Merritt has work to do to crack talented staff

Lefty out of options, faces an uphill climb in earning a roster spot

February 24th, 2018

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- does not need to dissect the Indians' depth chart to understand the uphill battle he is facing this spring. The lefty only needs to look around the room.
Across the clubhouse from Merritt's locker is the stall belonging to ace , the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, and those of and . Along the adjacent wall are veteran Josh Tomlin, the hard-throwing and up-and-comer Mike Clevinger. Merritt is trying to make a reservation at a table that has been booked months in advance.
"I'm really not going to get caught up in what's going to happen a month from now," Merritt said. "I can control today. And, when I show up tomorrow, I can control what I do that day."
The wrinkle in Merritt's situation is the fact that he is out of Minor League options. So, not only is there no room in the rotation at the moment, but Cleveland is unable to send Merritt to Triple-A Columbus without first exposing him to waivers. That would put the lefty up for grabs to other teams who might see a fit for him on their pitching staff. Losing Merritt would rob Cleveland of a valuable depth arm.
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So, the Indians will have a decision to make as Spring Training progresses.
Cleveland will keep stretching Merritt out as a starter so he can keep his next-man-up status in the event of any rotation setbacks. Already, Salazar is playing catch-up due to a right shoulder issue. At the end of camp, if the Tribe's rotation is healthy and intact, the Indians could consider stashing Merritt in their bullpen. As it stands, there is currently one vacancy in the relief corps.
The catch there is that manager Francona typically likes to have a reliever with options on the staff to help with in-season roster maneuvering.
"I don't think it's going to come down to how he's throwing the ball," Francona said. "I think it'll be more of how we're situated. Keeping the other starter, knowing that we're a little bit thin in starting after our guys is important. Do we think it's realistic that we can keep him? Things like that, we'll have to take into consideration."
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More than anyone inside Cleveland's locker room, Merritt knows how swiftly things can change.
Two years ago, Merritt appeared in four games down the stretch for the Indians, but then he retreated to Arizona while the team played on into October. Cleveland was already short Carrasco and Salazar due to injuries in those playoffs, and then Bauer sustained his famous drone-related laceration on his pitching hand. Just like that, Francona and the front office were scrambling for a solution.
Instead of mapping out his offseason, Merritt was flown to Toronto, where he was walked into a packed news conference, and was introduced as the Game 5 starter for the Indians in the AL Championship Series. The wide-eyed rookie was more nervous in front of the media than he was when he took the mound, though. Inside a raucous Rogers Centre, Merritt pitched brilliantly, helping beat the Blue Jays to punch the Tribe's ticket to the World Series.
"After you experience something like that," he said, "'you know that anything can happen at any point."
So, Merritt will continue to get in his daily work, logging bullpen sessions and quietly turning in clean innings like the one he did against the Reds in Friday's Cactus League opener. The lefty hopes to stay with Cleveland, but also knows that another team might be intrigued by the 1.71 ERA he has fashioned in 31 2/3 career innings in the big leagues.
"I just need to go out there, be myself, compete, try to get better, keep trying to impress," Merritt said. "And then, at the end of the day, if I'm in the bullpen, a starter, or with another team, whatever it is, I'm trying to help my team win. ... I've built so many great memories, so many great friends, here. To stay here with the Indians would mean so much to me."