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Guardians spring training battles: Fifth starter

Can any pitcher unseat Zach Plesac in Guardians camp?

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

As the curtain lifts on the spring training stage, I’m hoping for some drama to unfold in a battle for the fifth starter spot.

The top four spots in the Guardians’ starting rotation seem pretty set in stone, barring injury, with Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill, and Aaron Civale holding their respective places. But what about that fifth spot?

Maybe seniority reigns and Zach Plesac is already etched in stone to get the first crack at it as the season starts. But, after two seasons of breaking his hands under strange circumstances and putting up a 4.49 ERA in the games in which he was healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a pitching-rich organization like the Guardians give another player a shot at winning the fifth starter role in spring training.

Let’s take a look at the candidates.

Zach Plesac, 28, RHP

Notes: Career ERA of 4.04, 6.97/2.38 K/BB per 9 in MLB. Steamer projects a 4.61 ERA 6.71/2.46 K/BB/9 in 2023, and ZiPS projects a 4.35 ERA in 2023.

Analysis: I’ve noticed that the Guardians beat reporters seem to be assuming Plesac is the number five starter, so I’ll admit they may have inside information on that to which I am not privy.

As an outside observer, I am choosing to believe that the Guardians’ decision to move Plesac to the pen in September of 2022 indicates they may be willing to consider him in a relief role. In Plesac’s favor is his ability to control the run game with an excellent pickoff move, which may become more valuable with the larger bases and limits on throws over for pitchers. However, I think this could be a great skill to use out of the relief role, also.

I expect the Guardians to open the fifth spot in the rotation up for a wider competition in spring training, but I could be surprised (and disappointed) to discover that they think Plesac deserves the first look there.

One interesting note — Plesac’s highest average fastball velocity in any game last season was 93 mph, which came in his final start in Seattle when he broke his hand. It’s a small thing we can dream on that perhaps feeling fully healthy in that start he was finding some extra oomph.

Konnor Pilkington, 25, LHP

Notes: 3.88 ERA, 7.76/4.49 K/BB/9 in 2022. 2023 - Steamer 4.31 ERA, 7.96/3.92 K/BB, ZiPS 4.80 ERA

Analysis: Konnor Pilkington filled in admirably in the fifth starter role for Cleveland, most notably in 5.2, 1 hit, scoreless innings against the Twins on Sept. 17.

As Pilkington became more comfortable in the big leagues, I saw him trusting the deceptive delivery of his fastball a little more and finding some additional command, both of which are absolutely crucial for his potential as a major-league starter. I suppose none of us are anxious for tons of Pilkington starts in 2023, but he is a very valuable arm to have around, and I’d prefer to see him get the first look as the fifth starter over Plesac.

Cody Morris, 26, RHP

Notes: 2.28 ERA, 8.75/4.56 in 2022. 2023 - Steamer 3.48 ERA 10.48/3.28 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.02 ERA

Analysis: A numbers darling of Guardians fans and projections systems alike, Cody Morris has the strikeout numbers to push him into a No. 4 or even No. 3 starter role — if he can remain healthy.

Health has been the big challenge for Morris throughout his professional career, as the most innings he has ever thrown in a season is 89 in 2019. I think it is far more realistic to accept the fact that the Guardians may try to transition him to the pen in spring training and allow him to feature in a swing role, where he can pair with a guy like Plesac and Quantrill, or Civale and McKenzie and give two strong innings, twice a week, setting up for Clase.

But, I’m also not opposed to the Guardians stretching Morris out in spring training and letting him go after it in the fifth starter role for as long as his arm holds up.

Xzavion Curry, 24, RHP

Notes: 2023 - Steamer 4.70 ERA, 7.44/2.89 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.40 ERA

Analysis: Xzavion Curry is a battler, and he’s about my height at around 5-foot-11, so I root for him wholeheartedly.

You could tell he has a fighter’s spirit in his couple of starts in 2022 as he didn’t have all of his stuff working as he might have hoped, and yet he managed to stick around for more than 4.0 innings both times.

If you ever have a chance to listen to an interview with him, I recommend it, because he makes it so easy to root for his success. With that said, I wonder if his future in the majors is also in the bullpen where his 92 mph fastball may play up, allowing him to get to a plus slider and change-up.

