The indomitable rotation of the 2019 Cleveland Indians was to ensure the soft underbelly of the lineup could never be pierced. Even initial dents to Carlos Carrasco (degrading velocity) and Corey Kluber (degrading control) could be absorbed due to the overall excellence throughout. Trevor Bauer has continued his ascension as a true MLB ace. Shane Bieber is demonstrating his fun peripheral numbers from 2018 can be translated into yet another dominant Tribe starter. And, Mike Clevinger. Oh, the one they call Sunshine had staked an early lead to being the best of the five, which meant he staked an early lead to being an AL Cy Young Award candidate.
Clevinger’s armor will not be dented for the next two to three months though as it is wholly missing leaving the Indians exposed. A back twinge in his last start led to him leaving that particular game in the fifth inning. He boldly proclaimed he would be fine for his next start, but several medical specialists disagreed. The last official word came on April 11 when the Indians were still seeking additional expert opinions to determine if the surgical option was necessary.
Doctor of Physical Therapy Brandon Bowers indicated the timeline should surgery be needed would move the return date from the All-Star Game potentially to August.
Clinically, difference in conservative care with just rehab vs. surgery + rehab is ~40 days. Average return to play following teres major strain with just rehab is 100 days with the surgical route taking around 140 days #indians
— Dr. Brandon Bowers (@blbowers12) April 10, 2019
There are no ready replacements.1 The rotation-filler Adam Plutko is currently shelved on the injury list with a forearm strain. The top prospect in the system, Triston McKenzie might or might not have been ready for his Major League debut, but he is currently shut down with a back injury of his own. The only veteran in Triple-A Columbus is 30 year old Asher Wojciechowski who has been rather dreadful in just over 78 innings pitched for the 2017 Cincinnati Reds and 2015 Houston Astros. Shao-Ching Chiang is a right-handed pitcher who will not be found even on extended Tribe prospect lists. Nor will those lists contain southpaw Sean Brady.
The remaining options are Jefry Rodriguez, Chih-Wei Hu, and Cody Anderson. Each has been a starter in their development. Each has lacked some necessary tools to give confidence they shall remain there, though with indicators of being good in the bullpen.
WFNY’s Mitchell Krall has broke down the new players to the system this past offseason. Here are his thoughts on Hu and Rodriguez.
Hu (Who?) has predominantly been a starting pitcher in the minors, although the Rays attempted to convert him into a relief pitcher in 2017. His fastball sits 92-93 and touches 95, down a few notches from his 2016 Futures Game appearance. Nonetheless, his bread and butter is his changeup, a nasty palmball with really low RPM that causes it to fall off the table. While he does have a starter’s arsenal, I’m guessing the Indians are in love with that fastball/change-up combination, especially if the fastball plays up out of the bullpen.
Jefry Rodriguez was the second piece of that trade, but he stands to make a much greater impact in 2019. Like Hu, Rodriguez has been a starter during his entire professional career and has a nasty two-pitch combination. But unlike Hu, Rodriguez relies on power pitching. As a starter, his fastball sits at 95-96 and tops out at 100, which gives me reason to believe his velocity will play up out of the bullpen.
Anderson missed the 2017 and 2018 seasons after undergoing the infamous Tommy John surgery. The early results have seen his fastball sitting at 93 miles per hour rather than the 95 he was hitting in 2016 before injured. He has a complete arsenal throwing as many as six different pitches to keep hitters off balance. He is another pitcher who it could appear to be elevated by honing in on his best pitches in a more limited role. Missing the last two years has also had Anderson pass his 28th birthday giving him precious little time to find his footing in MLB. As such, he likely welcomes this opportunity though it comes quite early in his re-entry to baseball.4
The obvious answer to the final rotation piece shall likely remain elusive. Perhaps the team will employ a combination of the above options in a pseudo-bullpen game rather than allow any of the options to have to face lineups multiple times as Rodriguez did in his first appearance. Regardless, the team enters their Pacific Northwest trip weary from a weekend sweep to the hand of the wretched Kansas City Royals. The Minnesota Twins appear poised to remain a competent challenge. The question is if the Tribe can protect themselves well enough to cover for such an essential piece of what was believed to be an impenetrable armor.