Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 38
Bob Toth | On 17, 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 – 38 days
Eric Haase, who had worn the number 38 in a handful of big league appearances, has vacated the number for the Indians as he was a roster casualty this winter.
Haase was designated for assignment in the final days of December when the Indians needed a 40-man roster spot for infielder Cesar Hernandez, the club’s biggest offseason addition to date. Haase was ultimately traded to the Detroit Tigers for cash consideration.
Once a position with some depth in the Indians organization, suddenly the list of backstops available is thin. Roberto Perez performed at near All-Star levels a year ago and took home some significant defensive hardware for his work behind the plate while putting up career-best numbers at the dish. The Indians acquired veteran switch-hitting catcher Sandy Leon from the Boston Red Sox to back up Perez, while not tendering a contract to last year’s backup Kevin Plawecki (who incidentally signed with Boston).
Haase was the top option in the farm system and had been since the Indians traded their former top prospect, catcher Francisco Mejia, to the San Diego Padres for relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber at the trade deadline in 2018. It seemed to be a big vote of confidence in Haase, who has mashed plenty in the minors over the years while being one of the posterchildren of the launch angle revolution, but such was not the case when the Indians were in a pinch for 40-man spots this winter.
Now, the Indians may have to look to veterans Cameron Rupp and Beau Taylor, both non-roster invites to spring training, to provide viable depth at Columbus in the case of an emergency. Kungkuan Giljegiljaw (formerly Li-Jen Chu) and Gavin Collins are also in camp as non-roster invites from the farm system, but they are far from polished and should be considered non-factors for 2020 consideration.
As for the 27-year-old Haase, a 2011 seventh round pick out of Dearborn, he will begin a new chapter of his career near his old Michigan stomping grounds while representing the rebuilding Detroit Tigers (or their Triple-A Toledo affiliate).
After a steady climb through the farm system and the development of some more advanced power numbers, Haase reached the Triple-A level for a pair of games for the first time in 2017. The next season, Haase played in a career-high 120 games for the Clippers during an All-Star season, putting up a .236/.288/.443 slash with 24 doubles, 20 homers, and 71 RBI, exceeding his previous year’s run contribution by ten. His season picked up late, as he went on a tear over the final two months of the minor league slate, putting up season highs across the board in nearly every category in a seven-homer, 30-RBI July. With the minor league schedule ending, the Indians selected Haase’s contract from Columbus and he made nine appearances for the Indians in September, including a pair of starts. He struck out in his first big league at bat on September 2 against Tampa Bay. In his fourth game, he recorded his first hit and first RBI in a 6-4 loss to Detroit, and a week later he notched his last hit of the year against Boston. He finished his debut season 2-for-16 (.125) at the plate with two singles, one hit by pitch, and six strikeouts.
Haase returned to Columbus for a third season of work in 2019. He appeared in 102 games, posting a .226/.315/.517 slash with 28 homers and 60 RBI, but he also reached a new career-worst with a 35.4% strikeout rate. He worked in ten games with the big league club over the year, getting just one hit (his first big league homer) in 17 plate appearances while striking out eight times.
Now, the Indians will look to establish new minor league depth at the position while Haase kicks off the next chapter of his professional career with a division rival.
Haase became the 40th player to wear the number 38 for the Indians when he made his debut. Prior to his September call-up in 2018, the last player to wear the number of 38 did so just one year prior, when reliever Joe Smith returned to Cleveland at the trade deadline in 2017 to add depth to the bullpen.
Plenty of big names in franchise history have spent a spell in the number for the Tribe, including a pair of Hall of Famers – Bob Lemon (1941) and Early Wynn (1963) – and another legend in club history in Rocky Colavito (1955-57).
None of the players to don it since Wynn are Cooperstown bound, but that does not mean that they have not made some important contributions in Tribe history. The best have come from a pair of relievers – the aforementioned Smith, and 1990s right-hander Eric Plunk.
Plunk took over the number in Cleveland in 1992, following three other pitchers who had worn it the previous years – Keith Atherton, Cecilio Guante, and Shawn Hillegas. He was fresh off of a two and a half year stay in the Big Apple with the New York Yankees, where he had worked primarily in relief, but had made 15 starts for the Bronx Bombers. He had a camp invite with the Toronto Blue Jays prior to joining the Indians, but was a roster casualty at the end of Spring Training. He had started his big league career with three and a half years out in Oakland.
Plunk saw good things happening in Cleveland when he elected to head to the shores of Lake Erie.
“Their potential (made me sign there),” shared Plunk in a 2014 interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “I knew what kind of team that they were. We had a huge, great core of talent.”
After seeing part-time work in the starting rotation in four of his first six seasons at the MLB level, Plunk would work exclusively in the Indians bullpen and became a workhorse for the club. The Tribe pulled themselves out of the depths of the AL East in 1992, finishing fourth, but put together a similar finish that resulted in a sixth place position at the end of the 1993 season. Plunk earned nine wins in relief during his first season in town and posted a 2.79 ERA with 15 saves in a career-high 70 appearances for Mike Hargrove’s club in 1993.
