Cleveland Guardians: How will Cleveland’s bullpen pan out in 2022?

Emmanuel Clase #48 of the Cleveland Indians / Cleveland Guardians (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Emmanuel Clase #48 of the Cleveland Indians / Cleveland Guardians (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /
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Cleveland Indians, Sam Hentges, Cleveland Guardians
Sam Hentges #31 of the Cleveland Indians / Cleveland Guardians (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Something to Prove to the Cleveland Guardians

When you move outside of the aforementioned trio, the question marks start to become a bit more frequent. Players going into 2022 with something to prove include the likes of Justin Garza, Cam Hill, Sam Hentges, Kyle Nelson, and James Karinchak.

Justin Garza has spent a decent amount of time with the Tribe in 2021. He’s made 14 appearances, pitching 21 innings to the tune of a 4.29 ERA. Overall, it hasn’t been a horrible first impression for the 27-year old righty. His barrel rate has been on the higher side, but he is on par with the league average in terms of of his strikeout rate.

If he can add a little polish to his cutter and slider (.300 and .400 average against respectively), he could develop a solid set of offerings in tandem with his sinker. A good run to close the season would give Garza a tremendous push towards having a more consistent role in the bullpen in 2022.

Cam Hill could be a candidate for a bullpen role with the Guardians in 2022, depending on how he closes his 2021 season and how he fares in Spring Training next season. The 27-year old has not pitched in Cleveland this season (he had offseason wrist surgery following a car accident), but he has pitched in Columbus since his return to action.

He has accumulated a 7.63 ERA in 15 Triple-A appearances, and has had notable struggles with his command (13 walks compared to 11 strikeouts). If Hill can find his footing and regain some of his lost command, he could insert himself into the conversation about the 2022 bullpen. He certainly showcased his potential during 2020.

Sam Hentges has done a little bit of everything this year for the Cleveland Indians. He started the season in Triple-A Columbus, was called up to debut with the Tribe in April, would struggle as a starter and be sent back down, which was followed by another call up where he has found a more consistent role as a bullpen arm.

Hentges’ ERA is not pretty to look at (7.18), but he is a “stuff” guy with the raw tools to potentially develop into a dependable arm. Throughout his 2021 season, his fastball has been hard hit with a high average against, while also getting sent over the outfield fence seven times. If he can find a way to work it higher in the zone (ala Triston McKenzie), it will likely play better for him going forward.

Between an improved fastball and some tweaks to his slider to go with his good curveball, Hentges could develop a good armament and be dynamic in the late innings. A strong close to 2021 with multiple scoreless appearances strung together would move the needle significantly in his favor going into the 2022 campaign.

Kyle Nelson has been up and down twice this season, and currently finds himself in Triple-A Columbus. Through his time with Cleveland he has been hit hard, surrendering 10 earned runs in 9.2 innings of work. Nelson primarily features a cutter-slider combo, which would benefit from an uptick in his command. His 8 walks in those 9.2 innings are cause for concern, especially when compounded with the fact that he relies on locating his pitches to work around his lower velocity. If he is to make it as a Major League pitcher, Nelson will have to figure out how to throw consistent strikes, so he can utilize his slider as an effective chase and out pitch.

James Karinchak is one of the most frustrating topics of discussion for Cleveland baseball fans this season. Dubbed as the potential closer of the future in 2020, Karinchak has seen his stock in Cleveland evaporate in the blink of an eye, culminating in his demotion to AAA Columbus at the end of August.

At the start of this season, he was throwing lightning bolts like Zeus himself in the forms of his high 90’s fastball and devastating hammer curve. Between his ability to attack hitters at the letters and then barrel out of the bottom of the zone, he looked nearly unhittable. Karinchak even operated in a co-closer role with Emmanuel Clase for a time.

It seems now that the mighty have fallen, and one must wonder why after such a promising start to this season. Over his last 15 appearances for the Tribe, the man known as Wild Thing has logged a 9.75 ERA, to pair with a record of 1-2 and a WHIP of 2.00. As a backend guy in a Major League bullpen, those numbers will not cut it for long, especially when you consider his 9 walks in the 12 innings he pitched over those 15 appearances. I know it’s a small sample size, but it speaks volumes to Karinchak’s struggles. Even with the electric offerings he possesses, he needs to regain some control to be able to better utilize both of his pitches (5.3 BB/9 innings over the entire 2021 season).

Ever since MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances being used to doctor baseballs, the spin rates on both Karinchak’s four-seamer and curveball have decreased significantly, indicating less movement that hitters have to compensate for. That has more than likely correlated to his pitches being hit significantly harder as the season has progressed. Pair that with decreased control from not having as a good of a grip on the ball, and the struggles the former set-up man has had seem a little bit more predictable.

One big positive for Wild Thing is that he has the raw physical tools to be able to rebound from his late 2021 struggles. If he can utilize his time in Columbus to address his command issues and make any necessary mechanical adjustments, I think there is a good chance we hear from him again in 2022 in a big way. His mound intensity, his presence in the pen, and his potential to right the ship are all reasons to want him in a Cleveland uniform going forward, even if this season hasn’t panned out perfectly.