Plutko One of Many Tribe Pitching Prospects to Debut in 2016
Bob Toth | On 10, Jan 2017
One man’s misfortune can lead to another man’s gain. Such was the case for Cleveland Indians rookie right-hander Adam Plutko late in the 2016 season, when he fulfilled the dream of the professional baseball player when he made his Major League debut in September.
Unfortunately for the Indians, it came at the expense of starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, whose was lost for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs when he was struck by a line drive on his pitching hand on September 17 against the Detroit Tigers.
Plutko’s season was presumed to be over when he was notified that his contract had been purchased by the Indians and he had been added to the 40-man roster. At the time of the phone call from director of player personnel Carter Hawkins, Plutko was back in his native California with family and friends at a wedding. He had not been added to the Indians roster at the completion of the Triple-A postseason, where he ended his season as a member of the Columbus Clippers.
The young pitching prospect had wrapped up his third full season in the Indians organization after being selected in the eleventh round of the 2013 draft out of UCLA, where he was a teammate of Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer. He has since progressed steadily through the farm system. He spent 2014 with Single-A Lake County and High-A Carolina and 2015 with High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Akron.
He began 2016 back in Akron, coming off of a solid 13-7 season in 2015 with a 2.39 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP in 166 innings. He was 9-5 in that time in the RubberDucks rotation, going 9-5 in 19 starts with a 2.86 ERA and 1.02 WHIP.
Over the course of the first two and a half months of the season, he showed some of the same promise that he had provided the organization over his first two pro seasons – a light ERA and little traffic on the base paths. Better known for keeping walks to a minimum, he had several good strikeout games, including eight in his season debut and 13 against the powerful Reading Fightin Phils lineup on June 8. In eight of his first 13 outings of the season for the ‘Ducks, he limited the opposition to an earned run or less. After a 3-3 record with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP in 13 starts, on June 16 he received a promotion to Triple-A and joined the Clippers.
In his next 15 starts, Plutko gave Columbus length in the starting rotation, pitching at least five innings in every one of his starts, but he had an uncharacteristic loss of command during his stay. After walking just 12 batters in 71 2/3 innings with Akron, he walked his 12th batter with Columbus in just his fifth outing.
He got the walk issue under control in the middle of July and on July 26, he flirted with his own stake of baseball history in a start against the Norfolk Tides. He set down the first 22 batters in order, taking a perfect game into the eighth inning before giving up two runs on three hits in a tough loss. It was the first of six straight quality starts for Plutko, which culminated in him being named the International League’s Pitcher of the Week in mid-August.
When Columbus was eliminated from the playoffs in early September, Plutko (6-5, 4.10 ERA, 1.34 WHIP in 15 starts at Triple-A) was not one of the players to join the Cleveland roster. As he was not on the 40-man roster, the Indians’ plan was to recall or promote players whom they thought could help over the course of the final few weeks of the regular season. The Indians coaching staff had a look at Plutko previously during the spring, when he was in the Major League camp on a non-roster invite, and he had just completed his second straight season with 160 innings pitched or more down on the farm. But when disaster struck, the Indians looked to Plutko to provide some emergency depth in the already crowded bullpen.
He made his debut on September 24 at Progressive Field in a relief outing against the Chicago White Sox. He faced seven batters, giving up two hits and a walk while striking out two in a scoreless appearance, the first time in his professional career that he did not start his outing. He took the mound for his final appearance of the season on September 27, giving up three runs on three hits with a walk and a strikeout in two innings out of the bullpen against the Detroit Tigers the day after the Indians clinched the AL Central.
Plutko’s pinpoint command of the strike zone while on the mound has led to some comparisons to current Indians starter Josh Tomlin, who has become a durable starting pitcher for the club due to his aggressiveness around the plate that has enabled him to pitch later into games while not working many deeper counts.
If the end of the 2016 regular season taught the Indians organization anything, it is that there truly is no such thing as enough starting pitching. The club lost Carrasco and Danny Salazar from the rotation in September as well as for stretches earlier in the season, while it also saw staff ace Corey Kluber go down late in the season before returning for the playoffs. Bauer suffered a finger injury during the postseason that caused further tribulation for the pitching staff. The ineffectiveness of Cody Anderson early in the season also led to the rotation being shuffled around for some time, with nine pitchers in total being credited with starts throughout the season.
The Indians rotation will presumably be healthy and fully stocked come February when players report to Goodyear, Arizona. While some of the players who appeared for the club as either spot starters or as relievers over the course of the year, including Plutko, Anderson, Mike Clevinger, Ryan Merritt, and Shawn Morimando, could audition for spots on the Opening Day roster in the bullpen, it is far more likely that the club will look to the majority of them to work as members of the starting rotation at Triple-A Columbus while waiting for another opportunity to assist the Major League club in any capacity possible.
Plutko, who turned 25 at the beginning of October, will be right there in the Columbus rotation waiting for his next call.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images