Everything would change in Cleveland in 1994, as the Indians were inching closer to challenging in the new AL Central and in the new Jacobs Field before the strike ended their charge. Plunk with 7-2 with three saves and a 2.54 ERA in 41 games as one of the primary options on Hargrove’s staff. The following season, he went 6-2 with a 2.67 ERA in 56 games for the Indians as Plunk made his return to the World Series (following his 1988 trip with the A’s in their loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers).
“I really thought we were going to go to the World Series every year,” said Plunk of the Indians teams that he was a part of. “It’s as good as any bullpen I’ve ever been a part of. Depth wise, it was probably better than any bullpen I’ve ever seen.”
Plunk would be part of two different World Series teams in Cleveland, but the results were the same as the Indians came up on the short end of the championship series each time.
“When I was in Oakland, we won 104 games and lost to the Dodgers. Basically, they upset us. We were, on paper, a lot better team than they were,” said Plunk. “During the ’95 season, we knew we were up against the Braves and they had a tough pitching staff. We knew it was going to be tough. The other two times I was in the Series, I thought we would win. We never did, though.
“The 1997 season was a great team. I really thought we were going to win it that time. It’s still pretty vivid. That was a fantastic Series, though. It goes down to the 11th inning of Game Seven…how many Series actually do that? It was anybody’s ballgame and it’s still a tough one to swallow.”
Plunk hovered in the mid-50s for appearances in each season from 1995 through 1997, posting strong ERAs in the mid-2s in the first two of those years before his numbers plumped to 4.66 in 1997. He made 37 trips to the mound in 1998, but with a 3-1 record and a 4.83 ERA, he was sent to Milwaukee for former Tribe closer Doug Jones.
“I was having a rough year,” said Plunk of his 1998 trade. “My father passed away that year and there were a lot of personal things that were going on. In a lot of ways, sometimes a change like that is good. Make no mistake about it though, it was tough to leave. I had been traded a few times before, but being traded from the Indians was a lot tougher. I had a lot of friends and we had built a home here.”
He made 26 relief appearances for the Brewers that year and another 68 the following season, but was done after 1999 with 14 years of big league service under his belt.
It would be another eleven years before the number would return to the mound with regularity, with outfielders Ryan Ludwick and Franklin Gutierrez occupying it for much of the first decade of the 21st century. This time, it would Smith, a heavily-utilized, side-winding, ground ball specialist who came to town as part of a three-way trade in December of 2008 with the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners. Gutierrez landed in Seattle in the massive 12-player swap, while the Indians picked up Smith and utility man Luis Valbuena.
Smith took up Gutierrez’s number and looked to build off of an impressive showing the previous year, when he worked 82 times in relief for the Mets in just his second year in “The Show”. Injuries slowed him down in his first season in Cleveland as he made just 37 appearances, and the next season he spent a chunk of time at Triple-A Columbus and worked in 53 games for the Tribe.
By 2011, Smith found his stride. He matched Rafael Perez with 71 outings for manager Manny Acta and he served as a seventh and eighth inning bridge with setup man Vinnie Pestano to closer Chris Perez. Smith earned 16 holds and posted a 2.01 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP, easily the best of his career to that point.
He was back doing heavy late inning work for the Tribe in 2012, again leading the staff in appearances with 72. His 21 holds and seven wins were also a career-high. With a new skipper in Terry Francona in place for the 2013 season, he still saw plenty of work, earning six wins, a career-best 25 holds, and the first three saves of his big league career while providing the Bullpen Mafia with a 2.29 ERA.
The Indians were bounced in the one-game American League Wild Card Game loss to the Tampa Bay Rays and the free agent Smith cashed in on a three-year, $15.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
The new home treated Smith kindly in his first season on the west coast. He posted a 1.81 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP in 76 appearances while earning 15 saves. His impressive performance was not replicated, however, as his ERA jumped to 3.58 in 2015 while working in a setup role. After starting the final year of his deal with the Angels in 2016, he was sent to Chicago and joined the Cubs for the stretch run, earning a ring against his former club.
He signed with Toronto to start the 2017 season, but he was again on the move at the trade deadline, acquired by his former Indians club. He appeared in 21 games in the final two months of the season with a 3.44 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP and he made four hitless, scoreless outings in the ALDS against the Yankees. A free agent again after the season, he signed with the world champion* Houston Astros to bolster their already solid relief corps, earning eleven holds and five wins in 56 relief appearances in 2018 and posting a 1-0 record with four holds, a 1.80 ERA, and a 0.96 WHIP in 28 outings in an injury-shortened 2019.
Other notables to wear #38 in Tribe history (40 in total): Chuck Workman (the first in 1941), Steve Gromek (1941-42), Ray Mack (1944), Thurman Tucker (1948-51), Jose Santiago (1954), Frank Funk (1960-62), Steve Kline (1974), Eddie Perez (2002), Shaun Marcum (2015), Chris Gimenez (2016)
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images
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