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Guardians spring training battles: Final bullpen spot

Who will replace Bryan Shaw? Well, no one. But, someone will just have to try anyway.

ALDS Game 4 - New York Yankees v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

There’s a Bryan Shaw-sized hole in the Guardians’ bullpen and Tito is going to be testing out relief arms as well as potential cribbage partners this spring.

The Guardians bullpen is mostly set — I expect returns from Sam Hentges, Eli Morgan, Enyel De Los Santos, Trevor Stephan, James Karinchak, and, of course, Emmanuel Clase. If Nick Sandlin is healthy, he should be a lock, as well.

This still leaves a final spot to be decided (barring any injuries), so let’s take a look at the likely candidates.

On the 40-man roster

Cody Morris, 26, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 3.48 ERA 10.48/3.28 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.02 ERA
Hunter Gaddis, 24, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 4.35 ERA, 8.71/2.86 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.76 ERA
Xzavion Curry, 24, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 4.70 ERA, 7.44/2.89 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.40 ERA

I discussed these three pitchers in a post about the battle for the fifth starter job. All three can be stretched out as starting pitchers. In the case of Cody Morris, because of his lengthy injury history, I would not be at all surprised to see him transitioned to the bullpen as more of a 2-inning weapon. If that’s the case, I’d expect him to make the Opening Day roster in the pen.

It’s also helpful to note that as a general rule, a pitcher’s stuff will play up in a bullpen role since they can usually throw a little harder (knowing they don’t have to last as long as they would as a starter) and they don’t have to worry about the third-time-through-the-order-penalty. So, if the Guardians consider moving Morris, Hunter Gaddis, or Xzavion Curry to the pen, I’d expect those projected numbers and their performances to improve.

I expect all three will be stretched out as starters to begin the year, however, so they are not as likely to make the team in the pen unless the team goes with shorter starts for their pitchers as they did after the shortened spring training last year. I can’t help but wonder if that decision led to fewer pitcher injuries. If the team determines that this was the case, maybe we could see one to two designated longmen in the Cleveland pen.

Jason Bilous, 25, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer: 5.20 FIP, 7.57/4.59 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.96 FIP

Just as I submitted this article, the Guardians added Jason Bilous to their 40-man roster. He has had tremendous control issues in the minors, walking around five batters per nine, but he’s also been striking out 11 batters per nine. He throws a 92-96 mph fastball with a good slider and solid change that he uses against left-handers. Perhaps the Guardians see some of the magic they used to help De Los Santos control his walks coming into play here. Bilous has three options, so I would expect he gets time in Columbus before the team brings him up, if he lasts through spring training.

Tim Herrin, 26, LHP
2023 Projections: Steamer: 4.01 FIP 8.5/3.63 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.21 FIP.

Time Herrin put up a 3.72 FIP/3.40 xFIP and a 12.26/3.26 K/BB% in Columbus in 2022 and earned himself a 40-man spot this fall. As one of the few left-handed options Cleveland has, he certainly has a solid chance to make the bullpen. The idea of a matchup lefty has less currency in MLB but Herrin’s splits in the upper level of the minors are pretty even.

Spring training non-roster invitees

Touki Toussaint, 26, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 4.21 FIP, 8.91/4.22 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.94 FIP.

As Merritt Rohlfing wrote recently, there are significant things to like about Touki Toussaint and his swing-and-miss potential, and reasons to hope the Guardians can get something out of him that other organizations failed to produce. He is older than De Los Santos was at the time, but if the Guardians could halve his walk rate as they did with DLS, watch out! He would, then, probably make the Opening Day and playoff roster. My guess, though, is that those kinds of miraculous improvements will require a stint in Columbus to achieve if they ever occur.

Michael Kelly, 30, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 4.41 FIP, 8.21/3.55 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.75 FIP

Michael Kelly is the definition of a journeyman reliever. If the Guardians can find a way to help him make the most of his cutter, he might be worth a look.

Philip Diehl, 28, LHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 4.63, FIP 7.79/3.43 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.09

I don’t see a lot to like about Philip Diehl as a pitcher, but I never put it past the Guardians’ development team to help a guy figure things out. Weirdly, He has a 7.77 FIP against lefties but a 4.87 xFIP against them for his career. That’s the most interesting thing I could come up with, folks, sorry

Dusten Knight, 32, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 4.56 7.43/3.93 K/BB/9, 4.59

He’s got a great changeup and who doesn’t like a good journeyman reliever story? Beyond that, there is one very good reason to root for Dusten Knight to make the Guardians, one way or another.

Caleb Baragar, 28, LHP
2023 Projections: Steamer: 5.09 FIP, 7.90/4.37 K/BB/9

Caleb Barager has a 93 mph fastball that grades out well, showing some interesting movement, and a decent slider. That hasn’t led to success in the majors, but there’s a place to start for Cleveland.

Caleb Simpson, 31, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 4.58 FIP, 7.58/3.98 K/BB/9, ZiPS 5.11 FIP

Caleb Simpson could make his major league debut with Cleveland as a 31-year-old, and wouldn’t that be a heartwarming story (provided it’s not because our bullpen is wracked with injuries but because he unlocks something with the Guardians pitching development team)?

Internal spring training invitees

Nick Mikolajchak, 25, RHP
2023 Projections: Steamer: 4.77 FIP, 8.02/4 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.02 FIP

Nick Mikolajchak had a difficult 2022 in Columbus, seeing his walk rate more than double from the previous season. As his ZiPS projection indicates, it’s sometimes dangerous to think that a jump like that indicates his true talent. With a year of Triple-A under his belt, he may lower his walk rate and find a way back to more of that 3.62 FIP he showed in 2021 with Akron. While I doubt Mikolajchak makes the team out of spring training, hopefully, he is useful depth along the way.

Andrew Misiaszek, 25, LHP
2023 Projections: Steamer 4.12 FIP, 8.95/3.91, ZiPS 4.28 FIP.

Our second of M-last names I have to look at 15 times to make sure I’m spelling correctly, Andrew Misiaszek is an interesting lefty. The projections systems generally like him and he’s the only lefty on this list with notably dominant splits against left-handed batters, allowing only a .482 OPS against them in 2022. I would guess that Herrin would get the nod first, but if Herrin struggles or there are any injuries, Misiaszek will not be far behind.

Bottom line

My guess is that, if Sandlin is healthy, Morris makes the team as a longman in the eighth relief spot. If the team is optimistic about his long-term future as a potential starter, Morris will head to Columbus, and Bilous and Herrin would, then, be the most likely major league addition. But, Bilous also could be DFA’d if he doesn’t show the team promise of improvement in the spring.

Of non-roster invite vets above, only Knight, Barager, and Kelly have options available and, if added to the 40-man could, thus, be sent to Columbus as depth. I think there is an outside chance Toussaint shows promise in spring training and makes the club as the eighth reliever if Sandlin is still rehabbing while Morris, Herrin, and possibly Bilous go to Columbus waiting for an opportune time to make an impact on the 2023 team.