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IBI Inbox: What is Mike Clevinger's future role with the Cleveland Indians?

Spring training is in full swing, and the IBI's Tony Lastoris and Dave Roberts team up for a double take with some thoughts and insight into Mike Clevinger's best fit with the Indians, Dylan Baker's role this season, who the frontrunner is to be the sixth starter and more...

Welcome to another edition of IBI Inbox. If you have a question on anything involving the Cleveland Indians from the minors to the big leagues that you would like answered in a future inbox, feel free to contact us. We also pull questions from Twitter, so you can post your questions there as well by tweeting at @TonyIBI or @history_dreamer.

Here we go…

@drewkulko do you think Clevinger ultimately succeeds as a starter or reliever?

Tony’s insight: The Indians want starting pitching depth in the upper levels of the system, so at least in the short-term, Clevinger is going to be given every opportunity to stick as a starter. Right now, he’s on the short list of options to be considered if an injury or some other type of setback were to befall one of the regular five starters in the rotation: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. Few teams ever get through a season using only five starters, so the Indians will likely need to use another starter or two for a handful of starts this season – maybe even more depending on the health of the aforementioned quintet – so Clevinger has to be kept as a starting option for now.

My expectation is that Clevinger will open the season in the rotation at Triple-A Columbus where he can continue to get his work in, stay sharp, work on his pitches and be ready for a potential call when a need arises in the rotation in Cleveland. As the season wears on and we move into August or September, I could see the Indians at that point consider using him in the bullpen if needed since the length of the season will be shorter and their need for a starter would not be as pressing.

Ultimately, it just depends on need this season, how Clevinger performs/develops in Columbus and how he responds to any opportunity he is given in Cleveland. It is possible he could have a great spring training showing which could open some more doors for him, but it just doesn’t make much sense from a roster standpoint to stuff him onto it as a reliever at the outset of the season and there is little chance he is going to beat out Trevor Bauer or Josh Tomlin for the final spots in the rotation. So the Indians should just continue to be patient with him and send him off to Columbus where he can fine tune some of the command issues he had in Cleveland last season and really solidify himself so that when he does come up he performs well and stays in Cleveland.

That’s my road map for Clevinger in the short-term, but having said all of that, I think his future may lie in the bullpen. He has some funk to his delivery, an aggressive mindset and some plus stuff which I think would all play well in the pen if given the opportunity. I just don’t know if he can consistently give six innings each time out with how much effort he gives. But the Indians are doing the right thing for now to exhaust his chances to remain a starter.

Dave’s take: Clevinger didn’t exactly wow in his first taste in the big leagues in 2016. In his 53-innings tossed over 17 appearances (10 starts) he held opponents to a .247 average and posted an 8.5 K/9 and 4.9 BB/9 while going 3-3 with a 5.26 ERA. He did, however, fare much better in Columbus going 11-1 with a 3.10 ERA over 93 innings. His strikeout rate is solid for a starter but he’ll definitely have to cut down on the walks to have any kind of sustained major league success and he seems to miss enough bats. At 26, he sits sixth on the Indians depth chart for starters heading into spring and with a solid spring training could open up in the big league rotation. Otherwise, I think he’s ticketed for Columbus to start until a spot opens. So to answer your question, I think he has the stuff to stick as a starter.

@nateuc84 Excluding Brantley, what is the most concerning thing about the Indians going into spring training?

Tony’s insight: One word: health. Really, that is the key to their entire season. The Indians will have their share of bumps and bruises along the way this season – all teams go through those – but the hope is they are able to avoid any significant injuries to some of their key players. If they are able to stay relatively healthy, they should win 95 or so games and win the AL Central by a comfortable margin and then roll the dice in the playoffs.

To take the health concern a step further, I for one am very concerned with how the trio of Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen respond to the insane workload they had in the postseason. Those three were pushed beyond their limits and used in ways their arms and bodies have not been trained. Kluber threw three of his last four outings on short rest and totaled nearly 250 innings pitched between the regular season and postseason. Miller and Allen were used almost every game and often times for two innings and sometimes for 40 pitches - limits they were never really pushed to in the regular season (especially Allen). A common baseball axiom is that the heavy workload for pitchers in the postseason generally shows itself the next season with a dead arm or arm injuries, but to me this is more of an unproven generality as just as many pitchers who logged high volume postseason innings have gone on to be just fine the following season and seasons after that. There are also some concerns that Andrew Miller is pitching in the World Baseball Classic, especially when you consider what happened to Vinnie Pestano after he pitched in it in 2013.

In the end, I am happy the Indians are taking a planned, thoughtful approach to the workload for all three pitchers this spring in order to help avoid any potential injury issues. You just never know with pitchers, but Kluber and Miller are two workout warriors and have proven durability so the belief is they will be fine. Allen is probably the one I worry about the most considering his durability issues early in his career as an amateur and already having arm surgery once before, but he’s been an exceptional worker as well since joining the organization. I think the Indians have some depth on the position player side to withstand a significant injury or two, but a significant injury to any of their top starters or backend arms would be devastating. So just continue to pray for health, not just this spring, but all season.

Dave’s take: With how important the Indians pitching staff was to their success last season I think their health is what worries me the most. We all know how the staff was down two key arms down the stretch in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, thus leading the rest of the staff’s superhuman efforts at the end. There’s so much talk of the hangover effect on players after a long postseason so I’ll be holding my breath that their arms, specifically Corey Kluber and Adam Miller, will be all right. Though from early accounts in spring training both the players and the coaching staff seem to be well-aware of these issues and are doing everything possible to mitigate any hangover effects for 2017.

