Who will fill out Cleveland’s 2021 starting rotation that has a lot of talent behind Shane Bieber, but little in the way of experience.
If there’s one thing the Cleveland baseball franchise has been excellent at during the Terry Francona era it is, not just lifting unknown pitchers to elite levels, but continuing to develop new pitchers to replace the old at an alarming rate. From 2013 on, they’ve ran through Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger with all having elite seasons and all but Salazar being traded for prospects.
Despite this, they still have a solid base for 2021 starting with 2019 All-Star Game MVP and 2020 Cy Young winner, Shane Bieber.
With Bieber firmly established as ace, the Indians have six other pitchers on the 40 man roster who will be competing for roles in the starting rotation in 2021.
This does not include Sam Hentges, Carlos Vargas, Jean Carlos Mejia, Eli Morgan, Jordan Humphreys or Scott Moss, who are on the 40 man roster, but are extremely unlikely to make the team out of spring training.
Third year breakout?
With Carrasco gone to New York in the Francisco Lindor deal, the Indians need a new number two and the most obvious choice is Zach Plesac. After making just 50 minor league appearances following his selection in the 12th round of the 2016 draft, Plesac made his debut in 2019 and has been nothing but dominant over his first two seasons. Still just 26 years old and under team control through 2026, Plesac has a career 3.32 ERA across 171 MLB innings with a 2.4 BB/9 and 7.6 K/9. Those numbers are skewed a bit towards his first season as he pitched more than twice as many innings as a rookie than in the shortened 2020 season, but that shouldn’t take away from his amazing performance last year as he finished 30th in the Majors with a 1.5 WAR and held a 2.28 ERA and 9.3 K/9.
It’s no guarantee that Plesac will get the second spot in the rotation, however, with most of the questioning being based around how real his first two seasons were, especially given that combined they comprise of less than a full starter’s worth of innings for a normal full season. Of course, with no elite veterans left, every other contender for the rotation could face the same questions.
Going with the other high ceiling options first, Triston McKenzie made his big league debut in 2020, finally moving from top prospect to Major League starter. Like Plesac, he pitched in eight games in 2020, although fatigue caused him to move to the bullpen to finish the season. During his 33.1 innings, he held a 3.25 ERA, 11.3 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. McKenzie has an extremely small sample size in the big leagues, but had a slightly more established minor league career than Plesac with 60 regular season appearances in addition to more time spent in unofficial leagues like extended spring training. Looking just at his official big league appearances, McKenzie’s best was in his debut when he struck out ten and allowed one run in six innings. After that, he got progressively worse in starts four, five and six before ending the year with a pair of solid relief appearances.
Due to an abundance of starting depth and worry about fatigue issues for McKenzie, the Indians could choose to start him in the bullpen or Triple-A and use him in the rotation later on in the season, but it also would make sense to throw him into the rotation from the start and see what his true limits are.
The new guy
Going back to the Mike Clevinger trade with San Diego, Cal Quantrill made eight appearances for the Indians in 2020 including two starts and appears set to join the rotation in 2021. During the 2019 campaign, he was used in relief by the Padres, but he was almost exclusively a starter during college as well as his entire minor league career and he was particularly successful in that role in 2018 despite playing in the high offense Pacific Coast League.
The haul of talent brought back to Cleveland in the Clevinger deal was as big as any in recent memory and Quantrill joining the rotation could be a big part of that value. Again, this is a small sample size, but in 2020 he held a 2.25 ERA, 8.7 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 through 32 innings between both teams.
Will Logan Allen get his shot?
You may now say, “well what about the group of prospects brought to Cleveland from San Diego in the Trevor Bauer trade a year before Clevinger was dealt?” and so we will bring Logan Allen into the mix. Since 2013, the top 12 most used starters for Cleveland have all been right handed with only Scott Kazmir and TJ House throwing 100+ innings as lefties. Allen could change that as there is finally room in the rotation for the lefty from San Diego. While with the Padres and before that with the Red Sox, he was used almost exclusively as a starter, including his time in the big leagues during the first half of 2019. Upon reaching Cleveland, he has only been used in relief in the big leagues, but made five starts in Columbus in 2019. He is probably the biggest flex player as there’s little chance the Indians will blow his final minor league option to begin the season and he will almost certainly be in the bullpen if he doesn’t make it into the rotation. McKenzie and Quantrill both still have two minor league options remaining.
Filling out the rotation
If the Indians want some more veteran stability in the rotation, the two remaining pitchers with the organization with the most MLB innings pitched are Adam Plutko and Aaron Civale. Of the pair, Plutko is the elder stateman at 29 years old and over 200 career innings, but he also has been the least effective of the six players in contention for the four spots. In the 120 year history of Cleveland baseball, no pitcher with at least 200 innings has ever been worse than Plutko at allowing home runs (2.4 HR/9) and he now has a fairly significant 5.05 ERA, 6.5 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 with his worst efficiency coming in 2020. Plutko could certainly provide consistent innings for the Indians, giving them someone to regularly go at least six innings and not have to worry about a pitch count, but he certainly isn’t part of the rotation of the future.
There is a solid argument that with only one really established ace (Bieber) and potentially four question marks to follow, a pitcher like Plutko could be of great value in the rotation or as a long man out of the bullpen. However, if the team decides they want to attempt to contend, throwing him every five days or using him in a short inning role in the bullpen would be a disaster due to the home run rate alone.
In between is Civale, a 25 year old with 131.2 MLB innings. Civale is a great control pitcher with 1.9 walks allowed per nine last year and without the home run issues of Plutko, but he gives up more hits than anyone, something that could be taken literally in 2020 as he lead the league with 82 allowed. The opposite of Plesac, Civale was significantly better in 2019 when he pitched fewer innings and held a 2.34 ERA compared to the 4.74 ERA in 2020.
Using Allen, Quantrill and McKenzie 3-4-5 in the rotation could end up running the bullpen ragged if 2/3rds of the group doesn’t play to expectations. Because of this, there’s a very good chance that the Indians break out of camp with either Civale or Plutko as the anchor and, with so much more upside, Civale makes the most sense. Yes, he has always given up a lot of contact, but usually that contact is weak and 2020 was the first time it hurt him since 2017 with Lake County. In all, he’s been extremely effective with his style of pitching and should be given his third season as a starter in 2021.
This list represents a smaller number of starting options than the Indians have had in many recent seasons, but should anything go wrong, Scott Moss, Sam Hentges and Eli Morgan are essentially big league ready and Trevor Stephan will likely be available as well to move from the pen to the rotation in an emergency. The other pitchers on the 40 man roster are there for protection purposes and will likely have to wait at least until 2022 to debut in the big leagues.