Cleveland Guardians reliever James Karinchak dealing with shoulder injury to start make-or-break season

James Karinchak figures to be an integral piece of the Cleveland Guardians bullpen in 2024, but he's starting the spring with shoulder fatigue.

Cleveland Guardians v Minnesota Twins
Cleveland Guardians v Minnesota Twins / David Berding/GettyImages

After bursting onto the scene as a high-powered, hard-throwing reliever that morphed into the Cleveland Guardians closer in 2019 and 2020, James Karinchak has had to slow his roll a little bit.

He went 1-2 with a 2.67 ERA and 53 strikeouts through 27 innings of relief in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, finishing sixth in American League Rookie of the Year voting and solidified himself at the back end of the Guardians bullpen, returning in 2021 to work 60 games with 12.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings and All-Star consideration. 

Then he started to get more flustered in his outings, his upper-90s fastball got figured out, and his 12-to-6 curveball got smashed (when it found its way into the strike zone). The head of his struggles came shortly before he was optioned to Triple-A Columbus on June 10, 2023, where he spent the next two months in the minors rediscovering his approach to pitching. Following one option to Columbus in 2023, Karinchak seemed to settle down and figure some things out. 

But news broke on February 16 that he was dealing with shoulder fatigue and was going to be held out of the first round of spring training workouts. President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti said he’ll be on a slower schedule to start off spring training after reporting to camp with the injury in his throwing shoulder. The team said it hopes to begin his throwing program a few days after the start of camp, while manager Stephen Vogt mentioned that “we’re really excited about the progression (Karinchak’s) made.” 

If Karinchak is able to have a good spring and demonstrate that he’ll be a reliable arm in the back end of the bullpen for Cleveland, he will be one of the more proven products in a Guardians bullpen that has many question marks. As of now, arms like Tim Herrin and Cade Smith are projected to begin in Triple-A, while Nick Mikolajchak, who seemed to be a possible Opening Day option last year, remains on the Injured List. Scott Barlow and Ben Lively are journeymen in their thirties, while the rest of the projected bullpen aside from Emmanuel Clase hasn’t been lights out for a full season.