A befuddling weekend is in the rearview mirror. The Seattle Mariners came to town and took out their frustration on Indians pitching, to the tune of 32 runs over a four-game set. This is new territory. This just doesn’t happen to an Indians pitching staff which has been as good as any in baseball over the past few years. There is nothing inherently disconcerting about this weekend from a collective perspective. The variance-laden nature of the game promotes itself to the unexpected.
However, it is important to identify the key aspects of the good old fashioned shellacking courtesy of the always middling Mariners. Of the 32 runs allowed, the Indians bullpen was responsible for 14 in only 12 1/3 innings. An atrocious display in which their ERA exceeded 9, mere days after losing Andrew Miller to the disabled list. After watching Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith sign elsewhere, Terry Francona was forced into a dependent relationship with Nick Goody.
Relievers are innately fickle, so it’s difficult to get worked up about a single weekend on that front. The most pressing issue at hand lies with a starter who has previously outpitched his peripherals with a good amount of (deserved) goodwill in tow. The 2016 World Series was a dream for Josh Tomlin. It’s impossible not to be nostalgic about his 4 2/3 scoreless innings amidst a rare 1-0 Fall Classic victory. There were 41,703 fans at Wrigley Field to observe his brilliance but only one mattered — Tomlin’s father, Jerry, beat all odds to see his son dazzle on the biggest stage despite being confined to a wheelchair due to an arteriovenous malformation.
The goodwill is not misplaced. That moment surpasses the epic Rajai Davis homer as my immediate recollection of the Indians-Cubs series. The goodwill has extended beyond reason, with Tomlin’s turbulent April providing more than enough cause for concern. He has yielded 19 earned runs over 18 2/3 innings. When asked about Tomlin’s bumpy start, Francona was predictably committed to his veteran.
One could make an argument about what constitutes “running too quick” from a 33-year-old starting pitcher with a career ERA that approaches five. There are plenty of things to delve into in that argument, including observations like an even higher FIP, an inability to miss bats, and the occasional graces of timely outs that leave multiple runners stranded on base.
A deeper issue has presented itself, however. We have enough data on Josh Tomlin to have a general idea of his potential outputs. We know he will eat innings, as indicated by his ability to chew through six of them while getting hit around over the weekend. While eating these innings, he will turn in a few stellar outings, as well. In small doses, like his miraculous 3.02 ERA over ten starts in 2015, Tomlin can be palatable.
Settling for palatable in small doses is a colossal mistake. The Indians have four decidedly above average arms in their rotation. This affords them unique leverage in utilizing the fifth starter spot — the reduced risk for back to back poor outings permits experimentation with young arms.
In particular, there are two young arms in the Indians system that are knocking on the door. One of them has warranted enough attention to be named the 26th man and starter for one of the games in Thursday’s doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Adam Plutko is fresh off a perfect outing in Columbus, in which he retired 23 consecutive Indianapolis Indians prior to being removed because his pitch count had crept up to 95. Over five starts and 24 2/3 innings in 2018, he has posted a 2.35 ERA. He won’t overwhelm you, sitting primarily around 90 miles per hour, but mitigates contact well and has gotten back to controlling the zone, something he got away from in 2016 and 2017. Positive changes in his profile suggest he might be worth a speculative look.
Digging further into the minors and off the 40 man roster, you’ll find the most intriguing arm that is close to being ready in the Indians system. Shane Bieber is fun if only to monitor his game logs to see if he ever actually walks anyone. As with Plutko, Bieber will never overwhelm you with his fastball but boasts exceptional command. He’s essentially Josh Tomlin plus, as The Athletic and WFNY’s own Mike Hattery puts it. As he continues to build velocity, inching towards the low to mid-nineties, he becomes even more intriguing. He’s a fun flyer that the Tribe could easily manipulate onto the 40 man roster.
There’s a decent chance that neither Plutko or Bieber amount to an MLB caliber starter. Minor league success is just a blip on the radar when it comes to prognosticating future outputs at the highest level. The Indians owe it to themselves to get an extended look at a Plutko or a Bieber. You can slide Josh Tomlin into a messy bullpen, where his experience might leverage itself into the fringes of usefulness, in order to essentially pocket him as starter depth.
The clear-cut AL Central favorites should not operate in the familiar and known realms. Instead, they should use their top-heavy roster talent to anchor them, while looking for upside on the bottom half of the roster. The familiar and known will still be there should the Plutko or Bieber experiment backfire.