April 20, 2024

Damage Report: Triaging the Guardians Pitching Staff After Thursday’s Injuries

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In one day, the early part of the Guardians’ season was flipped upside down.

Three different Guardians pitchers expected to make the team’s 26-man roster to start the season were all reported as having varying degrees of injuries on Thursday. The players involved include starting pitcher Gavin Williams as well as relievers Trevor Stephan and Sam Hengtes.

The Big Problem

Stephan’s injury is the most devastating. He had been shut down from throwing in late February due to discomfort in his throwing elbow and his recovery had not been promising. It was announced on Thursday that Stephan will need a UCL reconstruction procedure, or as the kids call it, Tommy John surgery.

Recovery times for Tommy John surgery vary but expect Stephan to be gone for the entire season. He had signed a four-year contract extension with the Guardians before the 2023 season that culminated in two team options for 2027 and 2028, but with the loss of a full year, the Guardians have effectively lost somewhere between 16 and 25 percent of the time that Stephan is signed on to pitch for their ball-club.

That goes without mentioning the immediate problem of finding relievers to fill Stephan’s shoes in 2024. The Guardians had a number of live arms coming out of their bullpen in 2023, but there was also a perception that those arms struggled in high-leverage (the parts of the game with the most impact on the result) situations. Throughout the season manager, Terry Francona was mixing and matching, looking for pitchers late in close ballgames that could nail down key outs. Stephan was one of Francona’s few stalwarts. Only closer Emmanuel Clase faced more batters in high-leverage situations last season than Stephan did. At face value, losing Stephan is a big blow to a bullpen that was already light on relievers with a lot of experience in tense moments.

Solutions Dealing in Leverage

With Stephan being such a pivotal member of the Guardians’ 2023 bullpen, one might think it would be difficult for the team to stem the tide under new manager Stephen Vogt. However, the Guardians did acquire reliever Scott Barlow from the San Diego Padres this winter. Barlow has a history as a back-end reliever, even closing at different times in his career with Kansas City. Barlow actually faced more batters in high-leverage situations last season than Stephan and has the sixth most batters faced in such situations over the last three seasons. So, he is easily an addition that the Guardians can use.

A good way to measure success for pitchers in high-leverage situations is the stat FIP or Fielder fielder-independent pitching. FIP is calculated purely using home runs, walks and strikeouts and, unlike ERA, won’t get skewed as badly because of the inherent nature of a high-leverage situation (runners on base). Emphasizing strikeouts is also an important feature because strikeouts are key in high-leverage situations as they don’t let runners advance or score, unlike fly-outs or ground-outs. Lastly and put most plainly, there probably isn’t a more demoralizing situation for a home run than when the game is on the line. FIP is accounting for that too. For all these reasons, I am using it to evaluate high-leverage performance.

The median FIP for pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched in high-leverage situations since 2021 is 3.79. Barlow’s FIP in such situations is 3.29. So, not only does he have a ton of experience in these situations but has fared quite well in them.

Additionally, I noticed someone else’s name when stalking the leader-boards in doing this research: Guardians reliever Sam Hentges. Hentges has been far and away the Guardians’ best reliever in the high leverage since 2021, with an FIP of 1.82. In fact, among 210 pitchers who have faced 85 or more batters in high-leverage situations since 2021, no reliever has a better FIP than Hentges. He was particularly lock-down last year, having pitched to a 1.55 FIP over the most recent campaign. Hentges faced 50 such high-leverage batters while missing a little more than the first month of the season with shoulder inflammation. Had he played the full year, he likely would have slotted in below Stephan as Francona’s third most commonly used reliever with the game on the line.

However, Hentges came up with his own injury issues on Thursday as well, with reports stating he was dealing with a swollen finger that would need to be checked out. At the moment, this does not appear to be a serious cause for concern, but does come at unfortunate timing given the news about Stephan. Hopefully, it doesn’t escalate into something more problematic.

With Stephan out of the picture, it will be imperative that Barlow is the type of pitcher he has been over recent years. It will also be up to Hentges to take up the mantle as another dependable back-of-the-bullpen arm for the Guardians. To this point, Hentges has had the results but hasn’t necessarily been tagged with the reputation of being a key shutdown reliever. I would hope that Vogt will make the decision to utilize Hentges appropriately to go along with Barlow as a bridge to ultimately transport leads to Clase. If anything, Stephan’s temporary demise may be the opportunity that Hentges needs to emerge.

