In the aftermath of the Mike Clevinger injury, everything is a little good news and a little bad news. On the one hand, the injury itself is bad news, but three months without Clev is a lot better than all of 2019 without him. Likewise, Jefry Rodriguez did well on Saturday, but the team was never considering him a long-term solution ... oh, and the Indians lost.
Because we all need a little more good news, it’s heartening that head team doctor Mark Schickendantz is an expert in this matter. As a medical doctor qualified to be head doctor for a baseball team, it seems obvious that Schickendantz is an expert, but beyond that he’s well-versed on this exact injury. In 2009, Schickendantz was lead author of a study of teres major tears in The American Journal of Sports Medicine (the highest-ranked orthopedics and sports medicine peer-reviewed journal). Of course, the team got a second opinion on Clevinger’s injury, but it seems that he will opt against surgery as the recovery timelines are the same, and thus Schickendantz’s expertise remains highly relevant. In his paper, the team doctor concluded that injuries such as these “heal successfully with nonoperative treatment, and most players are able to return to the same level of competition in 3 months.”
Now, three months is still a long time, and going three months with Rodriguez in the rotation is not a plan the Tribe is willing to consider right now. But, although some observers would want you to think the Indians are completely unprepared for this situation, this is actually exactly what they prepared for in the offseason (they’re completely unprepared for Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco also struggling, but that’s another article). So, how might the team navigate this unfortunate Clevinger-less chunk of the schedule?
With an off day on the 18th, the Indians have no need for a fifth starter until April 24. The most obvious answer to “Who fills in for Clevinger?” is thus Anderson. A starter prior to two lost seasons to Tommy John surgery, Anderson is a feel-good choice for this role. But, although most fans want to see Anderson return as a starter, it doesn’t seem to be in the cards yet.
So far Anderson has pitched just twice, not exceeding three innings in either appearance. On April 7, the righty faced Indianapolis and threw 40 pitches (26 strikes) over three innings of one-hit ball, notching four strikeouts and walking none. He then came on in relief Saturday, after Rodriguez and Oliver Perez, posting two innings of work, throwing 26 pitches (15 strikes) and allowing two hits and one earned run, striking out a pair and walking one.
Whereas Rodriguez got the plane back to Columbus after his start, Anderson is sticking around. If the Tribe can get him a longer outing in the next few days, he might be able to provide 50-60 pitches the next time the team needs a starter. But it seems like he will need a piggyback option or a deep pen any day he pitches for the next few weeks.
A more obvious candidate than Anderson based on his time in the rotation last year, Plutko has been on the injured list for Columbus since spring training. Encouragingly, he resumed a throwing program and will be ready to throw in games in two to three weeks. However, it seems safe to rule him out for at least the first month, if not more, of Clevinger’s absence.
Traded late last year from Tampa Bay for Gionti Turner, Hu was an immediate add to the Indians 40-man roster, which screams “depth” to me. Blocked in Tampa, Hu put up decent numbers as a Rays’ farmhand, throwing 102 innings at Triple-A in 2018 with a 3.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 70.5 percent strand rate, and 4.19 FIP; likewise, in stints with the big league club, Hu showed he could perform at the highest level, throwing 23 innings across two years and maintaining his solid strikeout-to-walk rate (3.0) and strand rate (67.2%) and posting a FIP of 4.51.
In Columbus, Hu has thrown 7.2 innings over two starts, with four walks, two strikeouts, one home run, but just three runs (all earned). His line has not been dominating, but it is not much of a departure from his career numbers. Plutko clearly cannot go, and if Anderson is not quite ready, Hu is a perfectly serviceable option and might show enough fight to hold off other guys in front of him.
Last year was the coming out party for the opener, with the Rays using the strategy extensively and playoff-bound teams like the A’s and Brewers employing an opener sporadically. Based on Cleveland’s shutdown staff of aces, using an opener was never a serious consideration, but without Clevinger could it be on the table?
