CLEVELAND — The Indians’ opener is Thursday in Detroit. Their closer isn’t nearly as definitive.
Cleveland enters the season with uncertainty at several positions, questions about whether their offense can produce enough to back a strong starting staff and manager Terry Francona deciding not to christen a closer from an interesting assortment of bullpen arms.
For now, the closer’s job is shared.
After the Indians parted ways with All-Star Brad Hand this winter, it was assumed that hard-throwing right-hander James Karinchak, who had 53 strikeouts in 27 innings last season, would move into the vital closer spot.
However, partly because of Karinchak’s struggles during camp (6.10 ERA in 12 appearances) and because he has other options, Francona will use a rotation of relievers to close with Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase and Nick Wittgren all getting a turn.
“It’s more how we get to a point in the game,” Francona said Wednesday on a Zoom call from Comerica Park. “I’ve never been real comfortable trying to get to wait for the ninth inning and losing in the seventh. They have a little bit different skill sets in what they offer and I think we have a better chance of winning by allocating them in different ways.
“We’re trying to develop Karinchak at the same time, and have him be a weapon at the same time. So, rather than pigeon-holing him into a certain inning, I think we can help that along, too.”
Because he’s earned Francona’s trust, Wittgren will likely be the first summoned to close. In two seasons with the Indians, the 29-year-old is 7-1 with a 2.99 ERA in 80 games.
“Since the day he has arrived here, he has been nothing but a pro,” Francona said. “He has been reliable, accountable and is a leader. He has been a huge part of our bullpen and will continue to be.”
While Karinchak may be infatuated with Charlie Sheen’s Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn character in the film “Major League” (he wears No. 99, screams into his glove and styled his hair like Vaughn’s last year), the 25-year-old also possesses a wicked curve ball that complements an overpowering fastball.
The right-hander’s issue is that he’s not always sure where it’s going.
And then there’s Clase, who dazzled the Indians in Arizona after missing last season due to an 80-game PED suspension. In Tuesday’s exhibition finale, Clase threw five pitches over 100 mph.
“102,” Francona said, chuckling about Clase’s top speed. “That was fast.”
The Indians weren’t exactly sure what they had in Clase, who came over from Texas in the 2019 trade for two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.
“When a guy doesn’t compete for a whole year, you kind of wonder if he’s going to throw strikes or if he’s going to be spraying balls,” Francona said. “If anything he might throw too many strikes. If that’s the biggest problem we have, we’re OK. But I mean he pounds the strike zone with all his pitches. You rarely see him pitch from behind in the count.”
Along with the three potential closers, the Indians’ bullpen has some interesting pieces. There’s experience in Oliver Perez and Bryan Shaw, Rule 5 pickup Trevor Stefan and Phil Maton, young right-handers Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill will give Francona length and maybe an occasional start.
Beyond that group, converted outfielder Anthony Gose, who throws 100 mph and made major strides this spring, is waiting in the wings with lefty Kyle Nelson.
Following Clase’s performance, starter Aaron Civale said the Indians have a group of relievers that could open eyes.
“It’s not just Clase, he said. “We got some premium arms in the bullpen. Not everyone might know their names, but I think by the end of the year a lot of people will. It’s very comforting to pitch with those guys behind you.”
NOTES: With the Tigers starting LHP Matthew Boyd in the opener, Francona will start Jordan Luplow in center and Yu Chang at first. Chang was one of Cleveland’s best hitters in camp and Francona said the 25-year-old has matured. “He’s stronger. He’s more agile. He’s more sure of himself,” Francona said. “Are there going to be hiccups? I don’t know. There usually are. But he’s situated to handle things better than he has in the past.”