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A Summer Without Baseball Could Complicate the Indians’ Closer Situation

There are obviously more drawbacks than benefits when it comes to an abbreviated 2020 baseball season.

One benefit for the Cleveland Indians, though, is that a delayed start allows reliever Emmanuel Clase to fully heal from the back injury he suffered in spring training.

Both Clase and fellow bullpen prospect James Karinchak have important roles this summer, so having them at full strength whenever the season kicks off is important for Cleveland.

Along with each pitcher getting more big league experience, Karinchak and Clase can also provide the Indians much needed clarity when it comes to current closer Brad Hand and his 2021 option.

Again, this is under the assumption a 2020 season takes place. Should it not, Cleveland’s closer situation suddenly becomes much murkier.

Karinchak and Clase both possess the tools needed to become a big league closer. The former pairs a high-90’s fastball with a crippling 12-to-6 curve. The latter boasts a cutter which reaches triple-digit velocity.

That said, each pitcher’s scouting report notes some issues which still need work.

Struggles with control have resulted in Karinchak’s walk rate hitting peaks as high as 24.5% in the minors. Sure, he surged through the Indians’ system last season thanks to a strikeout rate which never dipped below 53.8%. Still, Karinchak needs to limit the amount of free passes he offers hitters.

As for Clase, while Baseball Savant’s assessment notes a need for him to improve his command, he’s made some solid strides in this department. His BB/9 was as high as 5.55 while he worked through San Diego’s minor league system, but he trimmed it down to 2.31 during his major league debut with the Rangers last season.

Unfortunately, Clase was unable to display any additional progress. An upper-back strain prevented him from logging a single spring training inning in a Cleveland uniform.

Bottom line -- the Indians need to see more from Clase and Karinchak before determining who’ll be their closer of the future.

If there’s a season this summer, Cleveland would have the benefit of Hand, an All-Star who could hold down the fort while the team gets more time to evaluate its prospects.

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It’s a benefit the Tribe likely won’t have in 2021. Or, to put it more accurately, a benefit the team could be hesitant to pay for.

Hand has a $10 million club option next season, the second priciest option after Carlos Santana’s $17.5 million. As we know, a summer without baseball -- or a summer featuring fan-free baseball -- will result in all teams taking massive financial hits in 2020.

With that in mind, Cleveland will likely be tentative when it comes to picking up eight-figure options.

If MLB moves forward with a shortened season this year, the Indians can get Karinchak and Clase more work, which would potentially make the decision with Hand’s option easier. Should at least one of the prospects shine, the Indians could comfortably let Hand walk, save $10 million and know they have someone to take the reins.

If there’s no baseball at all in 2020, well, things get tricky.

Theoretically, the team could still just decline Hand’s option despite Clase and Karinchak not getting more experience, choosing to let spring training serve as their audition. Said scenario certainly doesn't feel far-fetched.

It’s also a scenario which carries a fair share of risk.

Relievers tend to be volatile. They can spend months mowing down hitters with ease, then contract a weeks-long case of the yips at a moment’s notice.

There’s no guarantee Clase and Karinchak will experience that kind of turbulence. Still, should neither pitcher log an inning this year, do the Indians know enough to confidently crown one of them as closer and let Hand go?

Clase has only pitched in 23.1 big league innings. Karinchak has only faced 22 MLB hitters. If the Indians can gather anything conclusive from such small sample sizes, more power to them. That said, you'd like to think they’d need to see more before trusting one of these two with the ninth inning.

Hand’s option speaks for itself. It’s easy to see why Cleveland would choose to clear $10 million from its books, especially after a year which features notable revenue losses.

However, if neither Clase nor Karinchak adds to their respective resumes this summer, will the Indians let the desire to shed salary outweigh the risks which come from banking on inexperienced prospects in the back end of their bullpen?

It’s no easy call by any means. However, if baseball is out of the cards in 2020, it’s something Cleveland would be wise to start thinking about right away.