The Cleveland Indians will conduct their first full-squad workout today ahead of Major League Baseball kicking off the 2019 season. All 30 teams will take the field on March 28 with the league’s earliest start ever (excluding international openers). Follow along with Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down the days until Opening Day 2019. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 38 days
The Indians seemed to be showing some faith in the catching depth in the organization since last July, trading away top prospect Francisco Mejia to the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline and All-Star backstop Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals in November. The moves took the position from an area to strength to a sudden area of concern, as light-hitting defensive specialist Roberto Perez and #38 Eric Haase became the only two catchers on the 40-man roster.
Haase, 26 and a 2011 seventh round pick, spent the majority of his eighth season in the organization at Triple-A Columbus last season, his first full season with the Clippers (he played the final two games of the 2017 season there as well). One of the club’s big movers in the last couple of years, thanks in large part to the systematic emphasis on launch angle to help revolutionize the long ball in its most prolific increase since the steroid era, Haase has to feel good about where he stands in the front office’s eyes if they were willing to move the present and the future of the position to bring in All-Star closer Brad Hand and to free up money over the course of the next few years.
While Haase has additional competition now in the Indians’ Goodyear spring training camp in trade acquisition Kevin Plawecki and free agent non-roster camp invitees Dioner Navarro and Tim Federowicz behind the presumed starter Perez, Haase’s youth and his potential will both play into his favor. Even if he is unable to beat out the veterans heading to Goodyear for the first time with the Tribe, he will be waiting in Columbus as the next man up and top available player in the organization at the position.
Haase has shown some home run and extra base potential over the course of his pro career, but his numbers took a jump in recent years. He hit 23 doubles and 14 homers in 104 games in 2013 at Lake County, 20 doubles and 17 homers in 93 total games between Lake County and Carolina in 2014, and 26 doubles and nine homers in 90 games for Lynchburg in 2015. He was limited to just 63 games with Akron in 2016, getting 14 two-base hits and 12 round-trippers, but his numbers spiked on the farm in 2017, when he hit 17 doubles and 27 homers while driving in a career-high 61 runs and hitting .260 between Akron and Columbus.
Last season, he played in a career-high 120 games for the Clippers, putting up a .236/.288/.443 slash with 24 doubles, 20 homers, and 71 RBI, exceeding his previous year’s run contribution by ten. He got off to a slow start in the power department, which had a lot to do with his reduced homer total from the season before. He hit just one homer in 20 April games despite hitting .293, and knocked in nearly half of his runs for the month in a three-hit, three-RBI game on April 20. He struggled throughout May, slashing just .150/.181/.290 in 27 games in the month with three doubles, three homers, and ten RBI. In June’s 21-game effort, he added three more homers and 13 RBI while hitting .250. He ended the month with his third three-hit game of the season, hitting a double and two homers while driving in six on June 30.
His season picked up late, as he went on a tear over the final two months of the minor league slate. He put up season highs across the board in nearly every category in July, slashing .293/.330/.606 in 26 games with ten doubles, seven homers, and 30 RBI. That single month of stats matched on the dot his season total entering the month for doubles, homers, and RBI. During a seven-game stretch from July 6 to 15, he went 11-for-28 (.393) with three doubles, five homers, and 17 RBI, and he won back-to-back International League Player of the Week awards. In the middle of the stretch, he also homered in the Triple-A All-Star Game.
His average fell off again in August, but the power stroke remained as he hit four doubles, six homers, and eleven RBI in 26 games while batting .209.
With the minor league schedule ending, the Indians selected Haase’s contract from Columbus, bringing the number 24 prospect in the organization to the big leagues. He made nine appearances for the Indians in the final month of the season and got a pair of starts. He struck out in his first big league at bat on September 2 against Tampa Bay. In his fourth game, he recorded his first hit and first RBI in a 6-4 loss to Detroit, and a week later he notched his last hit of the year against Boston. He finished his debut season 2-for-16 (.125) at the plate with two singles, one hit by pitch, and six strikeouts.
