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With big league stuff, Merritt eyes Tribe rotation

Slender lefty hoping to crack Indians' talented, deep starting unit
MLB.com @MLBastian

The Indians are heading into Spring Training with two rotation jobs up for grabs and four candidates: Mike Clevinger, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt. This week, MLB.com has been examining their respective situations and chances of winning the job. Today: Merritt.

CLEVELAND -- Ryan Merritt has tasted the Major League dream. The left-hander answered the call at a moment's notice and performed well in important late-season moments. He has pitched in a raucous playoff environment and sipped champagne in an American League pennant celebration.

The Indians are heading into Spring Training with two rotation jobs up for grabs and four candidates: Mike Clevinger, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt. This week, MLB.com has been examining their respective situations and chances of winning the job. Today: Merritt.

CLEVELAND -- Ryan Merritt has tasted the Major League dream. The left-hander answered the call at a moment's notice and performed well in important late-season moments. He has pitched in a raucous playoff environment and sipped champagne in an American League pennant celebration.

Mention those moments and Merritt -- slender in build and soft-spoken by nature -- allows himself the slightest smile. He has contributed to this talented and deep Cleveland pitching staff in spurts over the past two seasons, but it is that talent and depth that is now working against the lefty. Merritt is so close to fully realizing his big league dreams, but he's facing an uphill battle in the Tribe's upcoming spring rotation race.

• Race for Indians' rotation: Clevinger | Salazar | Tomlin

"This is the ultimate goal," said Merritt, speaking inside the Indians' clubhouse at Progressive Field last month. "To pitch in the big leagues, to be the best, to win the Cy Young, to win the World Series. Being this close to having those opportunities, it's hard to explain. It gets you excited for this season and just the unknown. You don't know."

As things currently stand, Cleveland's rotation figures to include two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, along with Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. The competition for the two other jobs will likely come down to Clevinger, Salazar and Tomlin. Merritt is there as an insurance plan, but his situation includes a wrinkle: He is out of Minor League options.

Video: CLE@MIN: Merritt K's Buxton in the 2nd

That means that the Indians would need to expose Merritt to waivers before being able to send him to Triple-A Columbus. That would put the pitcher up for grabs for other teams that are better situated to plug him into a Major League rotation. If Merritt does not factor into Cleveland's rotation plans, he could also be moved to the bullpen. Or, a third option would be for the Indians to explore trade scenarios during the spring.

Merritt knows none of that is within his control.

"I'm just going to show up to Spring Training and try to be the best I can be," he said. "And whatever happens after that happens."

Merritt knows all too well how quickly things can change.

Two years ago, Merritt's season was over when the Indians came calling. Carrasco and Salazar were sidelined with injuries, and Bauer sustained a deep cut on his pitching hand during the 2016 postseason in his famous drone-related incident. Cleveland needed a starter for the AL Championship Series against Toronto and brought the young lefty north of the border.

When the Blue Jays learned who they would be facing, Jose Bautista quipped that Merritt would probably be "shaking in his boots" under the circumstances. Instead, the left-hander crafted 4 1/3 shutout innings in Game 5 of the ALCS, helping push the Indians into the World Series. In the wake of that win, Indians fans found the wedding registry for Merritt and his fiancee and swiftly piled up the purchases in thanks.

Video: ALCS Gm5: Merritt keeps Blue Jays scoreless in 4 1/3

"That experience is hard to explain," Merritt said with a chuckle. "It makes you feel so good, how all the fans just took care of me and embraced me and just sent me so many gifts. It's a blessing."

That ALCS outing was not the only time Merritt has stepped up for the Tribe.

Merritt's first big league start came against the Royals on Sept. 30, 2016, when the Indians were still jockeying for position in the AL playoff picture. The lefty worked five strong innings, allowing only one run. Last season, the pitcher logged a 1.74 ERA in five appearances (mostly as a spot starter) for Cleveland. During the Tribe's AL-record 22-game winning streak, Merritt made two starts and won both games, giving up one run in 12 innings.

Merritt hails from a small town in Texas and was picked by Cleveland in the 16th round of the 2011 MLB Draft. He relies on precision, a knee-buckling curve and a fastball that averages 87 mph. That sounds a lot like a left-handed version of Tomlin, who is the longest-tenured player in the organization. Tomlin is also from Texas, was taken in the 19th round in the '06 Draft and has found success through control and confusion, rather than power.

Tomlin knows this is an important spring for Merritt, and he believes the lefty has what it takes to not just taste the Majors, but stay there.

"He's going to get a shot," Tomlin said. "At the end of the spring, we'll see what happens. Whatever the case may be, he's going to find his stuff in the big leagues somewhere."

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.

Cleveland Indians, Ryan Merritt