Could the Cleveland Guardians have an elite bullpen?
Well, it ended – the Guardians bullpen finally surrendered two runs in the second game of the Orioles series this week. Eli Morgan gave up the fateful two-run bomb that snapped the 32 1/3 consecutive innings without an earned run.
But there has been a trend emerging in general from the bullpen, especially in this second half of the season. So let me explain to you why I believe the Guardians are on the cusp of having an elite bullpen.
It’s well-documented that the Guardians have 5-6 reliable pen arms currently available: Emmanuel Clase, Trevor Stephan, Sam Hentges, Enyel De Los Santos, Nick Sandlin, and James Karinchak. Each of these individuals is 26 or younger, and is under team control through the 2026 season. Let that sink in. Six guys, all about to enter their prime years, and they could all be around for at least the next four seasons.
Look at the stats since July 2, or roughly the time coinciding with the returns of Sandlin and Karinchak:
- Clase: 21.1 IP, 2 ER, 21 SO, 0.84 ERA, 2.04 FIP
- Stephan: 21.2 IP, 3 ER, 35 SO, 1.25 ERA, 0.58 FIP
- Hentges: 19.2 IP, 9 ER, 21 SO, 4.12 ERA, 2.36 FIP
- De Los Santos: 18.2 IP, 5 ER, 14 SO, 2.41 ERA, 2.96 FIP
- Sandlin: 16.1 IP, 2 ER, 19 SO, 1.10 ERA, 1.35 FIP
- Karinchak: 23.0 IP, 3 ER, 41 SO, 1.17 ERA, 1.25 FIP
- Total: 120 IP, 24 ER, 151 SO, 1.80 ERA
During this stretch, the Guardians went 29-26 (.527 winning percentage), and if you extrapolate that over a full season that gets you to 85 wins. Let’s remember that at that point of the season, July was looking daunting, having to face the likes of New York, Tampa, Chicago, and Boston (before those last two crumbled). With some slight improvements, you can add a few more wins here and there as well.
If you narrow the sample size to just after the All-Star break, those numbers look even more impressive. Hentges has figured things out and gotten back on track, and De Los Santos has also pitched better from that time on.
So if we think about roster construction for the remainder of the season, and into the future, the front office really only needs to find one or two more arms. Good thing the team values pitching so much, because there are a few tiers of internal additions that can easily be made.
First up is the “oldies.” This includes Bryan Shaw and Anthony Gose. To be honest, I’m not sure we’ll see Gose donning a Cleveland uniform ever again. The team does control his rights, so in theory he could be back for 2023, and if he does return I’d expect it to be on a minor-league deal.
Now Shaw, he’s a different story. It’s a near certainty that he will be back as long as Terry Francona is still manager. Whether you like it or not, Tito loves him some Shaw (or maybe Shaw has some dirt on Tito, who knows for sure).
My next group are the “converted starters.” Here we have current pen member Eli Morgan, as well as Xzavion Curry. Morgan may be best suited for a return trip to Columbus; he just hasn’t been the same since the first half of the season. From May 1 until the All-Star break, Morgan went 32 1/3 innings with a 2.23 ERA and 2.78 FIP. Morgan really only uses two pitches: a four-seam fastball and a changeup. He’ll occasionally use a slider as well, which if used more, may help make him more effective.
Curry, on the other hand, may be one of the up-and-coming starters who doesn’t end up with a spot in the rotation. He also lacks the traditional stature of a starter and some scouts in the past have said that may be a hindrance in his durability. But stick him in the pen (blare DMX’s “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” as an intro) and let his stuff play up a bit and we may be cooking with something.
Finally, the Guardians’ last set of in-house options are the “prospects,” and we have two paths here. First are the bullpen prospects: Nic Enright and Nick Mikolajchak. Both are really the only current minor-league prospects in the Guardians’ system nearing the big-league club, as both are with Triple-A Columbus. The other is Cody Morris, another converted starter who has battled injuries but has come back very strong over the past month-and-a-half (21 1/3 innings, four earned runs, 39 strikeouts, and a 1.69 ERA).
Morris is also one of the Guardians’ September call-ups and many fans have high expectations for the highly touted rookie. Hopefully he is as dominant in the bigs as he has been to date in Columbus. I’d like to see him get a dozen or so appearances down the stretch to see what he can do.
If all else fails, the club could also pursue another pen arm or two via a trade with their stockpile of middle infielders. This team is far from perfect, but adding another arm cannot hurt the club’s chances (even finding a diamond in the rough like De Los Santos would be welcomed).
So there you have it. It’s not a complete unit yet, but these Guardians have something cooking with this bullpen. And though they can be fickle from month to month and year to year, the foundation they have set appears to make this a portion of the team that we can rely on for the next few seasons.