A good spring from Haase could certainly put some pressure on the Indians organization to find a way to keep him on the roster. The bulk of the candidates in tow provide little offensive value, and for some of them, even their defensive work needs some work. Perez is expected to be the lead catcher on the club and Plawecki is presumed to be the backup, but his game in recent years has hardly guaranteed him a spot. Federowicz is a light hitter and has not thrown out a runner stealing since 2014, and Navarro has not played in the pros in the last two years after stepping away in 2017 due to a family medical emergency.
Haase has a chance to be part of the future behind the plate for the Tribe, but he will just need to take advantage of the opportunities when they are given. With the 30-year-old Perez under team control through at least the 2020 season (with $5.5M and $7M team options the two years after that), Haase has some time on his side to prove his worth at the MLB level. It will be a matter of if his chance will come at the start of the season, or later on down the road in the wake of an injury or other moves.
Haase became the 40th player to wear the number 38 for the Indians when he did so late last season. Prior to his September call-up, the last player to wear the number of 38 did so just one year prior, when reliever Joe Smith returned to Cleveland at the trade deadline in 2017 to add depth to the bullpen.
Plenty of big names in franchise history have spent a spell in the number for the Tribe, including a pair of Hall of Famers – Bob Lemon (1941) and Early Wynn (1963) – and another legend in club history in Rocky Colavito (1955-57).
None of the players to don it since Wynn are Cooperstown bound, but that does not mean that they have not made some important contributions in Tribe history. The best have come from a pair of relievers – the aforementioned Smith, and 1990s right-hander Eric Plunk.
Plunk took over the number in Cleveland in 1992, following three other pitchers who had worn it the previous years – Keith Atherton, Cecilio Guante, and Shawn Hillegas. He was fresh off of a two and a half year stay in the Big Apple with the New York Yankees, where he had worked primarily in relief, but had made 15 starts for the Bronx Bombers. He had a camp invite with the Toronto Blue Jays prior to joining the Indians, but was a roster casualty at the end of Spring Training. He had started his big league career with three and a half years out in Oakland.
Plunk saw good things happening in Cleveland when he elected to head to the shores of Lake Erie.
“Their potential (made me sign there),” shared Plunk in a 2014 interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “I knew what kind of team that they were. We had a huge, great core of talent.”
After seeing part-time work in the starting rotation in four of his first six seasons at the MLB level, Plunk would work exclusively in the Indians bullpen and became a workhorse for the club. The Tribe pulled themselves out of the depths of the AL East in 1992, finishing fourth, but put together a similar finish that resulted in a sixth place position at the end of the 1993 season. Plunk earned nine wins in relief during his first season in town and posted a 2.79 ERA with 15 saves in a career-high 70 appearances for Mike Hargrove’s club in 1993.
Everything would change in Cleveland in 1994, as the Indians were inching closer to challenging in the new AL Central and in the new Jacobs Field before the strike ended their charge. Plunk with 7-2 with three saves and a 2.54 ERA in 41 games as one of the primary options on Hargrove’s staff. The following season, he went 6-2 with a 2.67 ERA in 56 games for the Indians as Plunk made his return to the World Series (following his 1988 trip with the A’s in their loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers).
“I really thought we were going to go to the World Series every year,” said Plunk of the Indians teams that he was a part of. “It’s as good as any bullpen I’ve ever been a part of. Depth wise, it was probably better than any bullpen I’ve ever seen.”
Plunk would be part of two different World Series teams in Cleveland, but the results were the same as the Indians came up on the short end of the championship series each time.
“When I was in Oakland, we won 104 games and lost to the Dodgers. Basically, they upset us. We were, on paper, a lot better team than they were,” said Plunk. “During the ’95 season, we knew we were up against the Braves and they had a tough pitching staff. We knew it was going to be tough. The other two times I was in the Series, I thought we would win. We never did, though.
“The 1997 season was a great team. I really thought we were going to win it that time. It’s still pretty vivid. That was a fantastic Series, though. It goes down to the 11th inning of Game Seven…how many Series actually do that? It was anybody’s ballgame and it’s still a tough one to swallow.”
