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Guardians have more tough pitching decisions coming up

Someone’s gotta go at some point

MLB: APR 09 Mariners at Guardians Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Triston McKenzie and Aaron Civale are set to make their triumphant returns to the Guardians’ rotation this weekend, and Cody Morris is nearing the completion of his rehab assignment. With Quantrill heading for the injured list, how will the Guardians make room for all their pitchers on the roster long-term?

Guardians fans should be excited to get to see both McKenzie and Civale rejoin the major-league rotation — as well as Morris wherever he ends up — but there are three challenges to getting them back.

First, there will need to be two roster moves to activate McKenzie and Morris from their time on the 60-day injured list. This should be fairly simple with Zach Plesac, Jose Tena, Richie Palacios, and David Fry being pretty clearly roster bubble guys. The team could probably put Peyton Battenfield on the 60-day injured list if needed.

Second, the Guardians have to decide who will be part of the starting rotation. Since Francona has said they are not doing a six-man rotation, either Cal Quantrill, Logan Allen, or Tanner Bibee will have to move to the bullpen when Quantrill is healthy. Given that McKenzie’s starts had been lined up with Quantrill’s, it seems that Cal was destined for the bullpen until his conveniently-timed flare-up of shoulder inflammation (something he has apparently been dealing with for a while). But, will that be the case long-term?

Finally, the Guardians have to figure out which 13 pitchers should be on their 26-man roster. In terms of clear locks, they have Shane Bieber, Cal Quantrill (when healthy), Logan Allen, Tanner Bibee, Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie, Sam Hentges, Trevor Stephan, Enyel De Los Santos, and Emmanuel Clase. That’s 10 players with Eli Morgan, Nick Sandlin, James Karinchak, Xzavion Curry, and soon Cody Morris all on the roster, and two needing to be demoted to Columbus eventually.

Who should spend some time down I-71? Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

Eli Morgan, RHP

1.97 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 3.28 xFIP, 4.07 xERA, 9.64/2.31 K/BB

Pros: Morgan has the highest strikeout rate of his career and has allowed, by far, the lowest hard-hit rate of his career at 23.9%. He started off the season with 10 appearances not giving up an earned run. His increased use of a dropping slider has enabled his changeup-fastball combo to make him a consistently effective reliever.

Cons: Morgan continues to have a home run bugaboo as he’s allowing a 15.8% HR rate on fly balls. His expected ERA demonstrates that a 10.4% barrel rate may eventually result in some more runs getting on the board against him. He cannot afford to walk hitters as he demonstrated in taking the loss in Thursday’s game in Minnesota. His fastball is getting tattooed, and it can be nerve-wracking going to a reliever whose fastball isn’t a reliable weapon.

Terry Francona also has only gone to Morgan 20 times so far this season in an average inning leverage index of 0.95, which indicates a reluctance to use him as a high-leverage arm (for context, Emmanuel Clase’s leverage index is 1.86).

Bottom line: I’m a believer in Eli Morgan and I like the different pitch mix he provides in the pen. I don’t think it makes much sense to have him pitch pen innings in Columbus and he’s clearly more effective as a bullpen arm than as a starter. However, the Guardians' bullpen may be good enough to force him to the bubble.

Nick Sandlin, RHP

3.10 ERA, 4.22 FIP, 3.36 xERA, 3.95 xFIP, 8.41/2.76 K/BB

Pros: Nick Sandlin has a career 50% groundball rate. If you need a double-play ball against a right-handed batter, there is no better option on the Guardians roster. He also has a career 3.17 FIP against right-handers, and he has cut his walk rate almost in half from last year.

Cons: Sandlin has also only appeared in 21 games with an average leverage index of 1.17. He also has a career 5.12 FIP against lefties, and should probably not be trusted to face a lot of great left-handed hitters.

Bottom Line: I really like Nick Sandlin’s ability to get a groundball when he needs to do it. I don’t see what going to Columbus would do to improve what he offers as a reliever, and I like having a sidearmer to change the looks hitters are getting from our pen. However, I can’t deny his issues with left-handed hitting, so a demotion would not completely shock me.

