Plutko Taking Advantage of Opportunity

Adam Plutko has been granted a big opportunity that few people may have thought existed as recently as February.

The Cleveland Indians were thought to have a deep and talented rotation, with seven starters having a firm hold as big league caliber or better talents. The part about talented still hold very true for Tribe’s staff of starters. However, depth has become an issue of late.

Cleveland still has two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber heading what is still one of the game’s best rotations. Right behind him is 2017 Cy Young candidate Carlos Carrasco, an emerging All-Star candidate in Trevor Bauer, and improving Mike Clevinger. That foursome has pretty much been as advertised during the season’s first two months. What has plagued the Indians, in regards to the starting five, has been trying to find consistent and quality results out of a fifth starter. That is where many would never have expected the team to have an issue.

As spring training was getting underway, one big question for the club was how manager Terry Francona would break the news to a starter or two that they were either pitching in the bullpen or Triple-A Columbus. Then injuries started to wipe out the depth.

At the start of spring training, it was revealed that 2016 All-Star Danny Salazar had injured his right shoulder during off-season workouts. He has yet to begin a throwing program, much less a rehab stint at this point. He is a long way from returning. He is even longer from returning to the rotation, a spot from which he was falling from by the end of last season.

That left the young Ryan Merritt and the veteran Josh Tomlin seemingly left to battle for the final spot in Cleveland’s rotation. Merritt, who has pitched well in limited Major League appearances the last two years, experienced low velocity near the end of camp. He opened the season on the 10-day disabled list with a sore knee. He made a rehab start on May 4 and has since been transferred to the 60-day DL with a bad left shoulder.

With Salazar and Merritt both down and out before the end of camp, Tomlin was awarded the fifth spot in the rotation. Never considered a great pitcher, but usually reliable, Tomlin has really struggled this season. In nine games (six starts), Tomlin is 0-4 with a 7.64 ERA. Even in his worst season, Tomlin could keep his ERA below 5.00 and be a useful number five starter. That has not been the case this season and the Indians have moved him to the bullpen. It could be temporary, while he attempts to get his confidence back, as the team has done this before with other pitchers, including Carrasco and Bauer. Of course, if Plutko has anything to say about it, Tomlin could be in the ‘pen for a while.

With three of its seven-deep rotation injured or struggling, Cleveland all of a sudden had an unforeseen opening in its starting five. Enter Plutko. The 26-year-old was off to a fine start in Columbus after opening some eyes with a solid spring. He was 4-3 in seven start, but had a 2.25 ERA at the Triple-A level. After the two spring training injures, Plutko became Cleveland’s number six guy. He became call number one to Columbus should the team need to promote an arm from the minors.

That first call came on May 4 when the Tribe needed a spot starter for a doubleheader against the Blue Jays. It was not Plutko’s MLB debut, as he had pitched two games in relief in a September call-up in 2016. He had a grand total of three and two-thirds innings to his name at that point. He did not pitch for the Indians last season, despite being called up throughout the year. Plutko impressed in that first start against a solid Toronto batting order. He surrendered just three earned runs in seven and one-third frames. He struck out ten and walked four, looking more like a veteran than a hurler starting for the first time on a big league mound.

He was back in the minors the next day, but his start allowed the leash on the struggling Tomlin to become much shorter. As Tomlin continued to cough up runs, the Indians decided it was time to give Plutko another opportunity. This time it was against the Cubs, a club with a World-Series-caliber roster. This past Wednesday, Plutko shut the northside of Chicago ball club down, and did so in impressive fashion. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. In all, he tossed six-plus frames, allowing just two hits, walking four, and fanning four. So far, free passes have been his only real issue as he has struggled with control, but only at times. It may very well be nerves, as he only issued 2.6 bases on balls per nine stanzas in Columbus. He should get over that in due time – he even seemed to indicate that his early command issues in the start may have been linked to his concerns about stepping to the plate at the big league level (he did not walk another batter after his well-placed bunt in his first Major League plate appearance helped manufacture the game’s only run).

So, the tally for Plutko is two MLB starts, two wins, two quality starts, a 2.03 ERA, a 0.90 WHIP, and a bevvy of impressed bosses and teammates. He has likely earned an extended stay in the big leagues with his first two career MLB starts.

Cleveland’s 2013 eleventh round draft pick out of UCLA, Plutko could help to make the rotation whole again over the next four months of the season. Rather than worry over having to overuse a beleaguered bullpen every fifth game, the Tribe may finally be back in a spot in which the starting five can all be trusted.

Plutko could also help to restore some of the depth that the rotation once had. He has flip-flopped with Tomlin, essentially. Tomlin, who can still be a solid veteran arm, is as good an emergency or fill-in starter as you will find. He now is not being overused and overexposed and will get an opportunity to figure out his current flaws.

Eventually, Salazar and Merritt will return and Cleveland’s deep thinkers will have decisions to make. That may be in a couple months or it may not be until next season. If the first two months of this campaign have taught the Tribe anything, there is plenty of room in the bullpen. It would be a good place for a guy like Salazar or Merritt to go and work themselves back into starting pitching shape and conditioning. Meanwhile, Plutko will be getting his chance to prove himself.

The Tribe rookie will have plenty off uninterrupted opportunities to try and shine on baseball’s brightest stage over the next couple months. He has an opportunity to work himself into the Tribe’s long-term rotation plans, just as Clevinger did over the past couple of summers. So far, Plutko has taken full advantage of an opportunity few thought would exist just several months ago. If he can continue to do so, it will be a huge boost for himself and an Indians team that needs all of the starting pitching it can get right now.

Photo: Jon Durr/Getty Images

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