GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Right-hander Mike Clevinger will be on the mound when the Indians open the exhibition season Friday against the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark.
He’s hoping he’s at least still on the team when Cleveland opens the season for real, March 29, in Seattle.
Clevinger is one of four pitchers, including veteran right-hander Josh Tomlin, oft-injured All-Star Danny Salazar and 2016 ALCS hero, left-hander, Ryan Merritt, vying for the final two spots in the rotation.
Salazar is behind the rest of the field after experiencing right shoulder/rotator cuff inflammation during his offseason throwing program, but he has begun throwing again.
Clevinger, who has filled the relief and starting role during his two seasons in Cleveland, stated his case well enough as a starter last year, joining the rotation in early May and remaining until mid-September, when the Indians moved him to the bullpen for the postseason.
He went 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA in 27 games, including 21 starts.
“Everyone has proven their spot. Everyone deserves a spot here,” Clevinger said Tuesday at the club’s spring training complex. “It’s just going to come down to who executes. It’s going to be a fun battle. We’re going to push each other to raise the bar, just like we do during the year.
“The band is back and everybody’s healthy, so it’s going to be fun to see everybody with fresh arms, fresh backs, fresh knees, with everything that’s gone on the last two years. It’s going to be exciting.”
For Clevinger, execution comes down to command. When it’s there -- like it was last year during a six-start stretch from June 17-July 18 in which he allowed more than one run (two) just once -- he can be as effective as anyone. When it’s not, Clevinger still resembles a young pitcher learning the ropes, as evidenced by his 60 walks and 13 home runs allowed over 121 2/3 innings last season.
“His stuff is plenty good,” manager Terry Francona said. “I think there’s times where he either would walk people or fall behind in the count. I think his batting average against or his OPS against when he was ahead in the count, behind in the count, it fluctuated, where it was like one of the biggest differences in the league. When he got ahead of guys, he put them away. When he got behind, he paid a price.”
Finding that command on a more consistent basis was a major focus for Clevinger this offseason and the search continues at training camp.
“Even today, (during the) first live BP (session), the main goal was to see how many pitches I could throw for a strike, no matter what the count was,” he said. “Even 0-2, 1-2, I was still going for the zone.
“I feel a lot stronger this year, a lot more confident in my mechanics and where I was at and where I’m going.”
With Salazar unlikely to be ready by Opening Day, it would be a shock to not see Clevinger on the roster in some capacity. Merritt is out of minor league options, but if he doesn’t make the rotation, the Indians could find a spot in the bullpen to avoid losing him on waivers. Francona has already mentioned as much.
That would leave Tomlin and Clevinger to join two-time Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber and right-handers Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer on the starting staff. Clevinger would move to the bullpen if Merritt is in the rotation, but that doesn’t seem like the direction Francona is heading.
“(Clevinger) competes. He’s not scared,” Francona said. “Sometimes, guys, they mature at different times, as far as pitching. And I think we feel like there’s a really good pitcher, whether it’s a starter or reliever. I think, obviously, you want to check a guy as a starter first, because if he can log 200 innings, it’s important.”
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