Can the Cleveland Indians score enough runs to win. That’s the biggest question as Spring Training opens in Goodyear, Arizona.
But what about the team’s strength, the pitching staff, which led the league in ERA in the shortened 2020 season, led by Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber. Even with him, there are questions for the Indians on the pitching mound.
Really, when you think about it, why shouldn’t there be? In the past two seasons, the front office has traded Cy Young Award winners Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, as well as Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger. That the Tribe still has a solid staff speaks to the way the organization develops pitching.
Outside of Bieber, the most innings thrown in the big leagues by the candidates to join him in the rotation are the 217 thrown by Adam Plutko, who if he makes the team out of spring training will likely be either the fifth starter or working out of the bullpen.
The other spots behind Bieber figure to be Zach Plesac (171 big league innings), Aaron Civale (131), Triston McKenzie (31), and Cal Quantrill (135). That’s a lot of inexperience. None of that quartet have pitched the number of innings a regular rotation starter throws in a normal 162 game schedule.
While we like Plesac a lot, and McKenzie and Quantrill have electric stuff, we do have concerns about Civale, who faded last season after a complete game win over Pittsburgh. In his last 40 innings in 2020, he gave up 28 earned runs, a 6.30 ERA.
They do have some depth in this area, but it is young, unproven depth. Left-hander Logan Allen, who came over in the Bauer deal in ’19, has had a couple of cups of coffee in the bigs, but has thrown just 38 innings with a 5.40 ERA. He will be 24 in May.
Another lefty who came in that deal, 26-year-old Scott Moss, has yet to make his debut, and has only four AAA starts, but did have a 2.96 ERA for three teams in 2019. And yet another southpaw is Sam Hentges, who suffered through a 2-13, 5.11 ERA at Akron in 2019, but is well regarded by the organization.
You also have righty Eli Morgan, 24, who had a 3.39 ERA across three levels in 2019, making one AAA start.
Our bet is Plutko opens the season as the fifth starter, with McKenzie. Moss, and Allen getting some starts in Columbus to open the year. Plutko is out of options, so this delays the decision the organization has to make on him.
In the bullpen, closer Brad Hand left via free agency, so it appears James Karinchak will assume that role in 2021. The rookie fanned 53 in 27 innings in 2020, and even earned his first big league save. He did walk 16, but when he can throw strikes, he is basically unhittable.
A PED suspension in spring training did not allow us to see the other young Tribe arm with electric stuff out of the bullpen in Emmanuel Clase. The right-hander had a 2.31 ERA with Texas in 2019, and reportedly throws a 100 MPH cutter. Frankie Lindor said he was nasty when the Indians faced the Rangers in ’19.
The rest of the bullpen will include veteran reliable Nick Wittgren, Cam Hill, Phil Maton, newly signed ageless Oliver Perez, and perhaps some of the guys who don’t make the rotation.
Wittgren has pitched to a 2.99 ERA in two years with 88 strikeouts in 81 innings with the Indians. Hill was solid as a rookie in ’20, although he ended the year with a couple of rocky outings, and Maton became Sandy Alomar’s go to guy late in the season, and probably got overused. Perez attacks hitters with all kinds of motions and tricks to disrupt the hitter’s timing.
There is also Kyle Nelson, a rookie lefty who made just one bad appearance a year ago, but has fanned 176 hitters in 122 minor league innings.
We would like to see the organization bring in one more veteran arm (we always liked Tijuan Walker until the Mets signed him), to take some pressure off of the youngsters.
That is unlikely to happen because of the financial limitations the ownership has put on the front office.
The rotation could be among the league’s best, but there are a lot of questions in terms of experience. That’s a big worry for us in evaluating the 2021 Cleveland Indians.