Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 45
Bob Toth | On 10, Feb 2020
Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 45 days
Will Adam Plutko be with the Cleveland Indians come Opening Day?
That is one of many questions that the Cleveland coaching staff and front office have to determine by the end of March as the competition for the final two spots in the Indians rotation could be up for grabs.
The first three spots seem to be locked and secured, with Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, and staff veteran Carlos Carrasco in good position to return to the rotation once again. After that, the spots are a bit up in the air and could come down to individual spring training performances.
Plutko, who has worn the number 45 over the last two seasons for the Indians, is one of the candidates and the senior statesmen of the bunch, which also includes young hurlers Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. Left-handers Logan Allen and Scott Moss and right-hander Jefry Rodriguez could also be in play, but may be more on the outside of that picture looking in.
The 28-year-old Plutko certainly has the most experience of the grouping, but has had limited success at the Major League level and could find his role in the bullpen instead. Drawing comparisons to Josh Tomlin early in his career, Plutko is not a hard thrower and was best known for displaying relatively good control and low walk numbers walk in the minors. While early in his professional days, Plutko did well to keep the ball in the yard, but over the course of the last two seasons, it has had a tendency of jumping over the fence, which is not necessarily an uncommon occurrence in the professional baseball landscape.
Plutko debuted in relief twice in 2016, but spent all of 2017 in the minors at Triple-A Columbus. In 2018, Plutko was 4-5 for Cleveland with a 5.28 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP in 12 starts and five relief appearances and he was 7-3 for Columbus with a 1.70 ERA and a 0.74 WHIP in 14 starts.
Instead of being the sixth man in the Tribe’s rotation and ready at a moment’s notice in Columbus, Plutko’s 2019 season got off to a delayed start when he landed on the injured list at the end of spring training with a right forearm strain. It kept him back in Arizona while rehabbing the injury and he did not make his debut until a rough inning to open the year against Charlotte on May 7. The depleted starting rotation in Cleveland led to him coming up later in the month and he made an impressive first start there, allowing just a solo homer over six innings in a win against Baltimore. He was rocked for 12 hits his next time out, including four home runs, and wound up back in Columbus for two weeks.
When he rejoined the Indians in the second week of June, he did not leave, securing a spot in a staff that had already lost Clevinger and Corey Kluber in the early going and would soon lose Rodriguez and Carrasco. Plutko served as a big help initially, making a pair of quality starts, but he was unable to give the team length or strong efforts after that until the end of July, when he allowed a run on two hits over seven innings in a loss to Kansas City. He won his first start in August and followed with back-to-back quality starts later in the month. His September was as up and down as it could be, as he failed to clear the fifth inning in four of his six starts (the other two were quality six inning efforts).
Plutko finished the campaign with an 8-8 record in 25 games (24 starts) between Cleveland and Columbus, posting a 5.18 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP with 94 strikeouts, 30 walks, and 23 homers allowed in 125 innings of work.
What may give Plutko a leg up on some of the competition in camp for a starting role is those years of experience on the Indians’ 40-man roster. Plutko is out of options, while the other options heading to Goodyear all have the ability to be shipped back and forth between Cleveland and Triple-A Columbus over the course of the season. Plutko may get a shot in the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation to prove that he can finally stay.
Hindering that situation some is that Plutko’s relief experience is limited and his overall numbers at the Major League level have been inconsistent. He did not appear in a game professionally out of the bullpen until his first two big league games in 2016. He made two relief appearances for Columbus in 2017, five more for the Indians in 2018, and one last year. How well he can convert to the job of a long relief man or a middle inning option remains to be seen. He has the pitching arsenal of a starter, using a four-pitch mix that includes his fastball, a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. His fastball has averaged 91.1 mph over the last two seasons while he has decreased its usage in favor of more sliders and changeups.
Plutko has proven himself at the minor league level, but it is crunch time now for his tenure in the Majors in Cleveland. If he cannot earn a spot on the pitching staff, he may find himself pitching in a new state in short order.
Plutko pushed the total number of Indians to wear 45 on the field to 24 all-time when he switched from 62 to his current number. While he has held it for the last couple of years, no one player has done so for the length of time and success that former Tribe left-hander Paul Assenmacher did.
Assenmacher was a well-established reliever by the time his career brought him to Cleveland. He had taken the mound 575 times (just once as a starter in 1990) during stops with the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, and Chicago White Sox. He had proven himself to be a quality reliever during that span, posting a 42-34 record, saving 48 games, and earning a 3.44 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP.
Prior to the strike in 1994, Assenmacher was helping anchor the White Sox bullpen on the south side of the Windy City and was sitting in first place, but the Indians were hard charging in what would have been an exciting pennant run for the two clubs down the stretch, had history not intervened. Despite working with the enemy, Assenmacher joined the young Tribe club as yet another veteran brought on board with the task of helping to stabilize the relief corps. He signed a one-year deal in Cleveland for $700,000, after making $2.58 million the season before.
“Assenmacher is a proven late-inning left-handed pitcher,” general manager John Hart said at the time of the signing in a quote in The Plain Dealer. “It’s what [Mike Hargrove] and the staff wanted. He has a consistent history of getting left-handed hitters out late in the game.”
He was the fourth big signing in a short stretch for the Tribe. Orel Hershiser and Bud Black were added to the rotation and outfielder/designated hitter Dave Winfield came to town during the club’s $3.1 million shopping spree.
Assenmacher had a fairly good idea of what he was doing when he signed with Cleveland.
