Major League Baseball will kick off the 2019 season with its earliest start ever (excluding international openers) as all 30 teams will take the field on March 28. Follow along with Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down the days until Opening Day 2019. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 45 days
When it comes to starting pitching depth, the Cleveland Indians have had plenty in recent years, with a rotation jam packed with talented arms. That has proven to be a tough situation for Adam Plutko, the current wearer of the number 45 in Cleveland, to crack through.
The 27-year-old right-hander and eleventh round pick in the 2013 draft out of UCLA got his first extended look in 2018 when the starting staff was dealing with injuries throughout the year. Having proven himself at the minor league level and after putting up good numbers in his third stint at Triple-A Columbus, Plutko got a chance to join his former college teammate, Trevor Bauer, as one of the many starters used by the club a year ago.
Now, Plutko’s spot with the Indians is no certainty. With the All-Star Bauer, two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, Cy candidate Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger all holding firm grasps on spots, it leaves just one spot in the rotation for grabs. By most accounts, last season’s rookie right-handed breakout arm Shane Bieber has the leg up over Plutko. And this does not include Danny Salazar and Cody Anderson, two former capable starters looking to return to the diamond after missing all of their 2018 seasons with injuries.
Plutko has had to overcome a few hurdles throughout his playing days. His draft stock actually dropped despite a successful stint in college with the Bruins, as his strikeout rate dipped and he dealt with a stress fracture in his shoulder. He was a sixth round pick out of high school by the Houston Astros in 2010, but he headed off to UCLA before being drafted by the Indians five rounds later than he originally was, three years later.
He performed well in his first two years in the organization, hitting High-A during his debut year in 2014 (after resting the shoulder following the draft) and putting together a 13-7 showing in 2015 with a 3.29 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP with Lynchburg and Double-A Akron the following year. He made 28 starts on the farm between Akron and Triple-A Columbus in 2016, showing good overall numbers, and he was added to the Indians’ roster late in September that season, making his big league debut in a pair of relief appearances.
The 2017 campaign provided him with some difficult times. He struggled with a 7-12 record at Columbus, posting a career-worst 5.90 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP as his strikeout rate dropped, his walk rate increased, and the opposition made plenty of contact against him (10.1 hits per nine innings). The ball also found its way over the fence far more frequently, as he allowed as many homers that season as he did in his first two seasons of pro ball. He did not appear in a game for the Tribe that season, despite being called up on three separate occasions over the course of the year.
Last season, Plutko racked up the mileage, but the constant travel did not affect his minor league numbers. After not making the team out of camp, he was sent to Columbus, earning three different wins in impressive fashion in the first month of the season. He fired seven one-hit innings on April 12, six three-hit innings on April 18, and he left his April 28 start after seven and two-third perfect innings. He got promoted to Cleveland for a doubleheader against Toronto in early May, the first of six different call-ups that he had over the course of the year.
He rode the I-71 shuttle frequently, continuing to pitch well in Columbus along the way. He threw a no-hitter on June 2 in Syracuse against the Chiefs, allowing one walk while striking out eight for one of two no-nos tossed by the Clippers on the year (joined by Bieber). He was promoted to Cleveland again one start later and spent the rest of June with the club before bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors until August 18, when he slid into the starting rotation for the Indians to replace the injured Bauer.
He ended the season with a 4-5 mark for Cleveland with a 5.28 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP in 12 starts and five relief appearances. He was 7-3 for Columbus with a 1.70 ERA and a 0.74 WHIP in 14 starts.
Between his two stops in 2018, Plutko was much more effective as a starter, holding opposing hitters to a .204/.253/.386 slash. In his five relief appearances, those numbers plumped to .306/.359/.639. He was able to shut down right-handed hitters better, limiting them to a .183/.227/.338 line with 90 strikeouts in 330 plate appearances, while left-handed hitters batted .239/.294/.470 with 51 strikeouts in 311 plate appearances. The left-handed hitters did bigger damage with increased rates of extra base hits off of him. For the bulk of the year, he posted monthly ERAs in the low threes, with exception of a rough September.
