GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Indians have plenty of position battles to iron out over the last two weeks of Spring Training, and the bullpen is no exception.
The Tribe has a handful of intriguing arms, but so many of them are young or inexperienced. Indians manager Terry Francona has already said he intends to carry eight relievers on the Opening Day roster, with the possibility of one of the five starters moving to the bullpen until they are needed in the rotation.
“This is probably one of the more difficult springs to gauge where guys are just because of the limited amount of innings and we can't send them to Triple-A,” Francona said. “There are some things where we are going to have to put our heads together and hope that we make the right decision.”
The locks for the bullpen are likely James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Nick Wittgren, Phil Maton and Adam Plutko. The Tribe always seems to break camp with at least one non-roster invitee and this year, Oliver Pérez and Bryan Shaw appear to be the two top candidates.
That brings the bullpen total to seven. Who could fill the final vacancy?
Let’s look at who’s left:
Trevor Stephan: Stephan may be the leading candidate in this race. The hard-throwing righty was selected by the Tribe in this year’s Rule 5 Draft. He’s given up two runs in five innings so far this spring with six strikeouts and one walk.
“He's kept some eyes open,” Francona said. “Again, he's got two plus pitches that really get interesting. And he showed a split [on Monday], a good one, that got the lefty out. That's a big roster move because you're locked into a guy all year. But he has more than done his part.”
Anthony Gose: The biggest concern about Gose has been his command. The outfielder-turned-reliever has electric stuff, hitting triple digits on the radar gun as a lefty, but when he started to catch a lot of attention at last year’s Spring Training, he also displayed that his command wasn’t quite Major League ready. But now? He’s making it tough to be ignored. In four outings, Gose has yet to permit a run and has struck out five batters with no walks.
Blake Parker: Parker is one of the Indians’ non-roster invitees who has had a solid showing so far in camp. In 4 2/3 innings, Parker has given up one run (1.93 ERA) with four strikeouts and two walks. If he has a strong finish to Spring Training over the final two weeks, he could be an option to take Shaw’s spot in the ‘pen or earn the final vacancy.
Heath Hembree: Add another Hembree to the list of non-roster invitees who will cause the Indians to have a handful of difficult decisions to make before Opening Day. In his first 5 1/3 innings, Hembree has permitted one earned run on four hits with six strikeouts, but he’s run into some trouble with his command with six walks. Because of that, he may not be the top candidate on this list to make the Opening Day roster, but he’s shown enough potential to at least earn a good bit of consideration.
Kyle Nelson: Nelson made one big league appearance last year, giving up four runs on three hits in two-thirds of an inning. But overall, the southpaw is an arm the Tribe is still excited about. In three games this spring, Nelson has yet to give up a run and has fanned five batters with no walks. However, he may be another arm the Indians are hoping to have some more Minor League reps before he’d move back up to the big leagues.
Cam Hill: Hill was finally able to get back on the rubber over the last few days to throw his first bullpen since breaking his wrist in a car accident in November. However, because he’s just now able to start throwing bullpens, don’t expect him to be ready to break camp with the Tribe in two weeks. He’ll probably need some more reps before he joins the big league squad, but he’ll likely be on the roster at some point this season.
Nick Sandlin: Sandlin is in a similar boat as Hill. Sandlin underwent forearm surgery in August '19, spent the '20 season at the alternate training site and was finally able to face a different team for the first time in 20 months last week in his spring debut. He’ll probably need to get some more games under his belt before moving up to the big leagues, but the Tribe remains optimistic about his future.