If the Cleveland Indians were an automobile, they would be heading into the second half of the season with a flat tire. The CHECK ENGINE SOON warning light would be flashing.
All professional sports teams suffer injuries. Baseball teams are no exception.
Teams count on organizational depth in their farm system to replace injured players with prospects or veterans from their minor league affiliated clubs.
Following serious injuries to the top three starters in the rotation, the Indians have been trying to cobble together a starting rotation that can be competitive and keep their team in games.
All Star right-hander Shane Bieber suffered a shoulder injury that put him on the MLB injured list. Starting pitcher Aaron Civale suffered a sprained finger and is still out of the rotation. There is no date yet for their return. Both are likely weeks away.
On July 8, right-handed starter Zach Plesac was activated from the injured list after breaking his thumb. He gave the team four strong innings, yielding 5 hits and 3 earned runs. The Indians won the game.
A lengthy losing streaked challenged the front office, the manager, the club and their fans. They now sit 8 games behind the leading Chicago White Sox in the AL Central Division.
Search For Starting Pitching:
Following the loss of Bieber, Civale and Plesac to the injured list, the Indians searched and scrambled to fill the starting pitching void.
The team began the season with left-hander Logan Allen and righty Triston McKenzie in the rotation.
Allen was very ineffective, and he was sent back to Triple-A Columbus for more seasoning. McKenzie was not yet prepared to handle the bright lights of the major league environment, and he too was dispatched to Columbus to continue his development. He is a highly regarded potential quality starter. More about McKenzie later.
Desperate to get enough innings from their rotation to keep their bullpen fresh and effective, the Indians used right-handers J.C. Mejia, Cal Quantrill, Elijah Morgan and lefty Sam Hentges to fill-in as starters.
Hentges has been given 8 starts this season. He has compiled an ERA of 8.23. He has yielded 62 hits and 25 walks in 42.2 innings pitched. He has allowed 7 home runs.
Hentges has shown signs of potential, but his inconsistency has been difficult to overcome. The Indians sent Hentges back to Triple-A to try to improve his overall approach and gain more experience.
In essence, none of their “fill-in” starters offered the team the type of quality or innings length the team desperately needed.
Quantrill has shown some promise and remains a starter for now. Mejia had trouble commanding his pitches and gaining consistency from inning to inning. He has been dispatched back to Triple-A Columbus.
Somebody has to start the baseball game every night. Using bullpen pitchers to start games would further deplete a taxed group of relievers in a time when they are already stressed.
Elijah Morgan remains in the rotation, but probably only because he is the most viable starting pitcher option to pair with Quantrill until Bieber and Civale return. But it is evident to this scout that Morgan would also benefit from more time in minor league development. That, however, is a luxury the Indians do not have at this point.
Triston McKenzie returned from Columbus to start the game July 9.
He turned in an excellent performance, pitching seven strong innings of one-hit, shutout baseball. He threw 85 pitches, struck out nine and left with a 1-0 lead. The Indians won the game 2-1, but McKenzie came away without a decision.
After the All Star break, it would appear the Indians will open the second half of the season with a rotation that includes Zach Plesac, Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill, Elijah Morgan, and J. C Mejia. Perhaps the team will trade for another veteran starter.
It should be noted that the Indians did sign veteran free agent right-handed starters Brad Peacock and Zack Godley to minor league contracts. Maybe one or both can fill-in while the team awaits the return of Bieber and Civale.
Of course, the impact of starting pitchers not lasting long in games causes stress on the team’s bullpen.
Often, manager Terry Francona has to go to his bullpen to avoid his ineffective starting pitchers from facing an opposing lineup for a third time in a game. Sometimes, the starters haven’t made it past the first or second inning.
In games just prior to the All Star break, the Indians deployed a ten-man bullpen, all right-handed pitchers.
While Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak are generally assigned the higher-leverage 8th and 9th innings, the rest of the bullpen is being used in various roles and at various points in the game.
Bryan Shaw has been a mainstay in the pen. One wonders how many more innings he will have to pitch this season? At the age of 33, Shaw has shown resiliency and competency in later innings.
Virtual unknowns Justin Garza and DJ Johnson have been promoted to the parent club to help eat innings that may not have been available if the starting pitching could go deeper in games.
Position Player Injuries:
As if pitching injuries weren’t enough to derail the team’s progress, the Indians suffered a major blow when outfielder Josh Naylor collided with second baseman Ernie Clement while chasing down a fly ball in short right field.
Naylor broke his ankle and has required surgery. He is likely out for the season. He has been replaced on the outfield depth chart by left-handed hitting Daniel Johnson, an unproven player promoted from Triple-A.
All Star third baseman Jose Ramirez missed a bit of time after he fouled a ball off his cheek and then suffered an elbow injury. He seems fine now.
Left fielder Eddie Rosario is dealing with an abdominal strain that will sideline him for a while, further depleting an already thin Indians outfield.
Right-handed hitting Oscar Mercado has filled in nicely for Rosario and is showing signs of an improved offensive game.
Where They Go From Here:
The Indians were recently swept by both the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays, formidable teams that once would have been tested by better overall Cleveland clubs. Not this year.
The Indians, short on depth and trying to stay in the American League Central Division pennant race, provide a strong effort every game. It is a credit to manager Terry Francona that his team scrapes and claws their way when they take the field. The club still isn’t anywhere near an offensive force. They are often challenged to score runs, but recent improvement is noticeable. Maybe the hot weather is heating up the bats.
After the All Star break, the Indians will face Oakland and Houston on the road and Tampa Bay and St. Louis at home, before they go to Chicago to end the month with the division leading White Sox. They will be challenged to keep up with those five quality clubs.
All baseball organizations suffer injuries to quality players. The White Sox have lost impact bats in Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and Yasmani Grandal. So far, their starting pitching remains healthy.
Opponents do not feel sorry for teams with injuries. Opponents show no mercy.
The Indians have been hit hard with the injury losses of their first three starting pitchers. While Zach Plesac has returned, All Star Shane Bieber and right-hander Aaron Civale are sidelined and are probably weeks away from returning to the rotation.
Offensive players Josh Naylor and Eddie Rosario have joined Jordan Luplow on the injured list, reducing run production threats for manager Terry Francona.
The Indians have a very young team, and the youth shows at times. That is especially true with minor league replacement pitchers.
It remains possible the Indians will be active in the trade market to end July. In this year’s First Year Player Draft, they drafted ten collegiate pitchers in 11 picks. That says everything about the importance of pitching depth in baseball.
In this scout’s opinion, Cleveland’s front office is one of the best in the game. They will likely listen to offers for both veteran and prospect players. The team needs to shore up the immediate pitching depth and find an impact bat.