“We knew the Indians were a team to reckon with,” he shared from spring training the day before the exhibition opener from Winter Haven in 1995. “You could see that they had developed the attitude that they could win. Those two series we had [in 1994], there was just so much electricity.”
When baseball returned from its 234-day strike, Assenmacher was entrenched in the bullpen mix that included Dennis Cook (his teammate the previous year in Chicago), Alan Embree, Jose Mesa, Eric Plunk, Jim Poole, Paul Shuey, and Julian Tavarez. He provided balance to a hard-throwing staff and gave the team a much needed lefty specialist, serving a similar role as Poole.
“We had an unbelievable closer that year in Jose Mesa,” Assenmacher recalled in an interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night in 2015. “Julian Tavarez, nobody knew much about Julian coming into it. He had a great sinker going that year and was dynamite. Eric Plunk, too, he had some great seasons in Cleveland.”
Assenmacher would become part of one of the more formidable bullpens in baseball that year, often an afterthought on a mashing ball club that bulldozed through the strike-shortened 144-game schedule with a 100-44 record and brought playoff baseball back to Cleveland for the first time since 1954.
“We had a great view from the outfield of watching our guys beat up on the other teams,” he shared later. “We just had to keep the game close and we’d have a good chance to win.”
He would go 6-2 with a 2.82 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP for the Indians in 47 appearances in 1995, but some of his best work was reserved for the postseason that year, specifically Game 5 of the American League Championship Series in Cleveland against the Seattle Mariners. With the series tied at two games apiece, the Indians had just claimed a 3-2 lead on a two-run home run by Jim Thome in the bottom of the sixth. Tavarez had to try to work out of trouble after his defense lapsed behind him, allowing Dan Wilson to reach on an error at first and another error by Paul Sorrento put two on for Edgar Martinez, who grounded into a fielder’s choice force at second. Hargrove went to his bullpen and called on Assenmacher to face the always-dangerous Ken Griffey Jr. with the tying and go-ahead runs on the corners, the heart of the order waiting on deck and in the hole, and only one out in the inning.
Assenmacher struck out Griffey on four pitches. The right-handed power-hitting Jay Buhner came up next, and he met the same fate, K’d on five pitches from the Tribe’s sneaky southpaw. Assenmacher returned to start the eighth and got lefty Tino Martinez to pop to short to start the inning before handing the ball over to Plunk. The Indians would go on to win, 3-2, and claimed the series two days later in Seattle to make a triumphant return to the World Series.
“They had Tino Martinez, another lefty, on deck. I could see the situation where he might want to take me out, but geez, I just struck out Ken Griffey,” said Assenmacher with a laugh during his chat with DTTWLN. “Grover must have said, ‘Hey, Paul is on a roll tonight!’ So he left me in and I happened to throw some good pitches to Buhner and struck him out. I faced Tino the next inning and then he brought in Plunky. “
While things did not go as planned as the Indians were eliminated in six games by the Atlanta Braves in the Fall Classic, Assenmacher remained in the Tribe’s plans for the future. He was signed shortly after the season to a new two-year deal with a club option for the 1998 season.
“You look at the free-agent market, and besides Norm Charlton, there’s no one out there close to Paul Assenmacher as far as left-handed set-up men go,” Hart said of the return of the lefty in the November 3, 1995, edition of The Plain Dealer. “He pitched big for us, and we did not want him to get out on the free-agent market.”
Assenmacher spent his final five Major League seasons in Cleveland and saw plenty of success as the team won five straight American League Central Division titles and made two trips to the World Series. Assenmacher pitched in 309 games during his time with the Tribe and hung up the cleats for good at the age of 38. He spent more time on the diamond in an Indians uniform than any other stop during his 14-year big league career.
“I would say that this is the spot where I had my most enjoyable years,” Assenmacher recalled to DTTWLN. “Going to the ballpark every day when it is sold out…you really don’t appreciate that until you’re out of the game. Now I look back and realize how special of a time it really was. My Cleveland memories are the most memorable ones.”
Those Cleveland memories included his first postseason action since a pair of relief appearances for the Chicago Cubs in the 1989 National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants. He made 34 playoff appearances while with Cleveland, earning a pair of wins over 19 1/3 innings of work. His time included four games of work in that 1995 World Series and another five appearances during the 1997 Fall Classic. While there were plenty of good times and good things to reflect back on, Assenmacher still wonders what could have been from the squad with the longest sustained success in franchise history.
“It’s tough. In any sport, when you get that close, you never know if you’re going to get another opportunity,” said Assenmacher to DTTWLN. “I’ve lived down in Atlanta and they have had so many opportunities and only won it once – unfortunately against us in ’95. You wish the outcome would have been different for us and mostly for the fans, but we gave the fans a good run.”
Assenmacher, a Detroit native, returned to the site of the start of his baseball career – Atlanta – after his playing days and remained involved with the game of baseball, working for a stretch as a pitching coach for St. Pius X Catholic High School in Dekalb County, Georgia. He has also focused his time on being a husband and father and getting out to the golf course, when time permits. He gets back into town on occasion, serving as an ambassador of the Indians and a reminder of the glory days of the 1990s.
Other notable players to wear #45 in Indians’ history: Red Howell (the first in 1941), Brad Komminsk (1989), Jeff Manto (1990-91), Jerry Dipoto (1993-94), Justin Speier (2000-01), Terry Mulholland (2002-03), Josh Phelps (2004), Jeremy Sowers (2006-09), Adam Moore (2015-16)
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images
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