Plutko is not a big strikeout guy, striking out 7.6 per nine innings throughout his professional career, but he has made up for that by limiting walks (2.3 BB/9) and homers (1.0 HR/9). The command and the ability to keep the ball from going over the fence have both alluded him during his time in the Majors, which will be something Plutko needs to address moving forward if he is to have success with the Tribe moving forward. The fly ball has always been part of his game, but it has not haunted him the way that it did in the Majors. He brings a low 90’s fastball, a curve, a slider, and a change to the mound, and has at several points throughout his minor league development been compared to a younger Josh Tomlin.
For now, Plutko’s destination for 2019 appears to be Columbus, where he will wait to be the first call-up for the club in the event of rain, snow, or injury. It will mark his fourth season of action at Triple-A, but it would better serve the organization to keep him stashed away as a stretched-out starter than to cram him into the bullpen mix where his stuff is not best suited. While the starting depth has been a strength for the Indians in recent years, there is not as much at the top of the farm system now with guys like Ryan Merritt, Shawn Morimando, Julian Merryweather, and Justus Sheffield all gone from the organization. After Plutko, that depth falls off to top 100 prospect Triston McKenzie, who has made just 16 starts at the Double-A level. Plutko will be needed for that eventual rainy day or, in the worst case scenario, the injury that strikes the staff, and the Indians will hope that he is ready to go again when that time comes.
Plutko pushed the total number of Indians to wear 45 on the field to 24 all-time. No one player has done so for the length of time and success that former Tribe left-hander Paul Assenmacher has.
Assenmacher was a well-established reliever by the time his career brought him to Cleveland. He had taken the mound 575 times (just once as a starter in 1990) during stops with the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, and Chicago White Sox. He had proven himself to be a quality reliever during that span, posting a 42-34 record, saving 48 games, and earning a 3.44 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP.
Prior to the strike in 1994, Assenmacher was helping anchor the White Sox bullpen on the south side of the Windy City and was sitting in first place, but the Indians were hard charging in what would have been an exciting pennant run for the two clubs down the stretch, had history not intervened. Despite working with the enemy, Assenmacher joined the young Tribe club as yet another veteran brought on board with the task of helping to stabilize the relief corps. He signed a one-year deal in Cleveland for $700,000, after making $2.58 million the season before.
“Assenmacher is a proven late-inning left-handed pitcher,” general manager John Hart said at the time of the signing in a quote in The Plain Dealer. “It’s what [Mike Hargrove] and the staff wanted. He has a consistent history of getting left-handed hitters out late in the game.”
He was the fourth big signing in a short stretch for the Tribe. Orel Hershiser and Bud Black were added to the rotation and outfielder/designated hitter Dave Winfield returned to town during the club’s $3.1 million shopping spree.
Assenmacher had a fairly good idea of what he was doing when he signed with Cleveland.
“We knew the Indians were a team to reckon with,” he shared from spring training the day before the exhibition opener from Winter Haven in 1995. “You could see that they had developed the attitude that they could win. Those two series we had [in 1994], there was just so much electricity.”
When baseball returned from its 234-day strike, Assenmacher was entrenched in the bullpen mix that included Dennis Cook (his teammate the previous year in Chicago), Alan Embree, Jose Mesa, Eric Plunk, Jim Poole, Paul Shuey, and Julian Tavarez. He provided balance to a hard-throwing staff and gave the team a much needed lefty specialist, serving a similar role as Poole.
“We had an unbelievable closer that year in Jose Mesa,” Assenmacher recalled in an interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night in 2015. “Julian Tavarez, nobody knew much about Julian coming into it. He had a great sinker going that year and was dynamite. Eric Plunk, too, he had some great seasons in Cleveland.”
Assenmacher would become part of one of the more formidable bullpens in baseball that year, often an afterthought on a mashing ball club that bulldozed through the strike-shortened 144-game schedule with a 100-44 record and brought playoff baseball back to Cleveland for the first time since 1954.
“We had a great view from the outfield of watching our guys beat up on the other teams,” he shared later. “We just had to keep the game close and we’d have a good chance to win.”