But, again, if the Guardians want to give him a try in the fifth starter role to begin the season, you’re not going to find me complaining … as long as the leash is not too long.

Hunter Gaddis, 25, RHP

Notes: 2023 - Steamer 4.35 ERA, 8.71/2.86 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.76 ERA

Analysis: Hunter Gaddis had a rough couple of starts with Cleveland in 2022. My guess is that hitters are picking up on what I notice to be a higher/more upright arm slot and delivery setup on his fastball than his offspeed offerings. For comparison, the first photo is Gaddis’ delivery hold on a changeup and the photo beneath is his delivery hold on a fastball

Hunter Gaddis’ changeup hold.
Hunter Gaddis’ fastball hold.

I do not claim to be revealing anything revolutionary here, but I suspect the Guardians will work with Gaddis to try to bring his holds and arm slots into more similar positions to help deceive hitters.

At 6-foot-6, again, I wonder if Gaddis might find some extra velocity on the fastball in a bullpen role, allowing his offspeed stuff to play up. The projections aren’t high on him as a starter, for what it’s worth, but it’s not hard to be optimistic about the Guardians’ pitching development group getting the most out of him.

Joey Cantillo, 23, LHP

Notes: 2023 - 4.23 ERA, 8.59/3.97 K/BB/9, ZiPS 4.15 ERA

Analysis: The projections like what they saw from Cantillo in 2022. A recent article in the Athletic talked about the extra velocity Cantillo has found with Cleveland’s development team, as he’s gone from sitting at 88 mph with his fastball to sitting at 92-95 mph and touching 97 mph.

This velocity jump has been accompanied by injuries as Cantillo threw only 13 innings in 2021 and only 60.2 innings in 2022. This leads to skepticism about whether he could handle a full season in the fifth starter role.

I wonder if the team could use a combination of minor league options and scheduled maintenance days with Morris, Cantillo, and Pilkington to create a sort of three-headed monster approach to the fifth starter role in 2022. The projections seem to indicate that, if it could be managed, this would be their best option for optimal run prevention out of the role in 2022.

Touki Toussaint, 26, RHP

Notes: 5.34 ERA and 9.56/5.50 K/BB/9 for his career. 2023 - Steamer 4.08 ERA and 8.91/4.22 K/BB/9

Analysis: From what I’ve read, it sounds like the Guardians are looking at Toussaint as a reliever. If the Guardians can manage to essentially cut his walks in half — like they did with Enyel De Los Santos from 2021 to 2022 — he could be a deadly weapon out of the pen.

I wouldn’t expect them to try him as a starter with the numerous options they have on hand for the role, but you can never have too much depth. I expect Toussaint to have a shot to win a bullpen role in spring training, but, if they really like what they see with him, it wouldn’t completely shock me to see him in a competition for the fifth starter spot in March.

Other options

Some other names to look for down the line include Peyton Battenfield (Steamer projects a 4.36 ERA and ZiPS projects a 4.37 ERA), Logan Allen (Steamer 4.17 ERA, ZiPS 4.71 ERA), Tanner Bibee (Steamer 4.40 ERA, ZiPS 4.31 ERA), Gavin Williams (Steamer 4.52, ZiPS 4.33) and Daniel Espino (Steamer 4.16, ZiPS 4.42).

I certainly wouldn’t expect any of the three pitching prospects (Espino, Williams, and Bibee) to break camp with the team, but if all three are healthy and pitching well in August 2023, I wouldn’t be surprised to see any or all of them helping the team at some point down the stretch run.

I think it’s important to use the major league innings in your young starters’ arms without letting them expend them in the minors because health is always ephemeral for pitchers. It’s also important not to forget the couple of Clippers in Battenfield and Allen who have shown flashes of being potential major league starters, especially the lefty Allen whom Steamer loves as a potential starter and who was the fourth-ranked Guardians prospect by FanGraphs in their recent system rankings and received a glowing ranking from ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel as well.

Bottom line

The smart money is probably on Zach Plesac as the Guardians' fifth starter to open 2023 if he is healthy, but I suspect the team’s patience with him in that role will be short given the number of other options they already have on the 40-man who should be able to adequately start a game every fifth day.