GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- When Indians manager Terry Francona described Thursday how last year’s injuries caused his team to become more unified, he said, “We will deal with adversity. Every team does. It could start tomorrow.”
It turns out, his statement was not hypothetical.
The Indians announced Friday morning that starter Mike Clevinger sustained a partial tear in his left meniscus at the team’s Spring Training facility on Wednesday. He underwent successful arthroscopic surgery on Friday and is expected to return to Major League game activity in six to eight weeks.
Francona said that Clevinger suffered the tear while doing some drills on Wednesday. The training staff sent him home to see how he’d feel on Thursday, but the Tribe’s skipper said everyone had a strong feeling that it was a meniscus injury. Missing the start of the season is something that’s all too familiar for the right-hander, who landed on the injured list with an upper back strain after his second start last year.
“It's not that we don’t think of Clev, I mean I was just texting with him a couple minutes ago,” Francona said. “But it’s not Doomsday. One, we know he’s a quick healer. Two, he’ll be able to keep his arm conditioned the entire time. Yeah, I prefer it didn’t happen, obviously, but he’s gonna be OK.”
With Corey Kluber in Texas and Trevor Bauer in Cincinnati, Clevinger was arguably the favorite to earn the Opening Day starter duties against the Tigers at Progressive Field on March 26. Despite missing two months of the season last year, he was able to go 13-4 with a 2.71 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 169 strikeouts in 126 innings. Clevinger's average fastball velocity jumped from 93.6 mph in 2018 to 95.4 mph in ’19, and he was expecting even more heat in ’20 along with improvement in his offspeed pitches.
“It's still going for average velocity right now,” Clevinger said prior to Tribe Fest at the beginning of the month. “We're riding my curveball. Curveball and changeup have been the big focuses this offseason more than just velocity. Velocity is always a focus, just getting more stronger, more mobile. But curveball and changeup refinement, just knowing exactly what we're doing each day, has been my key this year.”
Now that Opening Day is likely out of question, either Shane Bieber or Carlos Carrasco will probably get the ball for the first game against the Tigers. And if there is any silver lining to sustaining an enormous blow before the full team even reports to camp, it’s that the Indians have tremendous starting-pitching depth. The extent of which was tested in 2019, when Clevinger, Carrasco and Kluber all spent a large chunk of time on the injured list and Bauer was traded to the Reds at the Trade Deadline. Young guys like Jefry Rodriguez (before he strained his right shoulder), Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale stepped up to seamlessly fill the holes in the rotation, helping lead the Tribe to 93 wins.
Because Adam Plutko is out of Minor League options, it's safe to assume that he’d either remain a starter or switch to a reliever to remain on the big league roster. If the team put him in the rotation, the final spot would come down to top candidates Plesac or Civale, with Rodriguez, Logan Allen and Scott Moss also in the running. With Clevinger sidelined, the rotation may end up consisting of Bieber, Carrasco, Civale, Plesac and Plutko.
“It’s shade of last year, I guess, feeling-wise, but in that same vein, last year we had a lot of guys step up and really perform well,” Plutko said. “At the same time, we really want Clev out there on the mound. He’s a guy that’s gonna anchor our staff as whole. I don’t know what the recovery time is, but I don’t think it’s going to be too terribly long as far as into-season goes. At least I hope not. I think he’ll be back and better than ever.”