When a front office plans the entire offseason around purging money from the offensive side of the lineup because the team’s starting rotation is so dominant, the last thing needed is to lose one of those dynamic starting pitchers.
Two starts into his season, the Indians lost Mike Clevinger to an upper back strain. With injuries to top backup arms in the minors, the Tribe had little recourse but to call upon Jefry Rodriguez, who has only been needed for a pair of spot starts because of so many off days early in the 2019 schedule.
Now, the team is scrambling after ace Corey Kluber suffered a non-displaced fracture of the right ulna in his forearm after being struck by a 102 MPH line drive in Miami off of the bat of Brian Anderson on Wednesday night.
The Indians formally announced some of the domino effects of the loss of their 33-year-old right-hander. Reliever Jon Edwards has been recalled from Triple-A Columbus, but his stay will likely be short. Trevor Bauer, who was scheduled to start Sunday’s series finale with Seattle, will be pushed back to Monday and right-hander Cody Anderson, who is hardly fully stretched out in his first real work after returning from a lengthy recovery from March 2017 Tommy John surgery, will rejoin the Indians roster to pitch against the Mariners on Sunday afternoon. Rodriguez, who has served admirably as the temporary replacement for Clevinger, will follow Bauer in the rotation on Tuesday when he is called up from Columbus for the third time.
There is no time table on Kluber’s return. He will not need surgery as the fracture was non-displaced, but the team will reevaluate his status in three to four weeks to learn more about his potential recovery time frame.
“For the next three weeks, he’s going to have his arm immobilized in a cast,” said manager Terry Francona prior to Friday’s game against the Mariners during media availability. “He’ll be x-rayed approximately once a week to see the healing. The first week is really vital that he keeps it elevated as much as he can and keeps away from getting jostled.”
Unlike other injuries suffered by players that allow them to go about some form of conditioning or practice, Kluber’s broken arm is his pitching arm. He will be unable to throw while the ulna bone is healing, and then will need time to get back into game shape and work on his mechanics, which were already a work in progress through his first seven starts this season. In those outings, Kluber was just 2-3 with a 5.80 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP while pitching into the sixth inning in just three contests.
Losing pitchers is never ideal, but the timing is even worse for the Tribe. Starting pitching had been a place of depth for the club in recent years and many top minor league options have been moved along in trades, including three who have landed across Lake Erie in Toronto (Julian Merryweather, Thomas Pannone, and Shawn Morimando).
Compounding the issue are a pair of injuries suffered in the spring. Right-hander Adam Plutko, who likely would have been the first arm up from Columbus, has been plagued by a forearm strain since March and appeared in just five Cactus League games. He remained in Goodyear at the end of spring training and had gotten in some work on the mound in the last week and has since moved his rehab work to Columbus.
Last season, Plutko went 7-3 with a 1.70 ERA and a 0.74 WHIP in 14 starts for Columbus, including a no-hitter. With the Indians in 12 starts and five relief appearances, he went 4-5 with a 5.28 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP while earning his first career save.
The top prospect in the organization, Triston McKenzie, has also not worked this season while dealing with a strained back suffered while throwing in camp in early March. The young right-hander was expected to be out of action for six weeks before resuming activity. He missed time at the start of last season as well and has pitched no higher than Double-A in his career and is not a member of the 40-man roster.
Clevinger is not due to return until June at the earliest. While he is said to be making good progress from his upper back strain and has been able to play catch of late, he is still going to need time to build back up to being game ready.
For the time being, Anderson will get the call to replace Kluber. He has made two starts in Columbus and three relief appearances in Cleveland between those outings. He worked a combined five innings with the Indians, allowing three runs on seven hits with two walks and five strikeouts. He threw a pair of three-inning starts for the Clippers, allowing just two hits and no walks while striking out eight. In his last start on April 28 against Durham, he allowed a hit and struck out four in his three innings of work, throwing 25 of 36 pitches for strikes.
In the event that Anderson or Rodriguez do not serve as long term answers in the rotation and Plutko needs more time, the remaining starters at Columbus are Shao-Ching Chiang, Chih-Wei Hu, Michael Peoples, and Asher Wojciechowski.
Chiang has had a tough go to start the year. He is 0-3 in five starts with a 7.62 ERA and a 1.77 WHIP. The 25-year-old out of Taiwan has given up 35 hits (including six homers), eleven walks, and five hit batsmen in 26 innings. His last time out on April 29, he made his first quality start of the year, but took the loss in Indianapolis. This is Chiang’s second season in the Columbus rotation after splitting last season between Triple-A and Double-A Akron.
Hu, acquired as a potential bullpen option by the Indians from Tampa Bay in the offseason, is still in the process of being lengthened out. Also a 25-year-old out of Taiwan, Hu is 0-1 in five starts (23 1/3 innings) with a 5.01 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP. In his last start against Durham on April 28, he pitched a season-high six and two-thirds innings, allowing two runs on five hits with six strikeouts and a walk in a loss. He pitched in the Rays bullpen in eleven total appearances in 2017 and 2018 and is the only member of the Columbus rotation not already ticketed for Cleveland that is on the 40-man roster.
Peoples, 27, is in his fourth different season with the Clippers and is off to an impressive start overall. He has thrown 27 1/3 innings over four starts and a relief appearance, allowing nine runs on 27 hits with 25 strikeouts and eight walks (2.96 ERA and 1.28 WHIP). He has won each of his last three starts, including his last one on May 1. Peoples was a 14th round draft pick by Cleveland in the 2012 draft.
Wojciechowski has the most big league experience and has been the best producer of the bunch thus far. In five games, the 30-year-old right-hander is 2-1 with a 1.67 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP with 27 strikeouts and eleven walks in 27 innings. A non-roster invitee to spring camp by the Indians, Wojciechowski has logged time on the big league mound for the Houston Astros (2015) and Cincinnati Reds (2017), working in 30 total games with eleven starts to his credit.
A starting staff composed of Bauer, Bieber, Carrasco, and a pair of call ups from Triple-A is hardly as imposing as the five-man crew run out by Francona to start the year. The rotation was anticipated to carry the depleted offense, and the early season woes at the plate for the Tribe have already been well documented and put more strain on the rotation to be the key cog in the Indians machine. While there are names available still on the marketplace (chiefly former Cy Young hurler Dallas Keuchel), it is hard to envision the Indians spending now after being frugal in the offseason. Unless the team got the type of news that spelled a season-ending situation for a member of the staff, the team will look to its farmhands to hold down the fort until the full squad returns sometime in the summer.
In the meantime, the Tribe will miss its staff ace and workhorse dearly.
Photo: AP Photo