Cleveland Indians: Starting rotation becoming Tribe’s biggest concern

Manager Terry Francona #77 removes starting pitcher Zach Plesac #34 of the Cleveland Indians (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Manager Terry Francona #77 removes starting pitcher Zach Plesac #34 of the Cleveland Indians (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /
Cleveland Indians, Shane Bieber
Starting pitcher Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Indians (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Starting rotation becoming biggest concern for the Cleveland Indians

Entering the 2021 season, the starting rotation of the Cleveland Indians was viewed as arguably the top strength of the club. While the unit started relatively strong, struggles from the back-end of the starting rotation paired with below normal performances from the top trio has now put the rotation as one of the main concerns of the club up to this point in the season.

There is still work to be done for other aspects of the club, the main being the offense, but those struggles could be overlooked when the pitching was outstanding. Now, the offense is starting to turn a corner, scoring three runs or more in eight of the last 10 games. Despite the offensive turnaround of sorts, the Tribe are still just 4-6 over those 10 games and have allowed three runs or more in eight of the games as well. Before the pitching was outstanding and the offense couldn’t score enough to get the team in the win column consistently, but now the script has basically flipped.

Entering the season, the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation were a bit up in the air. Triston McKenzie was assumed to be the fourth and the fifth was up for competition. Fast forward 44 games into the regular season and both McKenzie and Logan Allen have been sent down after floundering in the big leagues while Sam Hentges hasn’t been able to perform much better.

To make matters worse, the options to fill those spots are few and far between. The minor league pitchers that would eventually fill those spots aren’t ready, creating a short list of in-house talent to start. It’s the first time that we’ve witnessed a lapse in minor league pitching talent in at least five years for Cleveland after seeing pitcher after pitcher succeed after being called up.

Players on the outside that could be brought in aren’t much better either. The free agent market is rather dried up and the front office would have a very slim budget to make a trade to bring in a starter. That means the fourth and fifth starters could be rotating doors this season until someone steps up from the shadows of the minor leagues.

The struggles from the last two spots in the rotation has forced the Cleveland Indians to turn to the bullpen much more during those outings, putting added pressure on the top three starters to go deep in games. The high pitch count seems to be taking its toll, spreading the struggles of the fourth and fifth starters into the entire rotation.

Most recently, Zach Plesac was hit hard in his start against the Minnesota Twins in the weekend series finale. Plesac exited after just 3.2 inning after allowing five runs, three earned, setting up a game that saw the Tribe use a total of eight pitchers when the extra inning contest was all said and done.

The start marked the second consecutive for Plesac where five runs touched the plate while he was on the mound. On the year, he’s allowed five runs or more on four different occasions through his first 10 starts.

Plesac isn’t the only starter that has looked uncharacteristic recently. Shane Bieber has also been unlike his Cy Young form after seeing heavy workloads early in the season. While his season numbers are still among some of the best in baseball, his last few starts just seem to be a bit off from what we’re used to seeing.

Through 10 starts this season, Bieber has allowed at least two runs in all but one appearance. Now, he hasn’t given up more than three earned runs all year, but he’s also thrown less than 100 pitches just once this year, including 121 pitches against the Cubs before turning around on four days rest to pitch against the Mariners, a game in which he was given a loss. Eventually, that workload is going to catch up with him.

Like Bieber, Aaron Civale has been able to pitch well despite a heavy workload. Civale has witnessed his pitch count either increase or remain the same from start-to-start over his last five outings, now up to 114 pitches in his last game. With that, he’s yet to start without allowing a run. It’s worth noting, however, that he is tied for the most wins in the American League, so it’s not all bad.

While Bieber, Civale and Plesac have had struggles they are still steady starters for the club. However, if the workload continues to increase for them the wear and tear will start to set in. On top of that, there’s few options remaining for the final two spots in the rotation and poor starts continue to diminish the bullpen and force the top three guys to increase their pitch counts even further.

There’s still a lot of work to be done across the clubhouse of the Cleveland Indians, but what was once a huge strength is now slowly making it’s way onto the list of concerns. Having only half of a starting rotation isn’t a great recipe for success, especially for a team that is still deep in the division race for the AL Central.

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