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Willis returns to be Tribe's pitching coach

MLB.com

CLEVELAND -- The Indians have the ability to return with virtually the same rotation and bullpen next season, and the goal will remain to contend for a World Series crown. That made familiarity an important attribute when it came to filling Cleveland's pitching-coach opening.

On Thursday, the Indians turned to a recognizable name for the job, bringing back Carl Willis to fill the role vacated by Mickey Callaway's move to become the Mets' new manager. The hiring of Willis comes just three days after Callaway donned blue pinstripes in his news conference at Citi Field in New York.

CLEVELAND -- The Indians have the ability to return with virtually the same rotation and bullpen next season, and the goal will remain to contend for a World Series crown. That made familiarity an important attribute when it came to filling Cleveland's pitching-coach opening.

On Thursday, the Indians turned to a recognizable name for the job, bringing back Carl Willis to fill the role vacated by Mickey Callaway's move to become the Mets' new manager. The hiring of Willis comes just three days after Callaway donned blue pinstripes in his news conference at Citi Field in New York.

"We started looking not just at names, but at attributes," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "And then Carl's name kept coming up. So, we moved quickly, because there was a lot of competition out there for pitching coaches. And the fact that he knows so many of our pitchers, he knows our organization, is a huge bonus. He'll hit the ground running."

Embed - Twitter: Tweet from @MLBastian: Q&A with Indians manager Terry Francona and new (again) pitching coach Carl Willis: https://t.co/oS9tsjJXPm

This will be Willis' third stint with the Indians, who most recently employed him as their Triple-A Columbus pitching coach in 2015 before the Red Sox hired him to be their Major League pitching coach that May. Willis also spent time with Cleveland as a special assistant in 2014, giving the organization an additional voice during Spring Training and throughout the season. Willis spent seven years as the Tribe's big league pitching coach under manager Eric Wedge from 2003-09.

Willis said he spoke with four teams about their vacancies at pitching coach, but returning to the Indians made the most sense to him.

"It's a situation that's hard to find elsewhere," Willis said. "That, along with the fact that I did come back for a brief period of time in 2014 and early 2015, and knowing a few of the pitchers, and knowing still most of the staff, it's just a very comfortable situation."

The upcoming campaign will be Willis' 15th as a pitching coach in the big leagues. He spent parts of the past three seasons with Boston and filled the same role with the Mariners from 2010-13. During his initial tour with the Indians, he helped CC Sabathia (2007) and Cliff Lee (2008) through their respective American League Cy Young Award-winning seasons. Under Willis' watch, Felix Hernandez won a Cy Young Award in 2010 and Rick Porcello took home the honor in '16.

Willis was the coach for Chris Sale this past season, when the Red Sox left-hander struck out 308 batters in a standout showing that has him in contention for this year's AL Cy Young Award, along with Indians ace Corey Kluber. The Red Sox pitching staff as a whole finished the season ranked second to Cleveland in ERA (3.73), fielding independent pitching (3.78) and strikeout-to-walk percentage (17.9). Boston also set a single-season club record with 1,580 strikeouts.

The Indians also have the ability to return with their MLB-leading rotation, which is led by Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, with Danny Salazar, Mike Clevinger and potentially Josh Tomlin ($3 million team option for 2018) adding to the group's depth.

"There were other opportunities," Willis said. "But, those opportunities didn't include Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, Salazar -- names of that quality. That's very exciting and appealing."

As things currently stand, Willis will team with bullpen coach Jason Bere to lead the pitching staff, which ranked first in the Majors in ERA (3.30) and FIP (3.33) this season. The Callaway-led staff also set single-season Major League records in strikeouts (1,614), strikeouts per nine innings (10.1) and WAR (31.7, per Fangraphs). Former pitcher Scott Atchison remains on board as a Major League staff assistant and advance coach.

Earlier this week, Matt Quatraro -- formerly the Indians' assistant hitting coach -- was hired by the Rays to be their third-base coach. Francona said the Indians have started compiling a list of names to fill their job opening.

As of now, the rest of Francona's coaching staff remains intact, though the Indians know other teams may still come calling. That group includes bench coach Brad Mills, hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo, first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. and third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh.

"There's other openings out there," Francona said. "So, you never know."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

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