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How the Indians can win the relief market

Shuffling from depth or dealing from strength could make the Tribe stronger in 2020

Cleveland Indians v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

When the best bullpen arm in the 2020 free agent market, Will Smith, signed with the Braves last week, it put the Indians in an enviable position.

It didn’t set the Tribe up to sign any other free agents (a laughable thought as we debate paying Francisco Lindor market value or not), nor did it cement the Indians as the best American League bullpen or any other such notion. Rather, the Smith deal served as a signifier that this year’s relief market is going to be slim pickings, which will likely lead to an active trade market, which will be a boon for teams with deep wells of pitching, which the Indians just happen to possess.

Already teams are circling the Cleveland rotation, hoping to pick off an arm for the right price, but it’s possible they don’t have to make any deals at all. As noted by Mitchell Krall at Waiting For Next Year, the Indians could beat the free agent market simply by moving a starter from 2019 to the bullpen for 2020, as the depth of pitchers ready or very nearly ready to contribute at the big league level is astonishing.

Pitching depth

Rotation locks Question marks Likely bullpen Rotation depth Minors bullpen
Rotation locks Question marks Likely bullpen Rotation depth Minors bullpen
Shane Bieber Zach Plesac Adam Cimber Logan Allen Cam Hill
Mike Clevinger Adam Plutko Nick Goody Aaron Civale James Hoyt
Corey Kluber Jefry Rodriguez Brad Hand Eli Morgan Phil Maton
Carlos Carrasco James Karinchak Adam Scott Nick Sandlin
Oliver Pérez
Nick Wittgren
Hunter Wood

In the table above are 21 players I believe will spend time in the clubhouse in Cleveland next year. Between five rotation spots and eight bullpen slots (assuming half the 26-man roster is devoted to pitching), as well as inevitable 15-day injured list trips, it’s not hard to imagine that all these men could receive significant time in the big leagues; how is the question.

It’s safe to say Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, and Corey Kluber will be one-two-three in the rotation. Carlos Carrasco as the fourth starting pitcher is a little less safe, as he’ll still be working back from his absence due to leukemia and he has relief experience, but for now he seems likely to be back in the rotation — and that’s a good thing.

The fifth spot in the rotation is certainly up for grabs. A number of players showed well in 2019 when given the chance to fill a rotation spot, including Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, Adam Plutko, and Jefry Rodriguez, but only one of them will likely have a chance to be a starter in April. I’m on record defending Plutko’s claim to the fifth starter spot, and I continue to believe that is the most prudent course of action.

However, installing Plutko as the fifth starter to give the younger pitchers more time to develop or ease into the season, as I wrote previously, is not the only play Cleveland has: They could also exploit the market. A package built upon Civale could net a big bat from the Cubs (as I’ve said before) or another team with playoff ambitions and weak starting pitching, such as the Brewers or Phillies.

But starting pitching is not where the market lacks this year, it’s relief pitching. The best remaining free agent might be Drew Pomeranz (nearly 12 K/9 last year will get him a nice deal, it would seem), a converted starter. In his piece at WFNY, Krall highlights two members of the Tribe pitching core who could make the same transition as Pomeranz to become lights-out relievers: Plesac and Rodriguez. Of course, I recommend you read his whole piece, but the gist is that they throw hard but lack an outstanding third pitch.

Both players occupy the grey area in the table above, somewhere between the rotation, bullpen, or Columbus; however, with guys like Cam Hill and Nick Sandlin certainly ticketed for a bullpen role in Cleveland this year, and Eli Morgan or Adam Scott hoping to make the same jump Plesac and Civale made in 2019, the competition will be tough. Therefore, it may be wise for the front office to capitalize on their successes last season and the weak market to extract as much value as possible. It’s a certainty other teams see the value in the flexibility between rotation piece or bullpen arm that Plesac and Rodriguez possess, not to mention the years of team control both come with (Plesac has 0.125 years of service time and Rodriguez has 1.063).

Hopefully this offseason will be less frustrating than the one that preceded it, but no matter the year, the Indians constantly have to work the margins to extract as much value as possible from the roster. This year, it’s not hard to see how the team has leverage over the relief market. Whether the team chooses to shuffle players between the rotation and bullpen or deal from a significant source of strength, or both, moves in this area could be particularly rewarding for fans and certainly something to keep an eye on.