Plunk hovered in the mid-50s for appearances in each season from 1995 through 1997, posting strong ERAs in the mid-2s in the first two of those years before his numbers plumped to 4.66 in 1997. He made 37 trips to the mound in 1998, but with a 3-1 record and a 4.83 ERA, he was sent to Milwaukee for former Tribe closer Doug Jones.
“I was having a rough year,” said Plunk of his 1998 trade. “My father passed away that year and there were a lot of personal things that were going on. In a lot of ways, sometimes a change like that is good. Make no mistake about it though, it was tough to leave. I had been traded a few times before, but being traded from the Indians was a lot tougher. I had a lot of friends and we had built a home here.”
He made 26 relief appearances for the Brewers that year and another 68 the following season, but was done after 1999 with 14 years of big league service under his belt.
It would be another eleven years before the number would return to the mound with regularity, with outfielders Ryan Ludwick and Franklin Gutierrez occupying it for much of the first decade of the 21st century. This time, it would Smith, a heavily-utilized, side-winding, ground ball specialist who came to town as part of a three-way trade in December of 2008 with the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners. Gutierrez landed in Seattle in the massive 12-player swap, while the Indians landed Smith and utility man Luis Valbuena.
Smith took up Gutierrez’s number and looked to build off of an impressive showing the previous year, when he worked 82 times in relief for the Mets in just his second year in the Show. Injuries slowed him down in his first season in Cleveland, as he made just 37 appearances, and the next season he spent a chunk of time at Triple-A Columbus and worked in 53 games for the Tribe.
By 2011, Smith found his stride. He matched Rafael Perez with 71 outings for manager Manny Acta and he served as a seventh and eighth inning bridge with setup man Vinnie Pestano to closer Chris Perez. Smith earned 16 holds and posted a 2.01 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP, easily the best of his career to that point.
He was back doing heavy late inning work for the Tribe in 2012, again leading the staff in appearances with 72. His 21 holds and seven wins were also a career-high. With a new skipper in Terry Francona in place for the 2013 season, he still saw plenty of work, earning six wins, a career-best 25 holds, and the first three saves of his big league career while providing the Bullpen Mafia with a 2.29 ERA.
The Indians were bounced in the one-game American League Wild Card Game loss to the Tampa Bay Rays and the free agent Smith cashed in on a three-year, $15.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
The new home treated Smith kindly in his first season on the west coast. He posted a 1.81 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP in 76 appearances while earning 15 saves. His impressive performance was not replicated, however, as his ERA jumped to 3.58 in 2015 while working in a setup role. After starting the final year of his deal with the Angels in 2016, he was sent to Chicago and joined the Cubs for the stretch run, earning a ring against his former club.
He signed with Toronto to start the 2017 season, but he was again on the move at the trade deadline, acquired by his former Indians club. He appeared in 21 games in the final two months of the season with a 3.44 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP and he made four hitless, scoreless outings in the ALDS against the Yankees. A free agent again after the season, he signed with the world champion Houston Astros to bolster their already solid relief corps, earning eleven holds and five wins in 56 relief appearances last season.
Other notables to wear #38 in Tribe history (40 in total): Chuck Workman (the first in 1941), Steve Gromek (1941-42), Ray Mack (1944), Thurman Tucker (1948-51), Jose Santiago (1954), Frank Funk (1960-62), Steve Kline (1974), Eddie Perez (2002), Shaun Marcum (2015), Chris Gimenez (2016)
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images
*** ** * ** ***
Miss out on our other Countdown pieces? Check out more Indians history below.
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 99
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 90 – Adam Cimber
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 88
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 77
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 76
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 75
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 73
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 72
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 71
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 70
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 69
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 68
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 67
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 66
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 65
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 64
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 63
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 62
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 61 – Dan Otero
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 60
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 59 – Carlos Carrasco
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 58 – Neil Ramirez
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 57 – Shane Bieber
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 56 – Cody Anderson
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 55 – Roberto Perez
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 54
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 53
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 52 – Mike Clevinger
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 51
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 50
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 49 – Tyler Olson
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 48
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 47 – Trevor Bauer
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 46 – Jon Edwards
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 45 – Adam Plutko
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 44 – Nick Goody
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 43
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 42
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 41 – Carlos Santana
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 40
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 39 – Oliver Perez