Which arms will round out Guardians’ ‘pen?

March 14th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Heading into camp, the Guardians knew they would have at least one spot to fill in their bullpen. Now that lefty Sam Hentges is dealing with left shoulder inflammation, two vacancies have opened up.

Cleveland slightly narrowed down its candidates prior to Tuesday’s 8-6 loss to the Angels at Goodyear Ballpark, optioning righty Jason Bilous to Triple-A Columbus and reassigning righty Caleb Simpson to Minor League camp.

“[Bilous] felt really good about his camp,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “He wants to throw his changeup more than he has in the past, which is OK, but you still have to command your fastball. He spins the breaking ball, he’s working on his slider, so the more consistent that gets, that’s going to give him a better chance to maybe be a multi-inning reliever.”

There are two weeks remaining in Spring Training. Here’s a look at the relievers left in camp:

40-man candidates (Reminder: the 40-man roster is currently full, so these are the most likely options)

Tim Herrin: With Hentges on the sidelines (though it doesn’t seem like he’ll be out of commission for too long), this paves the way for Herrin to fill the lefty need in the ‘pen. The left-hander had great numbers in a short stint in Double-A Akron last year, but he struggled more in Triple-A Columbus. He hasn’t had the greatest appearances in Cactus League play, but Francona noted that Herrin reminds him of Hentges a few years ago and is hoping Herrin is on the same path. Maybe he’s just a placeholder until Hentges is healthy, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make the Opening Day roster.

Hunter Gaddis, Konnor Pilkington, Xzavion Curry: Let’s group this trio together. They’re all starters who are trying to prove they can one day be part of this rotation. With Cleveland’s five starters already set, overcrowded rotations at each level of the farm system and an opening in the bullpen, it seems to make the most sense to move at least one of these guys to a relief role. Maybe Gaddis has a lead in that race, but it’s still too early to make a confident prediction.

Eventually Cody Morris: Morris fits in the same starter-to-possibly-reliever category as the previous three hurlers. But because of his injury history, he’s even more likely to end up in this type of a role. He’s been dealing with the same back/shoulder issues that have plagued him the last few years, but the Guardians seem optimistic he’ll bounce back quickly this time. If that’s the case, he’s probably going to end up in the bullpen.

Non-roster invitees

Touki Toussaint: Toussaint will be an interesting arm to continue to watch, but Opening Day might not be in the picture. The Guardians are looking to work with him on his fastball command, and the coaching staff has raved about his willingness to learn and adapt. It just might take more time before he’s in Cleveland.

Nick Mikolajchak: Mikolajchak threw himself on to Cleveland’s radar in 2021 when he was in Double-A, owning a 3.18 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings. But last season in Triple-A, although his ERA was slightly lower than the year prior, he struggled more with his command, issuing 29 walks in 50 1/3 innings. His spring has been solid thus far — and he will continue to be a candidate for Cleveland’s bullpen — but Mikolajchak may need more time to develop in the Minors.

Other non-roster invitees: Michael Kelly, who has given up just two hits and one earned run in 4 1/3 frames this spring but has just four big league games under his belt as he enters his age 30 season; Caleb Baragar, who owned a 1.57 ERA in 25 appearances with the Giants in 2021; Phillip Diehl, who hasn’t permitted a run in three spring games; Dusten Knight, whose rough outing against the White Sox at the beginning of the month (three earned runs in one inning) has skewed his spring numbers; Luis Oviedo, who has allowed two earned runs across five games this spring; and Cade Smith, who has had a decent spring with the Guardians but is currently away from the club with Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.