He would go 6-2 with a 2.82 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP for the Indians in 47 appearances in 1995, but some of his best work was reserved for the postseason that year, specifically Game 5 of the American League Championship Series in Cleveland against the Seattle Mariners. With the series tied at two games apiece, the Indians had just claimed a 3-2 lead on a two-run home run by Jim Thome in the bottom of the sixth. Tavarez had to try to work out of trouble after his defense lapsed behind him, allowing Dan Wilson to reach on an error at first and another error by Paul Sorrento put two on for Edgar Martinez, who grounded into a fielder’s choice force at second. Hargrove went to his bullpen and called on Assenmacher to face the always-dangerous Ken Griffey Jr. with the tying and go-ahead runs on the corners, the heart of the order waiting on deck and in the hole, and only one out in the inning.
Assenmacher struck out Griffey on four pitches. The right-handed power-hitting Jay Buhner came up next, and he met the same fate, K’d on five pitches from the Tribe’s sneaky southpaw. Assenmacher returned to start the eighth and got lefty Tino Martinez to pop to short to start the inning before handing the ball over to Plunk. The Indians would go on to win, 3-2, and claimed the series two days later in Seattle to make a triumphant return to the World Series.
“They had Tino Martinez, another lefty, on deck. I could see the situation where he might want to take me out, but geez, I just struck out Ken Griffey,” said Assenmacher with a laugh during his chat with DTTWLN. “Grover must have said, ‘Hey, Paul is on a roll tonight!’ So he left me in and I happened to throw some good pitches to Buhner and struck him out. I faced Tino the next inning and then he brought in Plunky. “
While things did not go as planned as the Indians were eliminated in six games by the Atlanta Braves in the Fall Classic, Assenmacher remained in the Tribe’s plans for the future. He was signed shortly after the season to a new two-year deal with a club option for the 1998 season.
“You look at the free-agent market, and besides Norm Charlton, there’s no one out there close to Paul Assenmacher as far as left-handed set-up men go,” Hart said of the return of the lefty in the November 3, 1995, edition of The Plain Dealer. “He pitched big for us, and we did not want him to get out on the free-agent market.”
Assenmacher would spend his final five Major League seasons in Cleveland and would see plenty of success as the team won five straight American League Central Division titles and made two trips to the World Series. Assenmacher pitched in 309 games during his time with the Tribe and hung up the cleats for good at the age of 38. He spent more time on the diamond in an Indians uniform than any other stop during his 14-year big league career.
“I would say that this is the spot where I had my most enjoyable years,” Assenmacher recalled to DTTWLN. “Going to the ballpark every day when it is sold out…you really don’t appreciate that until you’re out of the game. Now I look back and realize how special of a time it really was. My Cleveland memories are the most memorable ones.”
Those Cleveland memories included his first postseason action since a pair of relief appearances for the Chicago Cubs in the 1989 National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants. He made 34 playoff appearances while with Cleveland, earning a pair of wins over 19 1/3 innings of work. His time included four games of work in that 1995 World Series and another five appearances during the 1997 Fall Classic. While there were plenty of good times and good things to reflect back on, Assenmacher still wonders what could have been from the squad with the longest sustained success in franchise history.
“It’s tough. In any sport, when you get that close, you never know if you’re going to get another opportunity,” said Assenmacher to DTTWLN. “I’ve lived down in Atlanta and they have had so many opportunities and only won it once – unfortunately against us in ’95. You wish the outcome would have been different for us and mostly for the fans, but we gave the fans a good run.”
Assenmacher, a Detroit native, returned to the site of the start of his baseball career – Atlanta – after his playing days and remained involved with the game of baseball, working for a stretch as a pitching coach for St. Pius X Catholic High School in Dekalb County, Georgia. He has also focused his time on being a husband and father and getting out to the golf course, when time permits.
Other notable players to wear #45 in Indians’ history: Red Howell (the first in 1941), Brad Komminsk (1989), Jeff Manto (1990-91), Jerry Dipoto (1993-94), Justin Speier (2000-01), Terry Mulholland (2002-03), Josh Phelps (2004), Jeremy Sowers (2006-09), Adam Moore (2015-16)
Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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