CLEVELAND -- The Indians entered Spring Training 2019 with a clear-cut five-man rotation consisting of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. This year, it may not be so simple.
Carrasco, Clevinger and Bieber remain the anchors of the starting clan, but the final two spots will be up for grabs. Without a doubt, the Indians have plenty of qualified options to choose from in Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Adam Plutko, Scott Moss and Logan Allen. Triston McKenzie will join that depth chart once he gets a few reps after missing the entire 2019 season due to injuries.
“Anytime you can pitch, it helps you sleep at night,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Sometimes you have to win, 10-9, but if you’re trying to do that all year, it’s tough. If you’re giving up a couple runs and you’re not hitting, every run you score is meaningful, so that helps.”
The top candidates to break camp with the Tribe as part of the rotation are Plutko, Plesac and Civale, leaving Moss, Allen and others as depth pieces in the Indians' Minor League system. The trio stepped up last season when Carrasco (leukemia), Clevinger (upper back strain) and Kluber (fractured right forearm, strained left oblique) landed on the injured list for an extended period of time and Bauer was traded to the Reds on July 31.
“Hopefully Carrasco is a full go [after battling leukemia last year], and that eliminates any of that talk,” Francona said. “After that, we’re going to have some things to think about. It’s not just who is doing what in February. It’s options, no options, bullpen: We’ll have a lot of things to think about.”
Plutko is out of options, which means he will either take one of the two open rotation slots, get moved to the bullpen or be designated for assignment. At least to start the season, it seems most likely that the Indians give him a chance to be a starter. In that case, either Plesac or Civale would begin the year in Triple-A, as the Indians indicated that they would not want to remove a young starter from his role to put him in the bullpen, even if it meant him staying at the Major League level.
Assuming Plutko is a starter, how will the Indians then choose between the two young right-handers who broke onto the big league scene in 2019 after beginning the year in Double-A Akron? Plesac made 21 starts with the Tribe and pitched to a 3.81 ERA, including one shutout. And even in his limited time in the big leagues, he managed to lead MLB with six pickoffs. He’s been working closely with Clevinger this offseason and is hoping to see improvement in 2020.
“You're going to see a new beast, that's for sure,” Clevinger said of Plesac. “He's actually helped me a lot. He's kept good checks and balances. … He's kind of been my pace car as well. So we've been pushing each other all offseason.”
While it’s tough to imagine having to start someone like Plesac in Triple-A to begin the year, Civale, who Francona has said reminds him of Kluber both in personality and on the mound, makes this decision even more difficult. While Civale made just 10 Major League starts last year, he posted a 2.34 ERA and didn't allow more than two earned runs in an outing until his final start of the year in Chicago.
There is a scenario where Plutko could move to the bullpen to open the door for Plesac and Civale to start every fifth day. Because he’s been the perfect sixth man for the last two years, it seems hard to envision Plutko getting DFA’d. But the early prediction is that the Indians will first give Plutko an opportunity as a starter, which means Plesac and Civale will compete in a heated position battle over the next six weeks.
“At the end of Spring Training, you could do a lot of things,” Francona said. “If six guys get hurt ... you don’t know. But you also know you need to have some starters in Triple-A and sometimes you’re doing a kid a disservice by putting him in the bullpen. Even though he might be [upset] you’re sending him down, in the long run, you’re doing what’s right for him.”