The Cleveland Indians were dealt quite a blow yesterday, losing Emmanuel Clase to an 80-game suspension after the reliever tested positive for a performance enhancing drug. Several questions have since surfaced in the wake of the news.
Considered the key return in the Indians’ offseason trade of Corey Kluber, does Clase’s suspension prove they lost this deal?
Why do those punished for their involvement in the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal fulfill their sentences even if there’s no 2020 season, but Clase’s suspension doesn’t kick in until games begin?
Most importantly, can the Indians -- desperately needing to contend while they still have the benefit of Francisco Lindor -- survive adversity like this?
While it’s too early to claim the Tribe officially lost the Kluber trade, and I couldn’t tell you why A.J. Hinch’s suspension expires this winter even if there’s no season, I do know the answer to the last question.
Yes, Cleveland can certainly survive the loss of Clase.
This obviously qualifies as an “easier said than done” take. Likewise, it’s in no way meant to diminish this news. I was one of the many looking forward to seeing Clase’s 100 mph cutter in action this year.
Should a 2020 season take place using the rumored 80-100 game schedule, we may not see said pitch at all this summer.
So, yes, removing Clase from the roster is certainly a detriment to the Indians’ bullpen. That said, when trying to figure out how the relief corps can succeed without significant firepower, just look at last season.
The Tribe entered 2019 relying on a large collection of low velocity relievers. The unit was seen by many as one of the biggest red flags on the roster. Instead, the Indians’ bullpen ended up being one of the season’s bigger surprises.
For a better look, below are the five relievers who logged the most innings for Cleveland last year, along with their respective ERAs and max velocities:
Nick Wittgren -- 57.2 IP, 2.81 ERA, max average velocity - 92.3 mph
Brad Hand -- 57.1 IP, 3.30 ERA, max average velocity - 92.7 mph
Tyler Clippard -- 56.2 IP, 2.38 ERA, max average velocity - 90.1 mph
Adam Cimber -- 56.2 IP, 4.45 ERA, max average velocity - 85.9 mph
Oliver Pérez -- 40.2 IP, 3.98 ERA, max average velocity - 91.8 mph
Even with this glaring lack of flamethrowers, the Indians’ bullpen finished the year with the third lowest ERA in the majors (3.76). The unit accomplished this despite finishing 29th in total strikeouts (526), and despite Hand’s late-season battle with dead arm.
Obviously there’s risk in assuming this success can be duplicated in 2020. Still, the Indians have proof their bullpen can survive without someone like Clase lighting up the radar gun.
Of the relievers previously mentioned, only Clippard has since departed. Filling the void he left behind, though, is yet another intriguing relief prospect.
Boasting a high-90’s fastball and a deadly 12-to-6 curve, James Karinchak appears ready to bring his absurdly high strikeout rate to the majors in 2020.
Provided he improves his control and decreases his BB/9, Cleveland’s bullpen could be getting a significant boost this summer.
Additional help may arrive in the form of potential roster expansion.
In its attempts to bring baseball back this summer, MLB is considering boosting roster sizes to ensure teams can handle an abbreviated campaign. Should this occur, the Indians can add a few more relievers and avoid overtaxing their core group.
All in all, while potentially losing Clase for the entire campaign does some damage to the Tribe’s relief corps, there are ways the team can withstand this.
If there’s a wild card to consider, though, it’s the new three-batter minimum rule being put in place this season. Pitchers must now face at least three hitters, or pitch to the end of an inning.
Two relievers Cleveland relied upon most last season -- Cimber and Perez -- have incredibly lopsided splits which could be exploited by the new rule.
This may make replicating last season’s success trickier for the Indians’ bullpen, something Clase could’ve helped mitigate.
No matter how you spin it, there’s no denying the fact Clase’s suspension is a big blow for the Indians. Surviving it will require plenty of things breaking the right way for them.
Still, Cleveland is just one year removed from receiving significant skepticism about its relievers, and said pitchers spent 2019 defying offseason doubt.
So, while trying to win with a bullpen lacking triple-digit heat is difficult, it’s also a challenge the Indians have overcome before.