Cleveland Guardians: What is the ceiling for the 2022 rotation?

CINCINNATI, OHIO - APRIL 12: Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Guardians throws a pitch against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on April 12, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OHIO - APRIL 12: Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Guardians throws a pitch against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on April 12, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /
CINCINNATI, OHIO – APRIL 12: Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Guardians throws a pitch against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on April 12, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OHIO – APRIL 12: Shane Bieber #57 of the Cleveland Guardians throws a pitch against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on April 12, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Cleveland has become a pitching powerhouse in Major League Baseball, frequently putting together some of the most complete starting rotations in the game. The rotation in 2022 has the potential to be one of baseball’s (and Cleveland’s) best.

We’re officially a week into the 2022 Major League Baseball season, and the Cleveland Guardians have notched a 4-2 record after four straight offensive explosions. Even with the dynamic performances of Steven Kwan, José Ramírez, Owen Miller and others, the real, long-term strength of the Cleveland Guardians ball club is still firmly planted in the starting rotation. This has become part of the larger trend for baseball on the shores of Lake Erie, with the team being known colloquially as the “pitching factory”, and turning out the likes of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Shane Bieber (all Cy Young winners) across the 21st century.

Across the rest of this year’s campaign, there is plenty of promise for the rotation and how it will ultimately pan out. With a fully healthy complement of starters in tow for week one of the season and beyond, this starting five could have one of the highest ceilings across the majors, and could come close to matching some of the stellar rotations of Cleveland over the last decade.

The Makeup of the Cleveland Guardians Rotation

As has been known for months now, and is evidenced on Cleveland’s current depth chart, the rotation is set for the season, barring any injuries or major regressions. Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Cal Quantrill, and Triston McKenzie have gotten the ball rolling for the Guardians and will look to keep it rolling throughout the rest of the year.

With Bieber back healthy and primed for a strong rebound season, he leads the rotation as the unquestioned ace of the staff.

Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac bring experience to the staff, and help flesh out a strong core to the rotation. Plesac is looking to rebound from a 2021 not quite up to his standards, with Civale looking to put together a campaign uninterrupted by injuries.

Cal Quantrill slots in as a major player in the rotation, thanks to a dynamic second half to the 2021 campaign. Getting into his first full season as a starter, it is a strong possibility that he could assert himself as a long-term, top-of-the-rotation-caliber starter.

The rotation is rounded out by Triston McKenzie. The youngster struggled early in 2021, but as the year progressed he showed front-of-the-rotation firepower, as well as better command and mound poise. He looks to continue his ascension in 2022.

From top to bottom, one through five, the Guardians are loaded in the rotation. Each starter has shown immense potential and the ability to provide a big-time impact for the team. What is a given, barring injuries or a repeated wave of them in 2022, is that each day one of these guys takes the mound, Cleveland has a chance to win based solely off of its starting pitching.

Projections for the Guardians Rotation in 2022

Projections for the starting rotation point to it being a strength for the Guardians in 2022. As it stands, the FanGraphs DC projections are as follows for Cleveland’s rotation:

  • Shane Bieber: 13-8 (31 GS), 189 IP, 3.25 ERA, 4.8 WAR
  • Zach Plesac: 9-11 (29 GS), 164 IP, 4.66 ERA, 1.2 WAR
  • Aaron Civale: 9-11 (28 GS), 154 IP, 4.75 ERA, 1.1 WAR
  • Cal Quantrill: 10-10 (29 GS), 165 IP, 4.54 ERA, 1.4 WAR
  • Triston McKenzie: 7-7 (23 GS), 114 IP, 4.57 ERA, 1.2 WAR

What is a bit perplexing is the combined win-loss total projected for the staff, with the final figure settling in at 48-47. With a fully healthy staff that projects to be the primary strength of the club, that seems like a conservative measure (even when the offense regresses from its hot streak).

The distance FanGraphs projects between Bieber’s performance and the rest of the staff is also curious. Barring injuries, 164 IP seems conservative for a guy like Zach Plesac, assuming he is healthy for the duration. He hasn’t had a true full season to pitch healthy/uninterrupted by COVID-19, but on athleticism alone he could easily break past the 164-inning mark. Outside of Bieber, the earned run averages also seem a bit pessimistic, given that Civale, Plesac, McKenzie and Quantrill have all shown the ability to limit damage and contain other teams at the plate.

