Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 68
Bob Toth | On 18, Jan 2020
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 – 68
For the first time since 2008, the number 68 was back on the field for the Tribe and on the back of someone who was called upon to make big contributions when the team needed it the most.
Right-hander Jefry Rodriguez brought the number 68 out of pseudo-retirement last season as the Indians’ starting rotation began to crumble with what appeared to be an unending slew of injuries. He was one of three players acquired by Cleveland from Washington in the Yan Gomes trade and the only one with prior big league experience after pitching in 14 games for the Nationals in 2018.
Rodriguez initially reported to Columbus to start the 2019 season, but he was called up in the middle of April to make a spot start for Mike Clevinger (who was dealing with an upper back strain). He made a nice first impression in a loss against Kansas City on April 13 and was recalled again for a no-decision against Miami on April 24 when he allowed just a run on three hits in seven innings.
When Corey Kluber’s forearm was broken by a line drive in Miami, Rodriguez was needed regularly to fill in for the depleted rotation, now down two-fifths of the starting staff. He made a pair of quality starts before suffering some rougher outings in three straight losses to close out May. His start on the first day of June in Chicago against the White Sox proved to be his last one of the year for Cleveland, as he exited after four innings of work with a right shoulder strain (fellow starter Carlos Carrasco followed Rodriguez to the injured list after his leukemia diagnosis).
Unfortunately for Rodriguez, his shoulder issue proved to be both problematic and lengthy. He was transferred to the 60-day injured list at the end of July to make 40-man roster space and finally returned to game action in the middle of August when he began a rehab assignment in Arizona before getting in work with Akron and Columbus. More than three months after his injury, Rodriguez was finally activated from the injured list on September 6, but he did not return in a starting role as others had found success when he found his setback (namely Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac). While he was back on the roster, he was missing in action for a period of time until the final week of the season, when he returned for three innings over a pair of relief appearances in some lopsided contests.
In his ten games for the Indians in 2019, he went 1-5 with a 4.63 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP with 33 strikeouts and 21 walks in 46 2/3 innings. He was 1-0 with a 3.76 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP with a similar strikeout rate and same walk rate (4.1 per nine) in his minor league work. Following the season, he made a pair of appearances for Estrellas de Oriente in his native Dominican Winter League.
Rodriguez’s future impact on the Indians pitching staff remains a question mark. There has been some concern that he may not have the stuff to survive as a starting pitcher at the Major League level and he has had a bit better luck in relief roles, something he has done for a third of his MLB appearances. He has not fared well against opposition when facing them a second time through, as batters have posted a .319/.411/.588 slash off of him when seeing him twice in a game. His career minor league numbers have not been eye-popping, especially with a high walk rate, but he has been able to keep the ball in the yard down on the farm, which has been the opposite result for many pitchers there.
Some of his early trends may lead some to think that his future is in the bullpen, and with a crowded starting rotation in Cleveland (including Shane Bieber, Carrasco, Clevinger, Plesac, Civale, and other options), Rodriguez may have to hope for that revised role to play out as opposed to biding his time in Columbus waiting for the call as one of the next men up once again.
The first two men to wear the number 68 on the diamond for the Indians were a pair of often forgotten members of the Tribe who were blocked behind a large number of other established players manning the outfield grass at Cleveland Stadium in the 1980’s.
The Indians broke in all sorts of new high numbers during the final few years of the 80’s as the club struggled to find both an identity and success on the field. In 1988, the number 68 made its first appearance in the regular season lineup for the Tribe as outfielder Scott Jordan wore it for seven games after a September call-up that year. He had one single and one RBI in ten plate appearances in his only action at the Major League level in his career, so if you forgot about him or never even heard of him, do not be too hard on yourself.
In March of 1989, the Indians dealt from their outfield depth and acquired the second man to wear 68 for the club when they received outfielder Turner Ward and catcher Joel Skinner from the New York Yankees for outfielder Mel Hall in March.
Cleveland ended the 1988 season with Hall, Joe Carter, and Cory Snyder as regulars in the outfield. Carmelo Castillo served as an occasional fill-in as the trio started the majority of the games in the Tribe outfield.
Hall, however, let his off-the-field drama pack his bags from Cleveland. He was arrested in 1987 for stealing money from the apartment of a woman in Texas, but charges were dropped. In the offseason following the 1988 campaign, his name was one of several prominent Cleveland athletes to appear in the black book of an alleged madam working out of the city.