The most interesting part about employing an opener is that it does not preclude our previous options. The next two series in which the Tribe needs to replace Clevinger are both against Miami, who just so happens to be miserable against right-handed starters. Facing righty starters, the Marlins have an OPS+ of just 53; against all righties the Fish have an OPS+ of 63. The most dramatic difference in splits for Miami come between the first and second inning, where the team has a 27 and 122 OPS+, respectively; thus, throwing an opener at them might throw off their game and work to the Indians advantage.
The most common 1-2-3 for Miami is Curtis Granderson (left), Brian Anderson (right), and Neil Walker (switch), all of whom actually hit better against righties. However, their numbers against lefties are abysmal. In terms of OPS+ versus lefties, Grandy is at 63, Anderson a paltry 47, and Walker a miserable 11 this season. Therefore, if Cleveland threw Oliver Perez in the first and then Anderson, Hu, or Plutko (other depth in Columbus — Shao-Ching Chang, Asher Wojciechowski, and Sean Brady — would require a 40-man move), they could reap the benefit of the top third’s weakness against lefties as well as the entire lineup’s struggles against right-handed starters. This strategy may not be a long-term solution, but it could particularly useful in spots, which is how the A’s and Brewers employed the strategy last season to great effect.
This isn’t so much a first-choice strategy as a necessary option. It would be great if Hefty Jeff Rodriguez or Cody Anderson owned this rotation spot so hard that no further tinkering was necessary, but that ain’t likely how it’s going to go. Which means it’s a good idea to consider how the Indians can use the I-71 pipeline to ferry pitchers back and forth and keep the arms fresh.
Among current roster members, Adam Cimber, Jon Edwards, and Nick Wittgren have options remaining and could be sent to Columbus should a need for fresh arms arise. Any member of the Clippers could be called up, but only Nick Goody is on the current 40-man roster and has options. James Hoyt and Brooks Pounders have options remaining, but would require a 40-man move, such as moving Bradley Zimmer to the 60-day injured list. Other players could also get a call, but they would need a 40-man move and would have to be designated for assignment and exposed to waivers should they become surplus to requirements in Cleveland.
Some folks consider Double-A competition the best, as that level is where future big-league talent separates from the crowd, and bypassing Triple-A altogether is not unheard of. Jonathan Loaisiga of the Yankees made such a jump last year, but do the Indians have any players capable of making such a leap?
Top-prospect Triston McKenzie would be a candidate if he, like Clevinger, were not suffering from a back injury and out for another few weeks at least. Nick Sandlin, long pegged to be the first from the 2018 draft to make the big leagues, is also rehabbing an injury and unlikely to make his way from extended spring training directly to Cleveland, which is the same story for fellow prospect Aaron Civale. Sam Hentges was a guy with helium on prospect lists last year, including our own, but his 2019 has not gone well so far (2 starts, 7.2 IP, 9.39 ERA, 2.48 WHIP), virtually ruling out a leap for him.
Though a theoretical leap could happen, the reality for the Cleveland organization is that no one is ready for it right now. Between injuries and performance problems, the team would be better making a shallower reach to Triple-A or into the free agent market if the need becomes desperate.
To be clear, Cleveland would have to get really damn desperate to call upon a free agent at this time of the year. And even if that happens, cross Dallas Keuchel’s name off the list before you even make it. Remaining unsigned starting pitchers are Bartolo Colon, Yovanni Gallardo, James Shields, Edwin Jackson, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman. For so many reasons, Bartolo Colon would be the favorite to get a contract, but Big Sexy only accumulated 0.4 fWAR in 28 games last year. That’s not much better than replacement level and it’s also the same as Gallardo (0.4 fWAR in 21 games) and less than Jackson (0.8 fWAR in 17 games) and Shields (1.1 fWAR in 34 games) — none of whom I’d actually recommend as a good signing.
But, again, the nightmare scenario that forces Cleveland to become desperate enough to dip into the free agent waters to replace Clevinger is not exactly imminent despite the desperate feel of the sweep in Kansas City. Rodriguez was the first step and Anderson seems likely as a next step. If his return is less than hoped for, hopefully Plutko can return soon, though beyond him there are other good options. None of the Indians’ options are good as Clev, of course, but hopefully the Indians’ medical team can get him back in pitching shape soon. At least he’s using his time off to great effect.