There’s a lot to like about the 2020 version of the Cleveland Indians as they head into this 60-game, shortened season which starts this weekend against the Kansas City Royals.
The majority of the core that’s been around the last several seasons is back including Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, and Roberto Perez among others. The starting pitching depth is there with Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale.
There’s also the leadership of manager Terry Francona although it’ll be different for the future Hall of Famer as his right hand man Brad Mills won’t be there after he elected to return home to his family in the wake of their family tragedy earlier this year.
However, there is something that could stop the Indians from being full fledged contenders this season and that’s their bullpen.
Outside of All-Star closer Brad Hand, the bullpen looks very uncertain heading into the season and even including Hand it’s uncertain as he tailed off in the second half of 2019 after a strong first half.
There is the potential in James Karinchak who will most likely be the setup man. Karinchak dominated batters in the minors striking out 74 in 30.1 innings pitched before being called up late last season appearing in five games.
The hope was that Karinchak would be part of a 1-2 punch with Emmanuel Clase but that hope was ruined in spring training when Clase was suspended for what now is the entire 2020 season because of performance enhancing drugs. Now we have to wait till 2021 to see if that 1-2 punch will ever come to reality.
Behind Hand and Karinchak, you have Nick Wittgren who was solid in 2019, Adam Cimber who was inconsistent, 38-year-old Oliver Perez who is solid against left-handed batters (.207 avg) but has a tough time against right-handed batters (.286) and with the new rule of having to face a minimum of three hitters, Perez’s role has certainly changed.
There’s also Hunter Wood, Phil Maton, and James Hoyt who were all newcomers to the team in 2019 and are returning in 2020. Wood was up and down after being acquired from Tampa at the trade deadline while Maton and Hoyt were solid in their limited roles.
In Monday night’s final tune up against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the bullpen had a tough night allowing four runs in the final four innings along with seven hits and three walks.
Wood and Karinchak were great allowing just one hit and striking out five in the final two innings but Hand gave up a home run, Wittgren allowed one run, two hits and two walks in 0.2 innings pitched. Cimber only pitched a third of an inning and allowed two runs, three hits and gave up a walk and a home run.
The bullpen is easily the biggest concern and you have to wonder what the plan is for Francona and bullpen coach Brian Sweeney for how they will handle this 60-game season because there’s little room for error if they want a shot at the American League Central and subsequently the pennant and the World Series.
Does Francona elect to slide one of the starters like Plesac or Civale into the bullpen to add another solid arm or do they let the first 10-15 games play itself out and team president Chris Antonetti decides to scour the trade or free agency market?
Maybe the Indians even decide to bring over one of the arms training in Eastlake at the alternate site for their player pool like Logan Allen, Jerry Rodriguez or Scott Moss.
The Indians have the talent to win it all in 2020 but the bullpen is going to be what makes or breaks this season.