Clevinger Deserves Permanent Spot in Tribe Rotation

Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Mike Clevinger has minor league options, while fellow starters Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer do not. Bauer and Tomlin are playoff-tested veterans (more so Tomlin), Clevinger is not. Clevinger, though, has an ERA of 3.00 for the season and under 2.00 over his last six starts, while Bauer and Tomlin have not seen ERAs that low since they took the mound for each of their respective first starts of the season.

It is that third sentence that Indians management will hopefully pay closest attention to when it comes time to making some tough decisions in the near future. Danny Salazar made his return to the Major League pitching rotation Saturday, giving the Tribe six healthy starters. Eventually that number is going to have to be pared back down to five. Someone will need to be jettisoned from the rotation. It is also possible, in the next week, the Indians could make a trade-deadline deal for a starting pitcher, meaning someone else will need to be removed from the starting five.

Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco are going nowhere. They are the Indians’ unquestioned top two pitchers and dual aces. The other starter that should remain in tact, whether one or two pitchers need to go from the rotation in the coming weeks, is Clevinger.

While it could be tempting for Cleveland to send the second-year hurler back to Columbus because he has options or because he does not have the multi-year track records of Bauer or Tomlin, he has earned the right to be in the starting five for the rest of the year and probably beyond.

Clevinger, one of the Indians’ top prospects before last season, has made major strides in his sophomore season. As a rookie in 2016, he floated between the rotation and the bullpen. He had some good moments, but was clearly not quite ready for the bright lights of Major League Baseball. The main reason he was on the Tribe’s postseason roster was lack of healthy bodies with Carrasco and Salazar both missing all or most of the playoffs.

The 6-foot-4 pitcher with the flowing blond hair started this season in Triple-A and that was the right move. He needed more seasoning. Naturally, after showing glimpses of promise a year ago, he came into this campaign as Cleveland’s first man to go to should the need arise for another starter.

The need arose early and often. Kluber was out for part of May with a back injury. Carrasco missed some time and Salazar has been out for over a month. Clevinger has earned an extended stay in Cleveland due to starting pitchers coming and going to and from the active roster. Now he has earned an extended stay because of what he, himself, has done.

The 26-year-old currently has a streak of 15 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run. He has not allowed an earned run in either of his last two starts, covering six innings in each outing. The ability to go deep into ball games has been one of the concerns about Clevinger, who had too much of a penchant for walking hitters last year and at the start of this year. He has gone six frames in each of his last four starts, surrendering a total of two earned runs and three tallies in all. That is four straight quality starts or, in this case, gems.

A big thing for Clevinger in this great stretch of play has been cutting back on the walks allowed. In three of the four contests, he has surrendered just two free passes. In total, he has cut down on his walks with 4.5 bases on balls per nine innings compared to 4.9 last year. That number for this year would be lower if not for what appears to be four outliers in his 12 starts in which he walked more than three batters. He is, instead, striking out more hitters this year with 9.96 Ks per nine frames, compared to 8.49 a season ago.

If this were just a four-game stretch of excellence, one may be tempted to call Clevinger a potential fluke. However, he has had very strong outings throughout the season since his early-May call up. Six (or half) of his starts have been quality starts and he was one out away from a seventh. Compare that to Bauer, who has five such outings to his 2017 resume or Tomlin, who has eight. Bauer has started 19 games and Tomlin 18.

This is not to knock Bauer and Tomlin, who have been good end-of-the-rotation starters for the Tribe over the last few years. This is to say Clevinger may have passed them up on the Tribe’s pecking order. For the last month, he has been as reliable as Kluber, a two-time All-Star and Cy Young winner. Clevinger is not exactly in that league right now, but he is certainly trending upward.

The second-year starter is 5-3 with a 2.73 ERA. He is 2-0 in his last four starts and pitched well enough to have two more victories. Last year, as he was up and down from Columbus to Cleveland and in and out of the rotation and bullpen, Clevinger was 3-3 with a 5.26 ERA. Signs were there, though, that he could be a quality big league starter.

It seems Clevinger is starting to blossom into what many hoped or thought he could become. He has the stuff to be a very good starting pitcher for the Indians for years to come. While some may want to call him the future of the Tribe starting rotation, he should definitely be locked in to the present-day starting five.

Provided Salazar is anything close to his former All-Star self or if the Tribe does deal for another starter, there is going to be an odd man or two out. Bauer and Tomlin may not have minor league options, but the team does have options with the pair of starters. They can be moved to the bullpen. There are openings in the back end of it, especially with the recent injury to Boone Logan. It would not hurt the Indians to have a long reliever in the ‘pen. Last year, Clevinger filled that spot. This year, he has graduated to being worthy of the third or fourth starter title.

Clevinger may have options and he may not have as long a list on the back of his baseball card as the other Tribe starters, but he currently is leading all Tribe starters in ERA. That is saying something, considering Kluber is in the Cy Young conversation with a 2.86 ERA that is shrinking by the start. Carrasco’s ERA is 3.62, mostly inflated by a couple of rough outings. Bauer and Tomlin are at 5.58 and 5.74, respectively.

Kluber and Carrasco, the two most consistent and heralded Indians starting pitchers, are untouchable when it comes to taking starters out of the rotation. Clevinger is getting close to making that a group of three, if he has not done so already.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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