Provided they finally tell opposing teams to stop asking about Mike Clevinger's availability, the Cleveland Indians’ rotation appears to be set. As FanGraphs projects, they’ll be heading into 2020 with Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Carlos Carrasco and Aaron Civale as their starters.
Worth noting here is the fact Adam Plutko, who helped keep the rotation afloat last year while Cleveland dealt with injuries, isn’t projected to make the starting five this season. Making things more complicated is what the Indians would do with him provided this prediction comes true.
Plutko heads into spring training completely out of minor league options. Should he not find a spot in the rotation, his time in Cleveland could come to an end.
As a result, Plutko is facing quite an uphill battle in the months ahead.
Upon being called up last May, Plutko was given quite a daunting task. The Indians’ rotation was missing two starters, as both Clevinger and Corey Kluber were sidelined with injuries. With Cleveland already behind the Minnesota Twins in the standings, Plutko was essentially asked to ensure the distance from first place didn’t increase.
For the most part, he got the job done.
Plutko logged 20 starts, finishing the year with a 7-5 record and an ERA of 4.86. His FIP (5.23), BABIP (.280) and strikeout rate (16.9%) weren’t particularly impressive, but he was still able to accomplish what Cleveland asked of him.
He, along with Plesac and Civale, made sure the losses of several key starters didn’t derail the Indians’ season. What these three provided helped put the Tribe in a position to make the playoffs, at least before a losing streak in the final week ended said hopes.
Despite what he gave the team last season, Plutko is still facing shaky odds when it comes to retaining his spot in the rotation. Without any options available, he can’t afford a rough showing this spring.
There are a couple factors which do help Plutko’s chances, though.
For one, considering Carrasco’s ongoing battle with leukemia, it remains to be seen how much he can take on in the season ahead. He spent time as a reliever last year, and a repeat of this would open a spot for Plutko.
That said, GM Chris Antonetti claims the current plan is to have Carrasco anchor the rotation in 2020.
Should that be the case, Plutko is helped by the fact Plesac and Civale haven’t proven their respective successes from last season can be mimicked this summer. He’s thrown more big-league innings than both pitchers, and each has minor league options available. Should Civale or Plesac have rocky springs, the Indians are free to send one of them down for a bit.
Not helping matters is that, when comparing 2019 seasons among these three, Plutko comes out on the bottom.
Both Plesac (1.0) and Civale (1.5) finished last year with a higher WAR than Plutko (0.7). The same can be said when comparing each pitcher’s FIP, BABIP and strikeout rate.
Plesac – 4.94, .255, 18.5%
Civale – 3.40, .250, 20.3%
Plutko – 5.23, .280, 16.9%
Projections mostly show regression with each stat for all three pitchers in 2020, which means the expectation is Plutko won’t be making up ground on Plesac or Civale this year. While projected WAR for each pitcher varies, only Plutko is expected to drop at or below replacement level.
As you can see, the situation isn’t favorable for him right now. Plutko relies on his fastball, which doesn’t have the velocity Plesac’s does. He has a handful of pitches in his arsenal, but not as many as Civale.
This certainly isn’t a dig at Plutko. He boasts plus control and would be a solid addition to the back end of any club’s rotation.
There just might not be enough room for him in Cleveland’s.
Again, the outlook isn’t completely dire just yet. We don’t know what kind of workload Carrasco can take on. Likewise, there’s a chance one of the younger pitchers finds himself in the bullpen this season. Plesac, boasting the highest four-seam velocity of all three, initially seems like the best fit for that move.
Of course, it’d be dependent upon Plutko proving his worth this spring. Should he struggle in Arizona, there’d be no sense in moving someone to the pen to make room for him.
Which is why Plutko can’t afford to let that happen.
With nowhere else to go, Plutko’s situation with the Indians can basically be defined as rotation or bust.