation again. I think it would be preferable to recall Adam Plutko (Tomlin-lite) and let him prove his worth in an extended look. In this setup, Bieber could piggyback games with him or simply be available early and for extended outings.

This idea may not be popular, as Bieber has been awesome to watch starting every fifth game, even when he’s on the losing side, as he was Sunday. Popularity aside, implementing this plan sooner rather than later addresses a huge weakness without sacrificing much at all. On top of that, it better prepares the team for October play.

Imagine, if you will, game three of a division series where Carrasco goes four strong innings, hands the ball to Bieber for two-plus, who then turns the ball over to [Insert Trade Acquisition Bullpen Arm Here], Miller, and finally Allen. With the offensively loaded lineups of Houston, Boston, or New York likely awaiting the Tribe, that’s the kind of pitching staff Cleveland needs.