@nateuc84 Huge tribe fan here. I live in Lynchburg. Who is the #1 talent on the Hillcats this year? Anything else to watch for here?

Tony’s insight: That’s a great treat to have the Indians High-A team in town, a level which they consider the most important level of all the minors. It is the separator level and where so many players gain that momentum to a potential big league push and others who begin to see their career wash out. There should be a nice collection of talent at Lynchburg to start the season, and the headliners of the group should be Francisco Mejia, Willi Castro, Andrew Calica, Conner Marabell, Matt Esparza and Thomas Pannone.

The number one talent to start there should be Mejia. There are some who think he will open at Double-A Akron, but I am pretty sure he is going to open the season with a return to Lynchburg. Yes, he hit well and did a nice job offensively there last season, but it’s such an important level for the Indians that they rarely push a young prospect through with just 42 games under their belt at the level. There is still so much to learn from a defensive standpoint and with the mental side that I expect the Indians to have him spend the first two to three months there and then push him to Double-A Akron in June or July. There is no reason to rush him so the Indians can take their time and work to find the right balance between being conservative with his development and being aggressive with pushing him to the next level when he is deemed ready.

Dave’s take: I’m not sure if he’ll open up the season there but 19-year-old righty Triston McKenzie should be in Lynchburg at some point in 2017. Between short-season Mahoning Valley and Low-A Lake County he went 6-5 with a 1.62 ERA over 83.1 innings. On top of that, over that span he held opposing hitters to a .195 average and struck out 104 and walked only 22. He might be the most exciting pitching prospect in the organization. Some other possible names to look out for this season in Lynchburg are: outfielder Andrew Calica, outfielder Ka’ai Tom, second baseman Tyler Krieger, outfielder Connor Marabell, right-handed pitcher Matt Esparza and right-handed pitcher Leandro Linares.

@milojbloom where will Dylan Baker start the year? Will he be a starter or reliever?

Tony’s insight: It’s nice to see Baker back in action. The guy has really had an unfortunate string of bad luck with injuries which have pretty much plagued him since the outset of 2014 and really limited his opportunities on the mound the last three seasons. Even though he has missed so much time, the Indians really believe in the arm and talent, which has been proven over the last year plus with him being added to the 40-man roster and sticking on it even through all of his setbacks.

Baker has made just one appearance (5.0 innings) over the last two seasons combined. He was also limited to just 12 appearances (52.1 innings) in 2014 and made six appearances that offseason in the Arizona Fall League (17.0 innings), so over the last three seasons he has totaled just 74.1 innings. That’s a very low workload for a starter and considering that he is coming off of arm surgery, the Indians are most likely going to have him pitch out of the bullpen this season. His arm is just not built up to handle 100 innings this season, let alone 50 innings as I would be very surprised if he eclipsed the 60 inning threshold even if he is healthy and pitches all year.

In the past, they have managed the workload for pitchers coming off injury by having them open the season in extended spring training. I am not sure if they do that with him this year, but if they stick to him as a starter, then that would be where he starts the year. If they move him to the bullpen – which is where he best projects anyway – then he could start the season and have his workload at Double-A Akron or even High-A Lynchburg monitored similar to Jeff Johnson when he returned in 2015 (51.1 innings). If it were me, I would just make the move and send him to the bullpen. It’s where I have always envisioned him, and I believe the Indians are going to make that change for this season.

Dave’s take: Since Baker hasn’t appeared in a minor league game since 2015 and at that it was only one game we don’t have much to go on as a recent track record but considering he’s on the 40-man roster and his previous history I’d say the Indians are still tagging him as a starter. Before his injuries, he had put together back to back solid seasons in 2013 and 2014 across Low-A and High-A. In 225 innings, Baker held opposing hitters to a .232 average to the tune of an 11-10 record and a 3.64 ERA. Not to mention he racked up 197 strikeouts to 97 walks in that span. The 24-year-old by all accounts had the stuff to be a starter before the injuries, but I think the main concern for the Indians is to see him put together a healthy season so I imagine 2017 will give us a better clue as to his future.

@Benhanic who do YOU want as 6th starter if needed? A lot of options there with Clev/Merritt/Anderson/Plut/etc

Tony’s insight: I honestly have no preference as I think any of those arms can be suitable options to fill in as needed over the course of the season. The Indians have really done a nice job of building up some young, controllable depth options that can help them this season and beyond, and some of them still have upside to be more than just depth and solidify themselves as solid middle-to-backend rotation arms if given the opportunity.

To me, who the sixth starter is will be dependent on who is pitching well and more importantly who is available when the need for a starter arises. Right now, my pick would be Ryan Merritt because I think he adds a nice dynamic to the rotation as a soft tossing left-hander and is probably the most Major League ready and most consistent of the bunch. But things can change over the course of the season and when the Indians look down to Triple-A Columbus for a starter Merritt may not be pitching well or his reports may not be good or he may have just pitched the night before, which in that case would open the door for someone like Cody Anderson or Michael Clevinger. I believe the trio of Anderson, Clevinger and Merritt are a clear step or two ahead of other options like Adam Plutko and Shawn Morimando, and would be fine with either of them getting an opportunity when that need arises.

Dave’s take: I love the grit Ryan Merritt showed in his postseason start in the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays so my heart wants him to have a tremendous spring and put himself in the conversation for the sixth starter. However, both Cody Anderson and Michael Clevinger have a lot more major league experience and after all that promise we saw from Cody Anderson in 2015 I’m truly hoping to see a return to that form. A lot can change in spring training including one of these same names claiming the fifth rotation spot and dropping Josh Tomlin to the sixth starter and into a bullpen role, so this might be more of a race to watch in Goodyear this spring.


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