Two starts, five innings pitched, two walks, one hit, one earned run and nine strikeouts.
Aaron Civale didn’t get much spring training work in before MLB activity was paused, with groin discomfort sidelining him early. As you can see, though, his brief cameo was impressive.
However, was it enough to ensure that, whenever the season begins, Civale will find himself in the Cleveland Indians’ rotation? Or will his year open with a brief stint in the minors?
The use of the word “brief” is necessary here, mainly because the idea of Civale spending the bulk of the year in Columbus feels far-fetched.
The spin rates with his curve (96th percentile) and fastball (85th percentile) are both highly ranked by Baseball Savant, while he finished the 2019 season allowing the lowest barrel percentage in all of baseball (2.4%). At just 24-years-old, Civale’s future is bright, and much of it will be spent in Cleveland.
This context certainly makes the initial question sound crazy. Civale’s rookie season featured several impressive numbers, and his limited spring performance certainly hinted said numbers weren’t fluky.
Why would the Indians take someone this talented and send him to the minors to open the year?
Despite his skill set, there are a few factors working against Civale in his attempt to start the season in Cleveland.
For one, a few slots which would’ve been available had the 2020 campaign opened on time likely won’t be vacant anymore.
Had the season started this week, both Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco would still be on the shelf. The former is recovering from meniscus surgery, while the latter is dealing with elbow inflammation. Even if Carrasco only missed a start or two, Clevinger’s absence likely would’ve ensured Civale began the year in Cleveland’s rotation.
While most of the baseball world sees the season suspension as a bummer, Clevinger and Carrasco are using it to ensure they’re ready for opening day.
Another factor worth considering is what the Indians plan to do with fellow starter Adam Plutko.
Plutko enters the 2020 campaign completely out of minor league options. Should he not make Cleveland’s opening day roster, he’ll be in need of a new team.
As Mandy Bell of MLB.com noted last week, Plutko’s lack of options likely meant the Indians would have him open the year in the rotation, then move him to the bullpen if this didn’t pan out.
Of course, this was the plan before the season was postponed.
With Clevinger and Carrasco healthy, keeping Plutko in the rotation means there’d only be one spot available after factoring in Shane Bieber.
While there’s always a chance the shortened schedule forces Cleveland to fast-track Plutko to the bullpen, there’s been no indication this is under consideration.
Which brings us back to our original question – did Civale show enough in five innings of spring work to ensure he starts the year in Cleveland’s rotation?
To be fair, Civale isn’t the only pitcher potentially facing time in Triple-A.
Zach Plesac is also looking to build off his 2019 debut. Unlike Civale, he was healthy all spring, logging three starts and allowing seven hits, three earned runs and two walks while striking out nine in 8.1 innings pitched.
Both pitchers have options remaining, so if the Indians prioritize a starter’s role for Plutko, one of them will need to be sent down. Is an extra start and 3.1 more innings pitched enough to give Plesac an edge over Civale?
It’s worth noting that, with the season on pause, everyone is essentially back to square one. A ramp-up time will be required before the 2020 campaign can get under way, the length of which hasn’t been determined.
Former Indians GM and current Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro recently claimed clubs will need four weeks of prep before the season starts.
Should that be the case, Civale could get a fresh chance to compete with Plesac for the final rotation spot.
Obviously a lot is still up in the air at this point. We don’t know how much prep time clubs will receive when opening day is rescheduled, nor do we know what Cleveland’s plan is for Plutko.
Should the Indians proceed with placing Plutko in the rotation, either Civale or Plesac is heading to Columbus. Civale didn't get much time to show off his work this spring, and it's unclear if this helps or hurts his cause.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding this situation, there’s one thing we do know for sure. Even if Civale does draw short straw and begin 2020 in the minors, he won’t be there for long.