Could the Indians Be On the Lookout for a New Closer in 2021?
It has been a long time since Terry Francona has needed to groom a closer, but other than winning baseball games, that might be his most important secondary chore in the 2020 season.
When Francona took over as Tribe skipper in 2013, Chris Perez was the closer, coming off a 39 save season in 2012, and although he had some injury issues during the campaign, he saved 25 for Cleveland in '13.
When Perez was out, Francona used Vinnie Pestano and Bryan Shaw to close, but he was using a young 24-year-old right-hander drafted just two years prior as a set up man.
That pitcher was Cody Allen, and he took over the closer role the following season and saved a club record 156 games for the Tribe over the next five years, including seven in post-season play in 2016 and 2017.
With Allen on the roster and pitching effectively, Tito didn't have to worry about who was pitching the ninth inning, he simply handed the ball to Allen, and the reliever was always ready to get four outs if need be.
Allen was such a good fit and a team player, that when the Indians traded for Andrew Miller in '16, Francona used the southpaw as a "super reliever" bringing him in whenever the fire was the hottest.
He could do that because of the confidence he had in Allen.
In 2018, when both Allen and Miller started to leak some oil, perhaps because the extra work in the '16 run to the World Series, president Chris Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff traded for San Diego closer Brad Hand, who saved eight games that season, and 34 a year ago.
Hand is signed through this season, but has a club option for $10 million for the 2021 season, and even without the uncertainty of baseball finances next year due to the coronavirus, we would doubt Cleveland wants to pay a closer that kind of cash.
At the initial spring training, people were looking forward to seeing the combination of youngsters Emmanuel Clase, 21, who came over in the Corey Kluber trade, and rookie James Karinchak, 23, who debuted last September, setting up the veteran Hand.
A righty, Clase has a 100 MPH cutter that Frankie Lindor said was the nastiest pitch he's ever seen, and appeared in 21 games for Texas, going 2-3 with one save and a 2.31 ERA in 23.1 innings with 21 strikeouts.
Karinchak is famous, at least here, for his gaudy strikeout rates coming through the Indians' farm system.
However, Clase has been suspended for the '20 season due to PED usage, so the manager will not get to see him under fire this season.
So, it would seem that if Karinchak can throw strikes, which has been an issue in his minor league career, he could give Francona enough confidence to use him as the closer in 2021, and in turn, allow the front office to either pick up Hand's option and trade him or not pick up the option at all.
On the other hand, as former Tribe GM John Hart used to say, closers fall out of trees, so as the 2020 season plays out, it may be someone else who earns the skipper's confidence.
Perhaps a veteran like James Hoyt or Phil Maton, or maybe injury plagued prospect Triston McKenzie gets used as a bullpen arm. Or it could be someone like Cam Hill or Kyle Nelson.
Remember, it's not just the arm that makes a solid closer, it's dealing with the pressure of pitching with the game on the line. The closer has to be someone who can shake off a bad performance and go out and do the job the next night. Kind of an "everyday" pitcher.
We know the Indians want to win ballgames this season, but finding a successor to Hand might be the most important secondary thing to come out of the 2020 season.