Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 70
A little over a year after George Kontos brought the number 70 out of the Indians bullpen for the first time in franchise history, it returned to the mound on the back of promising young flamethrower James Karinchak.
Had it not been for his status as a reliever, Karinchak may have found himself further up the Tribe’s top prospect charts as he blazed a trail through the farm system in short order. A ninth round pick by the Indians in the 2017 draft out of Bryant College in Smithfield, Rhode Island, the young hurler showed that his 13.7 strikeouts per nine inning rate in his final season of NCAA ball was no fluke. After a somewhat shaky debut at short-season Mahoning Valley after signing with Cleveland in 2017, he put his name on the team’s radar. In stops between Class-A Lake County, High-A Lynchburg, and Double-A Akron in his first full season of pro ball, he posted a combined 4-2 record with 14 saves. His numbers included a minute 1.29 ERA over 42 outings and 48 2/3 innings and a respectable 1.34 WHIP. The most eye-popping of his numbers, however, was his absurd 15.0 K/9 rate for the season. Effectively wild, he also averaged a dangerous 6.7 walks per nine, but there was plenty of live ammunition in the cannon attached to his right shoulder.
It was more of the same for Karinchak in 2019. He worked three times for the Indians’ Blue team in the Arizona Rookie League, ten times at Akron, and 17 more times at Triple-A Columbus. In 30 1/3 innings over 30 appearances at the three stops, he went 1-1 with a 2.67 ERA, but he made a stellar improvement to his WHIP (putting together a 1.09 mark for the season) and trimming already good batting average against numbers down further with a .150 figure. While his walk rate was still on the high side (5.0 BB/9), he allowed just 4.7 hits per nine innings pitched. That hit rate was already impressive enough, but the real numbers to see were in his strikeout performance. He struck out 74 of the 125 batters that he faced, good for numbers too good for PlayStation’s MLB The Show franchise, a K/9 rate of 22.0. The work came sandwiched around a two-month absence from mid-May to mid-July (just three games into his first work at Cleveland’s top farm affiliate) when he landed on the 7-day injured list with a hamstring strain.
Not yet a finished product, Karinchak still got the call in September when the Indians purchased his contract from Columbus and gave him a taste test of Major League action. He made five appearances, giving up a run on three hits with a walk and eight strikeouts in five and one-third innings. It all equated to a 1.69 ERA, a 0.75 WHIP, and a 13.5 K/9 rate.
Karinchak will be one of the more exciting players to watch for the Indians for the coming season as his development may be key to the success of the team’s bullpen for many years to come. Paired with another hard-thrower, Emmanuel Clase (who arrived as half of the return for starter Corey Kluber this offseason), Karinchak will get an opportunity to show that he is big league ready and will hopefully prove able of handling late inning work as the season progresses. With a darting fastball capable of triple digits (he averaged 97.0 MPH and 2,387 RPM on his four-seamer during his limited work with the Indians in 2019), he may help the team replace closer Brad Hand, either after the coming campaign (if his $10 million option is declined for the $1 million buyout) or the year that follows.
Karinchak, who turned 24 in September, is still anticipated to wear the number 70 with Cleveland in the 2020 season. A handful of players on the pitching staff have moved on from some of the atypical numbers donned on the diamond (oftentimes those assigned during the spring to minor league invitees and other farm attendees), but Karinchak was not yet one of them to make such a move according to affiliated Indians’ Twitter accounts or the team’s official web page. He will put in his work while firing big velocity heaters and filthy 12-6 curveballs at opposing players, potentially for much of the new decade.
The number 70 has had just an espresso-sized cup of coffee for the Tribe over the course of the team’s 119 years of play in downtown Cleveland. Before Karinchak, Kontos (who is just one of eight players to wear the number 70 for more than one season on a Major League mound) brought his seven-plus years of experience to the Indians when they acquired him just days after being given his release from the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2018 season. The right-handed reliever had previous success on the big league stage and a World Series ring to his credit, but the former fifth round pick by the New York Yankees in the 2006 draft out of Northwestern was unable to channel his old ways for the Tribe. After signing on June 3 (one day after the club added free agent southpaw Oliver Perez while trying to fix a beleaguered bullpen), Kontos headed to the minors, pitched well at Triple-A Columbus, and got the call to head back to the Bigs.
Kontos made an interesting debut with the Indians on June 20 against the Chicago White Sox, working a scoreless inning of what could only be called an effectively wild outing. He retired all three outs via strikeout while walking two other hitters. His next time out on June 22 against the Tigers, he threw nine of ten pitches for strikes in a quick 1-2-3 inning.
His time with Cleveland did not stay smooth for long, as he was hit hard against a familiar Cardinals team during a road trip to St. Louis. He gave up a run on two hits on June 25, then allowed a solo homer the following day. He made two more appearances for the Indians after that, retiring the only batter that he faced against Oakland on June 30 before working a perfect eighth inning versus Kansas City on July 2. Kontos was designated for assignment in July to make room for veteran right-hander Carlos Carrasco, who was returning from the disabled list. Kontos was outrighted back to Columbus and later was relocated back to the Yankees for cash considerations in August.
He spent two weeks of May in 2019 with the independent Long Island Ducks last year before signing with the Washington Nationals on a minor league pact. He closed out the final three months of the minor league playing calendar pitching for their Triple-A Fresno affiliate.
Photo: Ron Vesely/Getty Images
Miss out on our other Countdown pieces? Check out more Indians history below!
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 99 (Daniel Robertson)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 90 (Adam Cimber)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 88 (Phil Maton)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 77 (Jack Armstrong)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 76 (Tom Magrann)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 75 (Mike Walker)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 73 (Ricardo Rincon)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 72 (Jason Giambi)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 71 (Johnny Hodapp)