In a corresponding move, the Indians designated pitcher A.J. Cole for assignment to create a space on the 40-man roster.
Wittgren joins a long and largely unproven list of options heading to Goodyear, Arizona, this month fighting for a place on the Indians’ 25-man roster as part of the relief staff. The 27-year-old has spent parts of the last three seasons in the Miami bullpen, working in a total of 118 games while going 9-5 with a 3.60 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP.
Last season, he worked in 32 games, going 2-1 with five holds, a 2.94 ERA, and a 1.31 WHIP over 33 2/3 innings. While he cut back on his home run rate, his strikeout rate dropped slightly from the previous year and his walk rate climbed to a career-worst 4.0 per nine innings of work.
His season started impressive, as he allowed just one earned run over his first 15 appearances (0.57 ERA, .161 batting average against), but he allowed five runs over his next three outings at the end of May and made the mistake of attempting to barehand a comebacker off of the bat of San Diego’s Eric Hosmer, which landed him on the disabled list and cost him three weeks of action. He allowed three runs over four appearances after being activated and was optioned back to Triple-A New Orleans, where he struggled in 25 outings with an 0-5 record, a 5.22 ERA, and a 1.43 WHIP despite a healthy 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings rate.
Despite his minor league performance, Wittgren was recalled by Miami in September and ended the season on a positive note, allowing just two more runs in his final ten games (11 1/3 innings) while averaging just under a strikeout an inning and cutting back on his earlier command issues.
He appeared in a career-high 48 games in his rookie season of 2016, posting a 3.14 ERA and career bests with a 1.16 WHIP and six holds. He has saved 83 games in the minors over seven seasons.
Wittgren was a ninth round pick by the Marlins in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University. The trade reunites him with his former college teammate, catcher Kevin Plawecki, who the Indians similarly acquired via trade this offseason from the New York Mets.
Wittgren will enter into a bullpen mix with many of the roles up for grabs. Cleveland will bring All-Star closer Brad Hand back along with fellow southpaws Tyler Olson and Oliver Perez. From the right side, Adam Cimber, Jon Edwards, Nick Goody, Chih-Wei Hu, Dan Otero, Neil Ramirez, Jefry Rodriguez, and Ben Taylor are on the club’s 40-man roster, with Cody Anderson and Danny Salazar both potentially in the mix for relief roles. The Indians also have Justin Grimm, James Hoyt, and Brooks Pounders coming to camp as non-roster invitees with Major League experience.
Milbrath, 27, was a starter in the Indians farm system in 2014 and 2015 while pitching at Class-A Lake County, but he was converted into a multi-inning reliever in 2016 and had pitched in that capacity ever since. A 35th round pick in the 2013 draft out of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Milbrath had spent six seasons in the Indians farm system, but had just nine appearances at the Triple-A level during his pro career. Those outings, which all came last season with Columbus, resulted in a 1-2 record with a 5.93 ERA and a 2.12 WHIP as he gave up a lot of contact and a lot of free passes. He also appeared in 34 games for the Double-A Akron RubberDucks, going 2-4 with one save, a 3.42 ERA, and a 1.26 WHIP with better numbers overall.
Milbrath was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, but was returned to the Indians ahead of the 2018 minor league schedule. Despite a new sidearm delivery, he performed poorly in the Pirates camp, posting an 8.64 ERA over eight and one-third innings with eight walks allowed that spring.
Cole, who was acquired by the Indians via waiver claim from the New York Yankees on January 11, could remain with the Indians organization pending what happens over the next week. Cleveland has seven days to trade the 27-year-old or place him on irrevocable waivers. If he passes through unclaimed, the team could outright him to the minors or give him his release.
Cole has pitched in each of the last four seasons, posting a career mark of 8-9 with a 5.05 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP in 54 games (19 starts) for the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees. A former fourth round pick, he was also a member of the Oakland Athletics organization during the 2012 season.
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