Should the Indians Use a Four-Man Rotation During a Shortened 2020 Season?

Casey Drottar

Baseball’s long and ugly money fight may finally be coming to a close.

Sure, said finale isn’t even remotely harmonious. MLB and the players union still hate each other, as both sides chose to walk away from the negotiating table over the weekend after neither could agree on how players will be paid this year.

That said, they’ve now forced commissioner Rob Manfred to mandate a 2020 season which could be in the range of 48-54 games. It’s less than ideal, and with a campaign this short, you can expect many clubs to adjust their strategies to give themselves a competitive advantage in the months ahead.

Don’t be shocked if one of these adjustments is an increased usage of four-man rotations across the league. After all, it’s a strategy which could make sense in a season like this.

Is it also one the Cleveland Indians should embrace?

Sure, the idea of running four starting pitchers on short rest all year sounds crazy on the surface. It certainly would be under a normal season, where members of a five-man staff typically make a maximum of 32 to 33 starts and log over 200 innings pitched.

If the season were, say, 54 games in length, a pitcher in a four-man rotation would only be making 13 to 14 starts. Even if each start was a complete game, that’s still a max of just 126 innings pitched on the year. Quite a reduction from the norm.

Knowing this, and knowing how a shortened season will only increase the importance of each contest, the Indians wouldn’t be crazy to consider shortening their rotation in order to put their best starters on the mound more frequently.

If you ask me, I’d say the decision to pursue this is likely dependent upon what Carlos Carrasco does this summer.

As our own Matt Loede noted last week, Carrasco’s ongoing fight with leukemia may have him thinking of opting out this season. Since he qualifies as an immunocompromised player, league rules would likely allow him to pass on baseball this year and still earn his salary and service time.

It’d be understandable if Carrasco skipped the 2020 season, especially considering the risk he’d be taking on for just a couple months of baseball. That said, if the below tweet from this weekend is any indication, it seems like he’s ready to get back on the mound as soon as possible.

Should Carrasco take part in the 2020 season, it could make the idea of a four-man rotation too tricky for Cleveland.

The team would have three reliable arms in Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. From there, it would have to round out the group by deciding between Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac or Adam Plutko.

If I were making the call, I’d tab Civale.

No disrespect to Plutko or Plesac, but the numbers Civale put up during his brief stint with the Tribe last season remain incredibly impressive. The spin rates he displayed with his fastball (85th percentile) and curve (95th percentile) were both highly ranked by Baseball Savant. Civale also only allowed just four barrels on 164 batted balls in 2019, notching a barrel rate 2.4%.

Said rate was the best in the majors last year.

With that said, complications arise when it comes to what Cleveland does with the remaining two starters. It’s not lofty to assume Plutko lands a bullpen role regardless of how the rotation shakes out, but what about Plesac?

Back in March, Mandy Bell of MLB.com reported manager Terry Francona was unlikely to place either Plesac or Civale in the bullpen in order to keep them in the majors this year. Obviously, much has changed since then. Still, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today, after rosters are expanded during the first four weeks of the season, MLB is planning to have them reduced back down to 26 players for the rest of the year.

Is Cleveland willing to send two relievers down to the taxi squad in order to keep a couple starters in the bullpen? Could the team make peace with Plesac losing a year of development while toiling with injury reserves all summer?

As I said, Carrasco’s presence may make the idea of a four-man rotation too much hassle for the Indians to deal with.

If he did decide to opt out this summer, though, Cleveland would be wise to trim its rotation down to four starters.

Losing Carrasco would be quite a blow for the Indians. In a season this short, the best course of action may be to shrink the rotation in order to up the frequency of starts for Clevinger and Bieber. Civale and Plesac can round out the bottom half, ensuring both of Cleveland’s intriguing young arms get their fair share of innings without taking away from the two aces at the top of the staff.

Again, though, this option may only best serve the Indians if Carrasco opts out this season. Should he decide to take the mound this summer, a five-man rotation may be the better route for Cleveland to take.

This is, of course, just my opinion. The Indians could feel differently, and might see the value in using four starters even if Carrasco is on board. For reasons laid out above, doing so could involve several hurdles to navigate through.

Yet, as we’ve discussed over the past few months here, that’ll be the case with several key decisions this summer. A season this short is going to create many complications for the Indians to work through, and figuring out how to manage the rotation is definitely one of the biggest ones on the list.

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