Who’ll step up with Bieber out?

April 7th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell's Guardians Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MINNEAPOLIS -- We’ve said the same thing countless times over the past few years: As long as the rotation stays healthy, the Guardians can contend.

Well, we're only 10 days into the regular season, and the club is down two of its main starters due to right elbow injuries. While Gavin Williams is working his way back, Shane Bieber is done for a year as he prepares to undergo Tommy John surgery in the coming days.

The offense has been better than projected so far, which takes some pressure off of this pitching staff. But this is Cleveland we’re talking about -- an organization that constantly leans on its stellar starters. The Guardians will have to figure out how to replace the hurler who came out of the gate looking as elite as he’s looked.

So, who can take Bieber's spot in the rotation? Let’s work through the options.

Eventually, yes, Williams will be the answer. He’s just not ready yet. He ramped back up in the middle of March after experiencing right elbow discomfort early on in spring, then was sent back to Arizona to start throwing off of a mound again. When he’s ready, he’ll begin a rehab assignment. Williams will still need a few weeks before he can rejoin the Major League team. He was originally supposed to replace Carlos Carrasco in the rotation. Now, with Bieber out, the Guardians will have to determine if they’ll leave the starter they turn to now and remove Carrasco or keep Carrasco and replace whoever bridges the gap to Williams.

In a perfect world, this would be Cantillo’s time to shine. But as Guardians manager Stephen Vogt has quickly learned in his first time managing a team, this is far from a perfect world. Cantillo strained his left hamstring at the end of Spring Training and was given a timetable of eight to 10 weeks to return to game activity. Cantillo is Cleveland’s No. 11 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, and he forced himself high on the Guardians’ watch list after striking out a system-best 146 batters in 119 1/3 innings between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus last season. This would’ve been the time to see what Cantillo can do at the big league level. Instead, he has to wait for the next opportunity.

This is the most likely scenario. Curry was the unsung hero of this team last season. Whether he was needed in spot starts like this, in long relief when games got out of hand or in a high-leverage one-inning role, he consistently delivered. After missing a chunk of Spring Training due to a respiratory virus, Curry stayed in Arizona to make up for lost time. He’s made one rehab start with Columbus so far and has built up his pitch count to 53 pitches (while striking out seven in 2 2/3 innings). It’ll be a matter of how much more Cleveland wants him to build up before joining the big league team.

Lively is in the same boat as Curry. A virus sidelined him for two weeks and now he’s playing catch-up. Lively, too, has made one rehab start for Columbus and allowed just one hit in three innings on 45 pitches. Vogt raved about Lively all spring, highlighting his ability to be versatile as a starter, a long reliever or a random spot starter. All signs seem to point to Lively joining the roster in the near future, the question is just whether he’ll be the one to step into the rotation.

Because of Sunday's rainout in Minnesota, the Guardians don't have to worry about filling Bieber's first turn in the rotation. Vogt announced Sunday that Triston McKenzie will start Monday's home opener and Logan Allen will move to Tuesday -- when the club originally was going to have to find another starter.

It seems telling that the Guardians limited Beede’s usage to just one inning on Saturday when Carrasco was pulled after just three innings. Typically, it’d be Beede’s job as the long reliever to eat multiple frames and save the ‘pen. Instead, he only worked the eighth.

Maybe that meant the Guardians were keeping Beede in their back pocket in case they needed to use him for multiple innings on Tuesday, before the rainout altered their plans. He could remain an option for them to serve as an opener or he may also build up to eventually lock his spot in the rotation.

Cleveland has a lot to sort out in the coming days.