For the first time in a long time, the Indians are potentially entering a season with two young, super talented relievers who are going to spend the majority of their early careers in Cleveland.
At just 21 and 24 years old, Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak could potentially hold down the middle innings — and eventually the final three outs — for the Indians for years to come. The former came from the Rangers in the much-maligned Corey Kluber deal, and the latter is the definition of homegrown — selected by the Indians in the ninth round of the 2017 June Amateur Draft and carrying his plus-fastball and incredible curveball all the way to his major league debut last September.
Both have fastballs with an 80-grade (the highest on the 20-80 scouting scale) from FanGraphs, and baseball gods willing, will be healthy and in the Indians’ bullpen for the next six-plus years. Given that they’re both under 25 and on the Indians, that’s a big deal.
Since the turn of the century 20 years ago, the Indians have had just nine seasons of relievers under 26 throw for 60 or more innings. Two of them were Cody Allen and two were Jensen Lewis. The last under-26 reliever to throw 60 innings and have an ERA under 2.00 was Chris Perez in 2010 (though Cody Allen came close as a 25-year-old in 2014).
It’s the rarest of air for the Indians to have talented young relievers at the ready, let alone two that would be elite closers on most teams. With that in mind, when do the Indians consider extending them?
It might seem crazy to offer an extension to a reliever early in their career — or at all, for that matter — but if Karinchak and Clase enter arbitration as two of the game’s top relievers, the Indians are going to have one expensive bullpen.
Historically, if you’re a reliever and don’t have a lot of saves good luck getting a big payday in arbitration, even if you’re Dellin Betances in 2016 and one of the best relievers in baseball but finish with just 12 saves. Betances was awarded $3 million in court that year. A year later, Roberto Osuna (2.9 fWAR) and Ken Giles (1.8 fWAR) both entered arbitration with 39 and 23 saves, respectively. They were awarded $5.3 million and $4.6 million.
This can’t be the case forever, though. Eventually, mediators are going to catch on to the importance of high-leverage middle relievers who repeatedly “save” games but are given nothing in return. Guys like 2016 Betances and Andrew Miller. Like Bryan Shaw in his glory years in Cleveland. Like the dream future I imagine for Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak. And most recently, like Aaron Bummer.
Bummer had exactly one season of looking like a dominant reliever for the White Sox with a 2.13 ERA, 3.49 xFIP, and 1.3 fWAR in 67.2 innings last season. He only had one all-important save as Alex Colome served as the White Sox’s primary closer, but in a year where balls were flying more than they ever had before, Bummer’s incredible sinker held opponents to ground balls 72.1% of the time. The White Sox did hesitate to extend him a five-year, $16 million deal that includes two options to buy out a couple years of free agency. It’s the largest dollar amount given to a non-closer reliever prior to arbitration.
The Indians should copy it.
Clase and Karinchak can, of course, take their flashy fastballs and sky-high strikeout rates to an arbitration panel and demand more than the $3.2 million annually that Bummer is getting annually, but it behooves the Indians to try it sooner than later. It’ll be a delicate balancing act to get them enough money to be satisfied, but less than what a panel would likely give them each year. The longer they wait, the smarter arbitrators get, the higher that threshold becomes.