The Cleveland Guardians rotation is in good shape. It is not time to panic over the state of a rotation headlined by Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie. Those two form a tandem that can match up with any in baseball. They are followed by Cal Quantrill, who is a fine third starter for a contender (and, right now, the ace of the Canadian World Baseball Classic team).
After the top three, though, things get a little dicey. Aaron Civale (4.92 ERA, 78 ERA+) and Zach Plesac (4.31 ERA, 89 ERA+) both struggled in 2022 with injuries and poor performance. Both ended the year as below-average starters.
However, due to a number of factors, this season will be a time for the Guardians to make difficult decisions on players who have been a part of their recent success, including Plesac and Civale. There are three obvious reasons the Guardians should be concerned with Plesac in particular and potentially considering alternatives in the near future.
Cleveland's Options to Fill Out the Rotation Are Plentiful
While the Guardians did not make any major additions to the rotation in free agency, that does not mean either Civale or Plesac are guaranteed a spot in the rotation throughout this season. The Guardians have plenty of depth, with intriguing options Xzavion Curry and Konnor Pilkington nearly ready for the majors, and prospects Joey Cantillo, Logan Allen and Tanner Bibee not far behind. Add to that depth pieces such as former top prospect Touki Toussaint, who the Guardians added as a minor-league free agent after he was designated for assignment by the Los Angeles Angels in November, and the Guardians are not short on options should one or both of their final two starters falter.
It is also worth noting that the Guardians are flush with prospect talent, so much so that there is not room for all of their prospects to make an impact at the major-league level in Cleveland. This is a unique and exciting problem to have, but it also opens up the potential for them to make a high-impact mid-season acquisition. They have recently been connected to high-profile names such as Milwaukee Brewers’ ace and impending free agent Corbin Burnes.
Needless to say, the myriad of options that the Guardians have at their disposal, and the flexibility that they have to add both payroll and players throughout the season if needed, puts them in a good position. However, it also puts pressure on Civale and Plesac to perform right out of the gate. Plesac in particular presents an interesting case because he combines performance issues with character concerns that have stunted his progression as a pitcher and limited his availability at times over the past few seasons.
Plesac's Act Has Gotten Old, and Worn on the Team
In August 2020, Plesac was placed on the restricted list for breaking COVID-19 protocols. Along with a half-hearted apology that was not well-received by teammates at the time, he posted a controversial and ill-advised Instagram video defending his actions while trying to villainize the media for covering them.
In 2021,m he broke his thumb in a tantrum after allowing five runs in an outing against the Twins. Then in August 2022, Plesac broke his hand and missed the Guardians’ wild-card round after punching the pitching mound in response to allowing a home run by the Mariners' Jake Lamb in a start that meant nothing.
His antics have alienated teammates and show a level of immaturity that at this point has to be questioned. Will he ever be able to get through a season without drama negatively impacting the team? Can the Guardians count on him when it matters? And should they?
Plesac's On-field Performance Is Reason Enough to Be Concerned
On and off-field drama aside, Plesac’s performance would be concerning enough. His velocity has dropped from a useable 94 mph to a pedestrian 92 mph average on his fastball. This is combined with breaking pitches that consistently grade as less than major-league average. Unfortunately for Plesac and the Guardians, the on-field results match with him posting a 4.67 ERA in 2021, followed by a 4.39 ERA and 3-11 record in 2022.
Potentially more concerning, Plesac’s struggles have continued into spring training in 2023. In his first outing, he put up an ugly first start, allowing six hits and five runs in 1.2 IP against the Rangers on February 26. He followed this by “bouncing back” with a 2.1-inning performance against the Brewers that forced manager Terry Francona to use the unique spring training rule that allows a team to pull a struggling pitcher one inning and put them back in the next in order to get work in and protect them from injury.
Plesac does not have a dominant pitch that would point to him being successful out of the bullpen, so his future is likely as a starter. All said, Plesac has fallen a long way from when he was the presumed number-two starter in Cleveland in 2020. His prospect status has dimmed, his on- and off-field antics are reason for serious concern, and his performance makes it so that he is likely on his last shot in Cleveland. His status is something to watch as spring training progresses and the 2023 regular season begins.