James Karinchak, RHP

4.18 ERA, 6.16 FIP, 4.95 xFIP, 4.61 xERA, 12.17/6.08 K/BB

Pros: James Karinchak is leading the bullpen in strikeout rate, and strikeouts are perhaps the most valuable asset any pitcher can have. He’s been used with a leverage index of 1.36 which indicates that Tito has trusted him as a higher leverage option. In the past two appearances, Karinchak’s spin rate on his fastball over the past two days has been up 5-10% however, which may indicate an increased ability to spin it in the hot weather (more sweat = more tackiness).

Cons: Karinchak has been fairly bad and the expected stats indicate he’s been either lucky or very lucky to be only as bad as he has been so far. His fastball spin rate has been down 50% since 2022 (despite some recent improvements) and has a -1.6 run value. His walk rate is the highest of his career.

Bottom Line: I can see an argument for Karinchak to go to Columbus to see if he can find a new sweat and rosin routine to get that 2022 fastball spin rate back. I can also admit he has a higher ceiling than any other arm in this group. Alternatively, Karinchak should be traded to Tampa Bay who will immediately fix him and get him up to a 20.3 K/9 rate.

Xzavion Curry, RHP

2.45 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 4.88 xFIP, 4.76 xERA 5.83/2.15 K/BB/9

Pros: Xzavion Curry is a treasure. If you’ve never heard a postgame interview with him, do yourself a favor and find one. He has been used for 29.1 innings in 13 games to help the team in some rough spots and has almost always kept Cleveland in the game whenever it was possible for him to do so.

Curry, as the kids say, got that dawg in him and Andre Knott said on Bally’s broadcast that Tito has welcomed him into his circle of trust. Given the value of a pitcher who you can go to in any circumstance, this news does not surprise me.

Cons: Curry has only been used in a leverage index of 0.32 which reflects a lot of garbage time at the beginning of the season. He has the ability to be a starter, of course, so a plus to demoting him to Columbus would be the potential of making him an option as a starter, again, if the team experiences injuries.

Also, with Quantrill likely going to the pen, one would assume Quantrill will become the long-man in relief. Will Curry’s value hold up as well if he is asked to enter games for short stints in tighter situations? I will say as much as I love Curry, I’m a little concerned that his value is reliant on a fastball that has been nine runs above average despite averaging only 93 mph with only a 14th-percentile spin rate and a 27th-percentile extension.

Bottom Line: Again, I love Curry but I would understand if the team wanted to stretch him out in Columbus as a starter and keep Quantrill with the major league club. I find this scenario unlikely, however, given how much Tito loves Curry.

Cody Morris, RHP

(AAA) 0.00 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 4.40 xFIP, 8.44/3.38 K/BB/9

Pros: I think Cody Morris has a clear advantage in pure stuff. You can see this in his Triple-A stats in 2022 where he had a 17.62/3.52 K/BB/9. We have not yet seen this talent show up as consistently in a relief role, but you can see why a team would dream on that happening. He has an excellent curveball and an effective cutter. That combination, in itself, should make him an effective reliever.

Cons: Morris hasn’t really proven anything as a reliever yet and he’s not exactly destroying the competition in Triple-A. He also can be stretched out to start, which would leave him in Columbus at the moment.

Bottom Line: Really seems like Morris is going to rejoin the major-league bullpen in another week. I think the upside is too high for the team to resist.

In summary ... I am somewhat at a loss. Objectively, I think Karinchak and Curry should go to Columbus. But, Karinchak has a high ceiling and Curry has been an absolute warrior. It doesn’t feel like either of these moves is particularly likely.

Ultimately, I think the best answer to this issue is to find a team willing to make a move similar to how Seattle acquired Teoscar Hernández for Paul Sewald. The Guardians have a huge slugging problem in the outfield. Plenty of teams need relievers and starters. While Quantrill and Morris work their way back, it would behoove Cleveland to try to find the right partner to alleviate this roster crunch and reallocate roster value into a needed area by dealing a pitcher, or even two. This would allow the team to receive a little boost as they try to make a run at the division before time and opportunity pass them by.