Can Garner Persevere and Claim a Role in Cleveland’s Bullpen?

Perci Garner was all smiles after he joined the Cleveland Indians roster at the end of August this past season, and who could blame him. The road to the Majors was full of obstacles for the recently turned 28-year-old right-hander from Dover, Ohio.

During high school, he lost his father to lung cancer. His mother was incarcerated. He lived with an aunt and uncle and became a four-year letter winner at Dover High and was named the Eastern Central Ohio Pitcher of the Year during his senior season. But despite the success in baseball, Garner also dabbled in football – earning three letters – and was a two-year letter winner in basketball.

Garner continued his education and his athletic career at Ball State, walking on to the football team as a quarterback after playing the same position for his high school squad. He was a member of the football program for two seasons, redshirted in 2007 before spending 2008 as the third string QB. Baseball became his better outlet and after two seasons back on the mound, he was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies.

The man nicknamed “Perci-verance” in college headed to the Phillies minor league system, where the club tried to make him a starting pitcher. Injuries to his shoulder and oblique slowed him early on and while he was a good ground ball guy, his stuff was not translating into that of an effective starter. In July of 2014, he moved to the bullpen.

He was Rule 5 eligible that offseason, but after ending the year back at the High-A level and with just one Triple-A game under his belt, he went unselected. A deeper Phillies farm system led to him being released at the end of March in 2015.

The Indians made the call and brought him to the organization shortly thereafter. He spent 2015 with High-A Lynchburg, more than three years older than the average age of pitchers in the league. He made 18 appearances, worked a 3-1 record with a 2.93 ERA and 1.27 WHIP with 33 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings, and continued his season in the Arizona Fall League.

He joined the Akron RubberDucks at the start of the 2016 season in his return to the Double-A level. He was used primarily in multi-inning situations, as in 19 of his 23 outings he pitched over parts of at least two innings. His results were encouraging – in 23 games, he went 5-1 with two saves, a 1.94 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP, a .202 batting average against, and he had 47 strikeouts and eleven walks in 51 innings of work with a 69% ground ball percentage. The numbers earned him his second career mid-season All-Star nod, but before the game could come, he received a bigger honor – a promotion to Triple-A Columbus.

His numbers in the Clippers bullpen remained positive as he made 18 appearances from early July until the end of August. He worked a variety of roles, initially pitching primarily as a multi-inning reliever until slotting into more of a closer’s role for much of August. He earned four of his five saves for the Clippers during that month. He pulled in two more wins during his time in Triple-A to go with a 1.63 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP, and a .156 batting average against while increasing his ground ball rate even further to 72%. The good results caught the Indians’ eyes and he got the call on August 31 when his contract was selected by the team and he was added to the 25- and 40-man rosters.

Garner worked in manager Terry Francona’s deep bullpen over the course of the next month. He appeared in eight games, working six times against AL Central opponents, and logged at least one strikeout in each outing. He gave up earned runs in half of the appearances, but had some encouraging outings, including two and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief in his second MLB appearance, when he allowed just one hit and struck out two in a bullpen game on Labor Day against the Houston Astros. He finished the Cleveland portion of his season with nine and one-third innings worked with 12 strikeouts, five walks, a 4.82 ERA, and a 1.82 WHIP in his limited action.

In his three Ohio stops in 2016, he was a combined 7-1 with a 2.15 ERA and a 1.93 WHIP in 88 innings over 49 games in just his second season as a full-time reliever. He allowed just two home runs on the year and struck out 82 batters against 27 walks.

What does the future hold for the right-hander who has overcome so much in both his career and his personal life?

Garner will presumably get his shot at a bullpen spot during spring training, when a slew of candidates aim for the two to three spots available in Francona’s bullpen. Many of the challengers will be familiar faces to Garner and men he has called teammates throughout the last year, including Austin Adams, Cody Anderson, Shawn Armstrong, Mike Clevinger, Joseph Colon, and Kyle Crockett, but new guys like Tim Cooney, Edwin Escobar, and Hoby Milner will all challenge for spots alongside Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, and Zach McAllister in the Major League ‘pen.

With a heavily used sinker and a fastball both sitting in the low- to mid-90s, paired with a breaking ball, Garner is a weapon that Francona could find use for. If Garner cannot crack through to claim one of the relief roles in the Tribe bullpen, a little more seasoning in Columbus would not hurt him, as he has just 19 career Triple-A games to his credit after seven minor league seasons.

If such a thing were to happen to Garner, he could likely take some solace in knowing that the Cleveland organization rotated plenty of arms through its bullpen from Columbus over the course of the season and it likely would not be a matter of if he would return to the Majors, but when.

In the meantime, it would just be one more obstacle on a list of many that Garner has tackled and persevered over in his lifetime.

Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images

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