When asked about the negative publicity surrounding the matter, Hall was quoted as saying, “I’m in there with two all-pros,” referring to the two Browns players mentioned in the unpleasantness.
With outfielder Dave Winfield facing back surgery, the Yankees acquired the career .281 hitter Hall from the Indians to fill the void. When asked if he had ever envisioned himself in pinstripes, the left-handed hitter replied simply, “Yeah, in prison.”
Given how the future played out for Hall, there is plenty of irony in his statement.
As for the Indians’ return for a man who donned pinstripes longer than anticipated, Cleveland acquired the young prospect Ward and the light-hitting Skinner, whose claim to fame with the club would come nearly 20 years later as the team’s third base coach in a base-running decision questioned by many still to this day.
Ward was set to head to Triple-A Colorado Springs to play center field for the Sky Sox, but those plans changed quickly when he was injured in an intrasquad game in Tucson, Arizona. While sliding trying to make a catch, he broke his fibula and dislocated his right ankle. The injury required surgery.
“Turner lost the ball in the sun and tried to make a sliding catch,” director of player development Dan O’Dowd said when the club announced Ward’s injury. “But his right ankle got caught under him just as he started to slide. It was a bad injury.”
He appeared in 34 games at the minor league level for the Tribe that season, but was a non-factor for the Major League club. The Indians finished the season 73-89 and had dealt Castillo shortly after the Hall trade, using Brad Komminsk, Dion James, Dave Clark, and offseason addition Oddibe McDowell to fill the hole in the outfield next to Carter and Snyder.
The outfield puzzle was no less clear heading into 1990, especially after Carter was dealt to the San Diego Padres a year ahead of his pending free agency. Joey Belle, Chris James, Dion James, Komminsk, Candy Maldonado, Snyder, and Mitch Webster all were on the MLB roster. The Toronto Blue Jays were sniffing around the Cleveland depth as they looked for a fourth outfield option to pair with George Bell, Mookie Wilson, and Junior Felix, but nothing transpired.
Ward returned to Colorado Springs as the Triple-A club’s center fielder and played well, eventually moving to right field when the Indians acquired center fielder Alex Cole from San Diego. Belle had started the season in the Majors but was optioned because of a lack of playing time (and some issues revolving around a lack of intensity from the young outfielder). Belle had, over the course of the beginning of the season, accidentally hit a bat boy with his helmet after striking out, was benched or removed from games three different times, and knocked a notebook out of the hand of a reporter after being asked about his error in the outfield that had led to three unearned runs. The relocation for Belle did not exactly fix the problem – he also got into swearing matches with a fan in Colorado Springs and showed a lack of hustle.
After the Sky Sox were eliminated from the minor league playoffs, the Indians purchased the contract of Ward and added him to the roster. He hit .348 for the Tribe while playing right field, driving in ten runs in 14 games of action. The strong showing did not carry over in the spring, when he was expected to win the right field job as one of ten different outfielders in camp. Instead, he needed a strong finish to even leave Arizona with the club. The struggles returned in the regular season, however, and after hitting .230 with 16 singles, seven doubles, and just five RBI in 40 games in his new and more appropriate number 20, he was optioned to Triple-A.
Ward spent parts of the 1991-1993 seasons with the Blue Jays with moderate success. He was selected off of waivers by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1993 and played in 102 games for the club in his first of three seasons there. He joined the Pittsburgh Pirates for the 1997-1999 seasons, playing in a career-high 123 games with nine homers and 46 RBI in 1998 while literally running through a wall at Three Rivers Stadium, but was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks during the 1999 season. He remained with that club through 2000 and spent his final 17 Major League games with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2001.
He has spent much of his post-playing career in the dugout as a coach.
Michael Aubrey was the most recent player to wear 68 prior to Rodriguez, doing so back in 2008. A first round pick in the 2003 draft (11th overall) out of Tulane University, the first baseman spent just 15 games with Cleveland after climbing through the farm system, hitting .200 with two homers and three RBI in 50 plate appearances. After 57 games with the Columbus Clippers in 2009, he was purchased in June by the Baltimore Orioles and later played 31 games for their Major League club, hitting .289 with four homers and 14 RBI in what would be his final big league season. He spent 2010 with their Triple-A club at Norfolk and signed that offseason with the Washington Nationals, playing 89 games for Syracuse in his final professional action.
While not necessarily a common sight in Cleveland, the number 68 has seen its fair share of use across Major League Baseball. Eighteen different teams and 20 total players used it on the field in 2019.
Photo: Icon SportsWire
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