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Countdown to Opening Day – 53 days
After two seasons in the Cleveland bullpen, Jeff Manship‘s time as part of the Indians relief staff came to a close when the team opted not to tender him a contract in December in advance of his first exposure to arbitration, making the 32-year-old right-hander a free agent.
The move may have come as a surprise to some, as his overall numbers were average, especially compared to his incredible half-season of work with the club in 2015, but on the surface alone may not have merited being cut loose at a fairly reasonable salary for the coming year. He had been projected to make in the vicinity of $1.2 million through arbitration by the number gurus of MLBTradeRumors.com.
Instead of remaining state side and finding a minor league deal with a Major League club, Manship and his services sailed overseas to Korea, as he signed a $1.8 million one-year contract with the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization.
Manship had some interest among Major League organizations, with several rumored to be considering minor league contracts with spring training invites. But no offers rolled in for Manship to super agent Scott Boras in a crowded and slow-to-develop relief market and he inked a contract that would pay him far more than he had made in any one previous season (he was paid $760,000 in his final pre-arb season with the Indians in 2016).
He signed with Cleveland on a minor league deal prior to the 2015 season and performed well at Triple-A Columbus, leading to a call-up midseason. His traditional numbers were more than sound – he was 1-0 in 32 appearances with a 0.92 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP. Nine of the 33 runners (27%) scored and the effort led to his return to the club’s bullpen for 2016.
Last season, he made his way into 53 games, going 2-1 with a 3.12 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. While the ERA number was still in the ball park of a respectable reliever, an increased number of his pitches had left the ball park for home runs (a total of seven on the season, six more than he had allowed the previous year in four fewer innings). His hit rate jumped more than three and a half hits per nine innings and his walk rate double as he walked a career-high 22 batters despite a personal-best 36 strikeouts in the most innings that he had worked in his eight-year career. Allowing just eight of 35 inherited runners (23%) to score was not sufficient to save his Major League job, as the high hit, homer, and walk rates may have scared some away from otherwise good traditional pitching numbers, statistically speaking.
In wearing the number 53 over the last two seasons, Manship became one of many relievers (and converted starters, no less) to don the digits for the Cleveland Indians. The first player to do so, however, was catcher Jerry Willard, who broke into the bigs in 1984 while wearing it for parts of his 87 games in his debut season. Right-handed reliever Reggie Ritter was next in 1986, wearing it in parts of each of his only two seasons in the Majors, both in the Indians organization. Sammy Stewart also wore it in his only season in Cleveland in 1987 while wrapping up his ten-year MLB career. Pitcher Kevin Wickander wore it over four seasons in Cleveland from 1989 to 1993 and handed it off later to Jeremy Hernandez, who took the mound 49 times in relief in 1993 for the Tribe in his lone season with the club.
Paul Shuey is the longest tenured 53 in club history, debuting less than two years after the club selected him with the second overall pick in the 1992 draft out of the University of North Carolina. He had arguably the most big league success of any of the former Tribesmen in the number, appearing in 361 games and posting a 34-21 record with 21 saves, a 3.60 ERA, and a 1.40 WHIP over nine seasons with the club before his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002.
The number bounced around on the backs of relievers like Carl Sadler, Jeriome Robertson, Jeremy Guthrie, and 20-year vet Arthur Rhodes before it found a more permanent home on the jersey of left-hander Rafael Perez.
“Raffy Left”, part of the bullpen matchup tandem with Rafael Betancourt, wore the number from 2006 to 2012 and become one of the more heavily used arms on the club’s relief staff, appearing in 73 games in 2008, 70 games in 2010, and 71 games in 2011. Early strong strikeout rates did not continue throughout his career, however, as he struggled during his middle and later years in Cleveland with higher hits and walks rates. Being a left-hander with some success at the Major League level earned him several additional opportunities along the way, as he signed free agent deals with Minnesota (2013), Boston (2013), Texas (2014), Pittsburgh (2014), and Seattle (2015), but he never once returned to the Majors and last pitched professionally in 2015, spending time in the Mexican League and in the Dominican Winter League.
Prior to Manship taking on the number, southpaw reliever Rich Hill wore it for Cleveland in 2013 with minimal success before reviving his career elsewhere after converting back to a starting pitcher. Catchers Chris Gimenez and George Kottaras both represented it on the field during the 2014 season. It has no known home as of yet for the 2017 season, but given its tendency to find a home in the bullpen, one of the team’s newer relief candidates may claim it for his own.
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