Having an All-Star relief pitcher is a luxury all Guardians teams should have, in my opinion.
I mean, imagine how much easier it is to manage a game when you know Emmanuel Clase is waiting in the bullpen? He has the fourth-highest average fastball velocity among all relievers, generates the greatest swing rate, and allows opposing hitters a wOBA of just .187. It’s not fair.
But it’s not all Clase, either.
WAR is an imperfect metric to assess bullpens by, but it’s still pretty fun that Cleveland had the fourth-best bullpen in baseball last year by fWAR. It’s even more fun that the average age of Guardians relievers was greater than two years younger than any other team in the top five. Likewise, it’s fun that Cleveland’s bullpen was top five in ERA, FIP, xFIP, and WPA. And yet, they’re still maybe a little slept on?
Closing time.— MLB (@MLB) March 28, 2023
These are the top ten bullpens in 2023 as ranked by https://t.co/Z3s2EpgF39. pic.twitter.com/pcyVLHG4Tk
With the exception of Clase in the ninth, I’m not entirely certain how the innings will be broken down — and that is also fun! Terry Francona has some remarkable tools at his disposal, and how he uses them will be quite interesting to see.
Last season, Trevor Stephan was essentially the number two reliever: Clase had 39 appearances in which the first plate appearance had a leverage index over 1.5 and Stephan had 33, second most on the team. With a 2.19 FIP and 24% K/BB ratio, Stephan’s 2022 numbers earned him the right to be a top option for more late-inning, high-pressure situations again. To say he’s the number two guy, though, would be too simple. Right-handed hitters fared considerably worse than lefties against Stephan, with a wOBA of .246 vs. .320, respectively. James Karinchak had reverse splits, with righties posting a wOBA of .266 compared to lefties’ .220. Additionally, considering the way Karinchak found his way out of the wilderness last year to look as good as he did in his first brush with the majors — FIP of 2.29 and a strikeout rate of 38.8% — he’s absolutely deserving of a large share of high-leverage innings this year as well.
The lefty specialist, however, is Sam Hentges, who restricted left-handed hitters to a wOBA of .172 last season while striking out 29.4% of all batters and compiling a FIP of 2.48. Hentges will start the year on the injured list, though, opening a spot for herky-jerky hurler Tim Herrin, whom FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen thinks “may usurp Hentges as the primary lefty out of Cleveland’s bullpen as soon as this year.” With two 60-grade pitches — a fastball that tops out at 99 and a tight slider — Herrin certainly has the raw stuff to be a dominant reliever. He struck out 41.6% and 30.9% of the batters he faced in Akron and Columbus last year, respectively. Though it’s almost certain that MLB talent will have a bit more success against him, Herrin still looks like a prime breakout candidate.
Last year’s breakout came from Enyel De Los Santos, who found something new upon coming to Cleveland and translated it into the best home run prevention of his career. In short stints at the MLB level prior to 2022, De Los Santos had averaged more than two home runs allowed per nine innings pitched, but with the Guardians, he shrunk that to 0.51 HR/9 by using his slider more often. It remains to be seen if his numbers are sustainable, but with the talent around him, he doesn’t even need to be quite as good as his 2022 FIP of 2.62 because the highest-leverage innings will not be his to worry about. This is also true for guys like Nick Sandlin and Eli Morgan, who seem well-suited for their middle-inning roles. Sandlin, with his dramatic sidearm delivery, is particularly fit to serve as a change-of-pace from the starters and seems to excel in the role, as seen by his 0.41 HR/9. Morgan, however, had the worst home run numbers of any qualified reliever in 2022 not named Shaw, with 1.27 HR/9 and 11% HR/FB. This season, Morgan certainly has a shorter leash, not least because of the competition behind him at Columbus.
Hunter Gaddis would’ve been the first of those talented minor-league arms to get a chance in the bullpen this year, but he’s been bumped to the rotation in Triston McKenzie’s stead. That’s opened a spot for Xzavion Curry to break camp in the pen with Cleveland. Last year, Curry got a couple of spot starts and underwhelmed a bit, but it’s possible a move to the pen can help him. His fastball tops out at 95 mph, and since he is good at pounding the zone he might be able to live at that higher velocity in shorter stints.
After Gaddis and Curry, Cleveland still has the kind of depth that will make contention possible. As injuries inevitably come up, the Guardians will be able to pull from a deep well of starters and relievers to keep the bullpen at a high level. Whether from prospects like Logan Allen, Joey Cantillo, or Konnor Pilkington or free agent signings like Touki Toussaint or Daniel Norris, the Guardians have many options at their disposal.
Of course, Cleveland has Clase, too. And watching him and the rest of the Guardians pitchers seems like it will be very fun again this year.