Even with some of the figures that FanGraphs tabulated seeming a bit off-center, keep in mind that these are preliminary projections based off of seasons that have been shortened due to COVID, injuries, and other extraneous circumstances. The potential for all five starters to exceed their projections is legitimate.

With a start under everyone’s belt, what is the true ceiling for the rotation in 2022?

Ultimately, preseason projections aren’t always worth much in practicality. Unseen variables always play a role on the progression of a major-league season, and things often do not pan out how it seems like they should. In that spirit, and although the numbers may hint otherwise, the potential ceiling for the rotation in 2022 could be sky-high.

For reference, the 2018 rotation the then-Indians deployed (comprised of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber in his rookie season) pitched a combined 897 innings, collected a whopping 999 combined strikeouts, and four of the five had an ERA of 3.38 or below.

The 2022 starting rotation, assuming everyone stays mostly healthy and misses minimal time, has the best chance among recent Cleveland teams of matching the dominance of the 2018 staff. Each member of the current rotation has experience starting, and through one turn (and change) in the first week, most guys have looked ready for the long haul:

  • Shane Bieber has thrown two starts, totaling 10 IP and a 2.70 ERA. He’s had good control of all of his weapons, and has only surrendered four hits and two walks. As he starts to settle into form, good things will likely follow for the Cy Young winner. If he can maintain a reasonable workload, and keep his command strong, there isn’t much that can slow Bieber down when he’s pitching at his highest level.
  • Zach Plesac has made one start so far, and pitched 5.2 sterling innings for the Guardians. He gave up three hits and struck out three, while commanding all of his pitches and handcuffing the Royals lineup. He mixed his pitches well, attacked both sides of the plate, and kept hitters guessing with his four-pitch mix. Without the pitch count, he likely could have gone much deeper into his debut.
  • Aaron Civale struggled in his first outing of the season, allowing two earned runs (four runs overall) in 3.1 IP. What was concerning about his 2022 debut was his struggle to throw strikes consistently. Civale had a hard time keeping his six-pitch mix in the zone and ended up walking three batters. The defense did not help either, with a costly error by José Ramírez helping to end Civale’s day early. What is encouraging is Civale’s unfazed demeanor and track record of being able to overcome bad starts. Count on him to bounce back and rely on his high pitching IQ to outwit batters going forward.
  • Cal Quantrill had a good debut to the 2022 season, throwing five innings and only allowing two earned runs. He was strong across the start, except in the third inning when he would allow both of the runs he surrendered. Other than that, he did well controlling his pitches and provided what could have been a quality start if the pitch count wasn’t an early season obstacle.
  • Triston McKenzie has made one start, and also appeared in relief of Shane Bieber on Opening Day against the Royals. He’s covered seven innings to the tune of a 2.57 ERA, totaling seven strikeouts and using his three-pitch mix well. He’s used the entire plate with his fastball, and generated swings and misses when elevating it. He’s hung a couple sliders and curveballs, but has done well making batters miss when he keeps them down. In his start he looked especially strong, but was limited to only four innings by the pitch count. His stock is certainly on the rise early in the year.

What is worth mentioning is that each guy in the rotation individually has a high ceiling. Beating the health drum is going to get redundant, but that could be the key to this staff placing among the upper echelon of the elite rotations in baseball collectively. Although many preseason rankings of rotations across baseball did not hold Cleveland in the same regard as teams like the Chicago White Sox , for instance, the team has the starters to give itself a chance to win each day. The team also has some depth behind the front five, providing key insurance should injuries become a significant factor in the season.

Comparing this rotation to the 2018 rotation is perhaps unfair, given the experience the 2018 staff had. However, this rotation is one without a glaring weakness or a spot that needs offense to cover for. If guys can stay healthy, and pitch according to their histories and track records, the 2022 staff has the potential to be one of Cleveland’s best in recent memory.