The trade of Francisco Lindor overshadowed everything that happened with the Cleveland Indians during the offseason. That included the decision not to pick up the $10 million club option on closer Brad Hand, who in 2020 became the first Indians pitcher to lead the majors in saves in a quarter of a century (Jose Mesa, 1995).
Hand’s club option was for $10 million. That’s a substantial, but not outrageous figure for an all-star closer, and Hand has been an all-star selection in three of the last four years.
However, two weeks into the 2021 season, nobody is complaining about the back end of the Indians’ bullpen. Emmauel Clase has taken care of that. The big right-hander, proprietor of a 100-mph fastball that routinely locks up hitters, has been a big reason why the Indians, with the lowest payroll in the majors, have climbed into first place in the AL Central.
“It’s something that kind of fires me up,” said Cleveland designated hitter Franmil Reyes, about watching Clase work. “Like, ‘here comes the big guy! There’s no chance they’re getting anything on this guy!”
“He’s got a slider that’s faster than most people’s fastball. It’s stupidly good,” said Indians reliever Bryan Shaw.
“It’s unfair,” said Indians rookie starter Logan Allen. “I don’t know how people hit him.”
It’s been an encouraging start for the financially-challenged Indians, who always seem to be able to squeeze out more success than their roster suggests would be possible.
This year it’s still obviously very early, and their competition, eight games, all of them against the two worst teams in the division last year, Kansas City and Detroit, has hardly been daunting. But as the week begins Cleveland is 5-3 and in first place in the AL Central. Although they are second in the AL in home runs this year – they were last in the league in 2020 – the Indians are once again going to ride their pitching staff as far as it will take them. They led the league in ERA last year and they’re tied for the league lead this year.
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This despite the fact that in the last three years they’ve turned over virtually their entire rotation. From Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger to Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Allen.
The bullpen has also undergone an oil change, as team officials tried to infuse more power arms into that group. That transformation began following the 2019 season when the Indians traded Kluber to Texas for the flame-throwing Clase (pronounced “claus-A”), who missed all of last season after being suspended for 80 games by MLB after testing positive for a PED.
“It wasn’t easy to jump back in, but I have been working very hard for this,” said Clase, speaking through an interpreter, about his return to the game. “My focus this spring was getting to the point where I can compete.”
So far Clase is doing better than competing. He’s dominating. In his four appearances he has a win and two saves. He’s struck almost half of the batters he’s faced (six of 13), and held opposing hitters to a .083 batting average.
“We’re really pleased with him,” said Manager Terry Francona. “We didn’t get a chance to know him last spring. This spring he seemed like a different person. He’s really embraced being part of the team. And he loves to fill up the strike zone, which is a good thing. I love the way he attacks.”
During spring training Clase told Francona he was worried that he was throwing too many strikes.
“I told him if that’s a problem, we can deal with that,” Francona said. “His future – and present – is really bright.”
The Indians hope the same can be said of their season. Starting today they begin a 19-game portion of the schedule in which they will play the White Sox, Reds, Yankees and Twins, which will be a major upgrade from their competition thus far.
Francona’s well-earned reputation as an elite bullpen manager, will get tested this year. Only three relievers who were in the bullpen on opening day last year, are in it this year: Oliver Perez, Nick Wittgren, and James Karinchak. Some of the roles are still to be defined, although Clase, Wittgren and Karinchak will get the bulk of the end-of-game work. “I like the idea of using guys when they fit the best, and these guys seem to be doing fine with it,” Francona said.
The relievers’ biggest fans are the starters.
“They’re awesome,” Allen said. “Our pen has it. We have the dudes.”