Although, it would have just been nice to have the depth of having all four of Clase, Barlow, Stephan and Hentges at the back end perhaps in 2025 if Barlow decides to return.

Let’s Make This More Complicated: What About Gavin Williams?

Complicating the situation, even more, is the fact that not only did news break of Stephan and Hentges’s injury issues on Thursday, but also there was bad news regarding starter Gavin Williams as well. Williams had right elbow discomfort earlier this week when doing throwing drills with a weighted ball. He has had an MRI that didn’t show any major damage, but his throwing program has been halted and he too is expected to start the season on the Injured List. In short, don’t expect him to miss the entire season like Stephan, but don’t expect him to be on the mound when the season starts either.

With Stephan and Williams starting the season on the IL, this opens up additional spots in the starting rotation and bullpen that the Guardians will need to fill when they disembark for Oakland. Before the injuries. there were perceived to be two open spots in the bullpen that a number of names had been in competition for this spring. Stephan’s placement on the Injured List opens a third.

So, Who Could Fill These Spots?

Early candidates included Cade Smith, Tim Herrin, Ben Lively, James Karinchak, Xzavion Curry and Carlos Carrasco. Presumably, one of Curry or Carrasco was going to make the team as a long man/swingman in the bullpen while there would be one more spot available for a more traditional reliever role. Karinchak seemed like the most likely choice for that traditional spot, but the start of his season has been delayed by shoulder issues to the point that he has yet to pitch in a Cactus League game. Smith has been the most impressive, pitching to a 2.45 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and team-leading 11 strikeouts in 7 1/3 spring innings while Lively has the worst results this spring of anyone named. Still, Lively is on a Major League contract (although one not even cracking $1 million) and Smith has never pitched in a regular season game above AA ball.

One additional name out of left field that strikes me as an interesting option is Jack Leftwich. He would be an absolute long shot considering he has less buzz than Smith and has similarly never pitched about AA ball, but the right-handed former 7th-round pick of the Guards has yet to allow a run and has only allowed three base runners in 4 1/3 Cactus League innings.

The Guardians’ schedule this year does not include an extra day off after Opening Day in Oakland, so this is not a year where they can get away with only using four starters for the first couple weeks of the season. If Williams does indeed start the season on the IL then perhaps Curry or Carrasco could fill the empty spot in the rotation. Hunter Gaddis is another starting pitcher with some MLB experience for the Guards the last two seasons and he is having a better spring than either of the other two options. He could also certainly nab the early season starts.

As for the bullpen, I originally would not have been surprised if Lively didn’t make the team when they broke camp, but that was before these injuries. With a new hole in the bullpen, Karinchak not having stepped on a mound yet and another potential relief option needing to be siphoned off to be a starter, it seems like things are falling in such a way that he is going to be in the Guardians bullpen on March 28th. I’m also just skeptical that the Guardians will have Smith (or Leftwich) make the leap to the Majors having never pitched in AAA. With Lively likely in, it seems to me then that the remaining two bullpen spots would go to Herrin and someone from the Carrasco/Curry/Gaddis camp. It just doesn’t make much sense to carry around two long relievers rather than a second lefty like Herrin.

Predictions on Who Will Ultimately Make the Team

As for covering for Williams, my feeling is that the team will give Carrasco the opportunity to pitch in the rotation. With him and Curry performing fairly evenly, I just don’t see the Guardians forcing Carrasco to go to the minors if they feel like they could use him. It could also be better to get one of the younger options into the bullpen where more flexibility is needed.

Speaking of, I also think that as long as Gaddis keeps it up, he has earned his spot on the roster and I could see him being the pitcher to provide length out of the bullpen. The other two more traditional relief roles would then go to Lively and Herrin with Curry and Smith being just a call away depending on what type of support is needed. Of course, Opening Day rosters aren’t meant to last six months. I would suspect any and all of the names mentioned here are going to have some impact on the Guardians over the course of 162.

One Last Injury for the Road: A Top Prospect Stymied Again

The Guardians also announced that prospect pitcher Daniel Espino will miss the entirety of 2024 due to shoulder surgery that was performed on Thursday. This is the second year in a row Espino will miss due to shoulder surgery. At 23 years old and after a history of being considered the team’s top prospect by multiple publications, there’s still reason to believe he could make the Majors someday, but that becomes less and less likely with every setback and missed season. Quite frankly, at this point, seeing Espino in a Major League uniform someday would be a pleasant surprise as opposed to an expectation.

Thank goodness last Thursday is over with…

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