As much as everyone likes to rip into the bullpen as they are an easy target, especially in close losses, the Indians pen was fairly strong in 2020, ranking 4th in total WAR (3.4) and 5th in ERA (3.53).

However, it was a fairly young unit that had the advantage of a shortened season and the two biggest veterans, Brad Hand who lead the league with 16 saves (2.05 ERA in 22 IP) and Oliver Perez (2.00 ERA in 18 IP), will not be returning to Cleveland. Hand, of course, signed with Washington after his 2021 option was declined and Perez remains a free agent after his contract ran out following the 2020 season. Also missing from last year’s crew were the sometimes used Adam Cimber, now with Miami, and Dominic Leone, now with San Francisco.

The loss of four pitchers and the make-up of the rest being so young could lead to a lot of volatility in the bullpen in 2021. Just like we broke down the interesting races among position players earlier, today we’ll focus on the competition for the bullpen and later on, we’ll attack the starting rotation.

To start, Cleveland has 26 pitchers in camp, 20 from the 40 man roster and another six as minor league invitees. Of those, Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Triston McKenzie, Aaron Civale, Adam Plutko, Cal Quantrill and Logan Allen will be covered in the upcoming starting rotation article (although some could potential become long men out of the pen) while Sam Hentges, Carlos Vargas, Jean Carlos Mejia, Eli Morgan, Jordan Humphreys and Scott Moss will be ignored for now as it is highly unlikely that they will break camp with the team, although some could debut later in the 2021 season.

That leaves 13 pitchers for seven or eight spots.

Closing time

Of these, two have a unique combination of extreme talent, youth and enough MLB experience to be nearly guaranteed spots in James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase. Instead of competing for a spot on the roster, this pair of pitchers could be competing for the closer role. Karinchak is a home grown talent who debuted in 2019 and had a 2.51 ERA and 17.0 K/9 over his first 32.1 innings. These numbers match fairly closely with his 2.73 MiLB ERA and 16.4 K/9 across 102.1 innings. Even if he isn’t the closer, Karinchak should be a major part of the pen for years to come.

With Delino Deshields back in Texas and Corey Kluber in New York, Clase has now become the last remaining facet of the 2019 Kluber trade. His PED suspension for the 2020 season soured some fans, but his rookie numbers with Texas (2.31 ERA & 8.1 K/9 over 23.1 IP in 2019), minor league stats from 2015 through 2018 and his post-season work with San Pedro de Macoris in 2019 and the Indians instructional league team in 2020 should have the franchise excited. They will certainly not want to admit that Kluber was given up for nothing and, now that his suspension is over, Clase should be a big part of the 2020 bullpen.

The veterans

Nick Wittgren is back again for his age 30 season and his third with Cleveland. While he’s not flashy, Wittgren has been extremely reliable in mostly low leverage situations over those two seasons and he will almost certainly stay in that role. He signed a $2M deal to avoid arbitration in 2021 and is under team control through 2023.

Maton had been a regular in the Padres bullpen for years and came to Cleveland in a 2019 trade for international bonus slot money. Following that transaction, Maton pitched well for Cleveland out of the bullpen, and while his ERA was 4.57, he did have a FIP of 2.22 and a K-BB% of 27.1% and is still just 27 (although he’ll be 28 once the season starts), so he will almost certainly be back in the pen in 2021.

Maton stands on the mound during 2020 Indians MLB spring training fielding practice. – Joseph Coblitz, IBI

To fill out the rest of the pen, the Indians have choices in two categories: veterans who were terrible or didn’t pitch in 2020 and youngsters who either barely played in 2020 or didn’t play at all. and are in Cleveland on minor league deals.

Heath Hembree, DJ Johnson and Bryan Shaw have all been brought in for spring training on minor league invites. Starting with the most familiar, all Indians fans older than five should be extremely familiar with Shaw as he’s second in Indians history in relief games pitched (behind Cody Allen). He had a very rough time in Colorado following his departure from Cleveland and things didn’t get better in 2020 after he joined Seattle. The hope for Shaw is that his poor results in recent seasons were due to overuse and the fact that he only pitched six innings last year could bring him back to the way things were during his first run with Cleveland.

Hembree was a regular, reliable reliever for the Red Sox from 2014 through 2019, but struggled with Boston in 2020 and was traded to Philadelphia where he was even worse. Now 32 years old, the right hander has signed with Cleveland and has an uphill climb to prove he isn’t the home run machine (4.3 HR/9 in 2020) that he was in 2020.

Johnson is also coming off two poor years in Colorado’s bullpen in 2018 and 2019, but spent the 2020 season in Japan where he had a 3.35 ERA across 40.1 innings. Now back in the US, he’ll be 31 coming into the 2021 season and will have to impress early if he wants to make it back into the big leagues with Cleveland.

The minor league veterans without much major league experience

Anthony Gose is a veteran outfielder (now 30 years old), but hasn’t logged a major league inning as a pitcher yet. The lefty had mixed results in 2019 with Lynchburg and Akron, with walk rates over 20%. He did have a solid off-season with Manati in the Puerto Rican Winter League that year and La Romana in the Dominican Winter League in 2020. This is the second time that Gose has been signed on a minor league deal by Cleveland, so it’s obvious that they’re interesting in his electric arm and there’s no better time for the experiment than now.

Gose pitches in relief for the Indians during 2019 extended spring training in Goodyear, AZ. – Joseph Coblitz, IBI

Kyle Dowdy came to Cleveland in 2018 along with Leonys Martin in the Willi Castro trade, but was taken by the Mets in the 2018 rule 5 draft. Before playing a game with the Mets, he was claimed off waivers by Texas, where he made his big league debut in 2019. There, he had a 7.25 ERA across 13 appearances and 22.1 innings before being demoted. Since he was still a rule 5 pick, he was sent back to Cleveland upon demotion and is back again for 2021. While he has limited big league experience, Dowdy is 28 years old already and is running out of time to break into the big leagues for good. That being said, he still has three minor league options somehow.

The rookies

Wrapping up the list are the four younger pitchers, Cam Hill, Kyle Nelson and Nick Sandlin. Starting at the back, Sandlin is a fun, side-arming righty who pitched well in Akron in 2019, but hasn’t had much time in Triple-A and has just 50.1 MiLB innings in his career. He had forearm surgery that knocked out most of his 2019 season but should be back healthy for 2021. Given the current situation, he will likely start the season in Columbus.

Hill and Nelson are both long term Indians minor league relievers who debuted in 2020 and could feature heavily in 2021. Both struggled in their big league debuts, but are serviceable arms. Nelson, the lefty, is the higher ceiling pitcher of the two, but also the younger and could easily start out in Triple-A.

Next on the list is a player with his own special status, Trevor Stephan. Stephan was taken by the Indians in the 2020 Rule 5 draft from the Yankees and needs to make the 25 man roster to stay with the franchise. While he has generally been a starter throughout his MiLB career, he is yet to play above Double-A and struggled at that level in 2019. If he stays with the team at all, it will be in the bullpen.

In all, things aren’t all that bad considering the loss of their best closer and a long time reliable arm in Perez. Karinchak and Clase bring elite talent to the back end while Wittgren and any number of MLB vets bring reliability to the middle. There are plenty of rookie options to fill out the rest of the roster, or the Indians could run with the those starters who don’t make the rotation. In all, this is the most difficult position to predict for the season, both because there are the most open spots available and because there are so many pitchers available for those spots.

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