When the Cleveland Indians dealt left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski at the trade deadline last season, it was a bit of a curious move. “Scrabble” had been the team’s lone southpaw for the majority of the season and while the season was in dire straits, it also was not over at the time. It forced the promotion of Kyle Crockett from Columbus after a tough start to his 2015, and later led to Giovanni Soto getting a chance to make his Major League debut.
With a huge question mark in the bullpen for 2016, the Indians actively addressed that, but not with a big ticket, multi-year, multi-million dollar free agent pursuit of guys like Tony Sipp, Antonio Bastardo, or Oliver Perez. Instead, the club went the route of minor league additions with spring training invitations, bringing in veteran MLBers Joe Thatcher, Tom Gorzelanny, and Ross Detwiler to compete for the job.
So can Thatcher win one of potentially two spots in manager Terry Francona’s bullpen?
Francona is well known for his bullpen use, especially during his time in Cleveland, and having an additional lefty gives him more opportunities to match up late in games. While there is no guarantee two southpaw arms head to Cleveland at the start of the season, it would seem to be in the cards if possible for the club. The returning bullpen options from the right side are established and would be considered the strength of that part of the staff.
Thatcher, who turned 34 after the season, is the eldest of the five candidates heading to camp, but has less time spent at the big league level than Gorzelanny. That said, he has appeared in nearly 100 more games than his next highest camp competitor and, unlike both offseason signings, he has spent his entire career as a reliever. On top of that, he has put up LOOGY-type numbers, only once pitching more innings than games appeared in (2008 – 25 2/3 innings pitched in 25 outings with San Diego).
In terms of his production last season, Thatcher was with Houston for spring training in a similar situation as now – in camp on a minor league deal. He made the club and was pitching well to an extent – striking out more than ten batters per nine innings – while struggling with an elevated walk rate. In late July, he was designated for assignment and elected free agency, but wound up re-signing with the Astros just over a week later and reported to Triple-A Fresno.
When the rosters expanded, he returned to Houston and worked in seven games, giving up two hits and a walk in three and two-thirds innings. He did not see the field during the Astros’ playoff action.
He finished the year with a 1-3 record, 3.18 ERA, and 1.54 WHIP, striking out 26 and walking 12 in 22 2/3 innings. In just eleven of 52 outings did he pitch an inning or more in relief.
Thatcher walked a career-high number of lefties over the course of his year, leading to some of the elevation in his ERA and WHIP numbers. His previous high water walk total was in 2013 when he walked nine of 97 lefties, which was then followed by just one free pass to them in 83 plate appearances in 2014. He allowed ten in 64 plate appearances in 2015.
In each of the last three seasons, lefties have been more effective at getting on base against Thatcher. After four straight years limiting them to a batting average below .200 for the season, he gave up a .245 mark in 2015, following efforts of .289 in 2014 and .250 in 2013. Last season, right-handers hit nearly 50 points better than his previous career average against them.
He had seen more work during previous seasons, pitching in 53 games for Arizona and the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, 72 games for San Diego and Arizona the year before, and 55 for the Padres in 2012. His best season was in 2010, his fourth for the Padres, when he was 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 0.86 WHIP in 65 appearances.
Thatcher has stood tall in the face of adversity before, going through this similar trial last spring. His path to a job in the professional game has always been the less conventional approach, as he was undrafted after college and played in the Frontier League, where he was ultimately discovered and signed by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2005.
If he can pitch in the Cactus League the way that he did in the Grapefruit League for the Astros early last year, he may just put himself in a good position to find a roster spot in the Cleveland bullpen and get a chance to earn his $1 million incentive-laden contract with the Indians.
Photo: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan