Francona Facing Tough Pitching Decisions as Team Wraps Up Regular Season

Those big league managers make the big bucks for a reason.

Cleveland’s Terry Francona has an important week ahead of him, even if the club has nearly locked up home field advantage on the American League side of the playoff bracket. While the team continues to win on the field, victors of 29 of its last 31 contests, the roster is no certainty for the veteran skipper, who is going to have some difficult decisions to make with his coaching staff before the start of postseason play next week.

Some of those quandaries have been addressed, as the club has opted to send right-handed starter Mike Clevinger into the bullpen to use as a weapon there against opposing clubs. The team only needs so many starters for the American League Division Series, and when considering which arm might be more useful in the bullpen, Clevinger’s hard-throwing right arm may have been an easier option to consider in a relief role than the softer tossing appendage of Josh Tomlin.

“I’m ready for the task,” shared Clevinger with the media prior on Saturday. “I’ve been there before, so it’s not going to be too much of an adjustment, just to get the routine down pat, shorten it up, shorten up the weighted ball stuff, stuff like that.”

Francona put things in a positive light, telling reporters that he had not been “banished to the bullpen”, but instead had “been sent there to help [them] win, and he understands why.”

Clevinger was 11-5 for the Tribe with a 3.13 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP after joining the staff on a semi-permanent basis back in May. While his stay was thought to be temporary at the time (and was caused by Corey Kluber missing a month of action), steady opportunities for him became available with injuries to Tomlin and Danny Salazar over the course of the next few months. He could give the Indians depth to pick up the slack of a short start or be a valuable matchup right-hander. He has held same-side hitters to a .174 average this season with 84 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings. He has allowed five runs in four innings this season (11.25 ERA) in three relief appearances, but had more work last season in the role, going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in seven appearances.

The unfortunate side of the decision to relocate Clevinger to a relief role is that it will force someone out of that bullpen who has been in the mix all season long and likely earned a job on the staff. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Joe Smith are locks from the right side of the staff. Andrew Miller is too from the left, as long as he is healthy (something the team needs to ensure over the course of its final six games as the All-Star essentially works through a rehab assignment against Major League competition). Presuming four starters in the rotation, as is the current plan for the first round, that leaves three or four spots available, depending on if the club goes with an eight-man staff in the ALDS as it did a season ago. In 2016, the club went with just three starting pitchers, which made the bigger bullpen easier to choose with few starting options available after injuries decimated the staff.

Right-handers Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, and Nick Goody and left-hander Tyler Olson have all pitched well enough or have the experience to deserve roles in the ‘pen, but one of them will draw the short straw. Two could get denied, if Clevinger is already penned in as one of those arms.

And that mess does not include Salazar, who remains in a sort of pitching limbo. He has the stuff to contribute in the postseason and did briefly in the World Series last year in a relief role after injuries derailed the second half of his season, but inconsistent results this year make it tough to know what, if anything, he can contribute come October.

This year has been a similar story for Salazar, as injuries shelved him several times and ineffectiveness cost him a regular spot in the rotation. Now, he is back in the rotation, but is it to keep him lengthened out as a starter in the event of something horrible (for example, like last season’s drone mishap), or is he just helping eat up some innings to spare arms who will see usage next month while Francona determines whether he has any value as another hard-throwing right-hander out of the bullpen?

As it stands, Salazar has made 22 appearances on the season, with a start scheduled for Wednesday night. He has made 18 starts and four relief appearances, posting a 4.48 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP on the year. He had a 4.66 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP in his starts with 129 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings (12.5 K/9). In five and two-thirds innings in relief, he posted a 1.59 ERA and 1.06 WHIP with seven strikeouts (11.1 K/9) in the small sample size. With the exception of his brief time in the bullpen last Fall Classic, Salazar had not worked in relief at the Major League level until this season.

Having too many available pitchers is a far better dilemma than the one faced by the club last postseason. The Tribe had so many available that they sent left-hander Shawn Morimando home (complete with pay and service time) because Francona simply did not have enough innings to go around. Adam Plutko was not brought back up to the club either after temporarily joining the roster at the beginning of September (before being optioned to High-A Lynchburg a few days later), and Shawn Armstrong, Craig Breslow, Kyle Crockett, and Ryan Merritt have not caught much game time either in the final stretch of the campaign.

Positional battles are also very much at stake, with third base and the outfield being the primary focal points, with overflow from both spots likely making up the bulk of the team’s bench for the playoffs.

The Indians resume their pursuit of the top record in both the American League and all of Major League Baseball on Tuesday night as they host the AL Wild Card contending Minnesota Twins for the first of three games. Cleveland (98-58) entered the day Monday leading the junior circuit by two and a half games over Houston (95-60). The Indians trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers (99-57) by one game for the best record in baseball.

Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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