Who Are These Guys In Guardians’ Disguise?

Who Are These Guys In Guardians' Disguise?
(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

GOODYEAR, AZ. — Many Cleveland Guardians pitchers have not been themselves this spring. Except for always reliable ace Shane Bieber and a few others, whoever they have been has been alarming to fans.

“What the heck is wrong with these guys?” asked one fan Saturday. “We are supposed to have really good pitching. We always have really good pitching. I have been to five games and only seen one or two guys look good.”

Don’t fuss, Gus. The Guardians’ big-league pitching, for the most part, will come around. There’s help on the way, too. You can see that as we resume below the SportRelay.com Top 100 Countdown of Guardians Prospects with four pitchers listed in numbers 36 to 40.

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Mr. Fretting Fan was bothered by Cleveland starter Aaron Civale, who was hit hard by the Cincinnati Reds in a 7-1 loss Friday night. That fan has made the annual trip from Cleveland to spring training for more than 20 years. He follows his favorite team every day and is worried. Because worry is what Cleveland fans do best.

The earned run averages are up and steady performances down. It hasn’t been as bad as what Cincinnati sportswriter Gary Schatz once said of his sandlot pitching prowess: “My ERAs were like a string of FM radio stations: 105.9, 98.6, 101.7.”

Only minor-leaguer Juan Zapata has thrown the radio ball for the Guardians. He gave up four earned runs in one-third of an inning in his only appearance. His ERA is 108.0. Otherwise, turn the dial to Caleb Simpson, reassigned to minor-league camp on Friday, and three farmhands. They are all next at 27.00. The quartet worked a total of 5 1/3 innings and that is not worth worrying about at all.

Undesirable Numbers Disguise Guardians’ Hurlers

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It is worth noting that normally reliable relievers Trevor Stephan (16.88 ERA), James Karinchak (9.00), and Eli Morgan (7.20) along with starters Civale (5.59), Zach Plesac (9.45), Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill (8.10 each) all have numbers everyone finds undesirable. The Guardians prefer to explain that all of them also are throwing the ball without discomfort. In other words, no worries.

The team ERA is 6.39 and Cleveland has issued a worrisome 85 walks in 163 1/3 innings over 19 games for a 6-12-1 record. Guess what? A year ago, two of Cleveland’s finest pitchers throughout the 2022 season were spring disasters. Bieber was 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA. Sam Hentges, who was sensational out of the bullpen all year, had a 10.80 ERA. This year, Hentges has been shut down for two weeks with a shoulder issue. That is reason to worry.

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Manager Terry Francona has seen this before in dry desert conditions. He is well aware that some pitchers do not get as good a grip on the ball and cannot achieve high spin rates with either their fastballs or breaking stuff. Always complicating matters is the slightly thinner and much drier air does not provide as much friction against thrown baseballs, often causing them to go straighter — and farther when met by a powerful swing. Civale’s best pitch is a curve. It gets him out of jams — when it breaks.
Chillier weather than usual this spring has not helped. Pitchers have not seemed to get as loose as they would when it is in the 80s or 90s. Many teams are scoring more first-inning runs. This morning, a social media “memory of the day” pointed out that a few years ago on this date the temperature was 96°. It has been above 80 once thus far in 2023.

Other Possible Factors Include Fresh Faces at Catcher

There are a couple of other possible factors. None of the pitchers in camp had ever worked with any of Cleveland’s new catchers Mike Zunino, Cam Gallagher, Zack Collins, David Fry, or Meibrys Viloria. Getting accustomed to the mandatory pitch clock in use could cause attention to be devoted there instead of the strike zone, too.

Then again, none of that has kept Bieber (1.86) or 10 other (mostly minor-league) hurlers from failing to give up an earned run in a combined 17 innings.

Kelly In The Mix

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Right-hander Michael Kelly (1.69) seems to have ignored any distractions in his bid to earn a bullpen role. Signed as a free agent in January, Kelly made his MLB debut last year shortly before his 30th birthday for the Philadelphia Phillies. In four innings, he gave up one run on a solo homer. The Phillies were Kelly’s 13th team in a career that started with a 7.21 ERA and 0-7 record in the San Diego Padres’ system in 2012. He moved on to the Baltimore Orioles farm system, pitched all of 2019 in the independent Atlantic League, and had a nice 2021 (2.70 ERA) for two Houston Astros farm teams. He has been the best of eight non-roster pitching invitees and is likely to see more work i the next week.

Guardians’ Top Prospects Countdown: 40 to 36

After five days scouting Cleveland’s farm teams and adjusting our top 40, SportRelay.com continues to count down our list of the Guardians’ top 100 prospects. This group includes a speedy second baseman who could play center-field, and four pitchers of various sizes (5-foot-10 to 6-foot-6). Two are right-handers, two are lefties, and all four have MLB potential.

Here are the previous listings: 41-45 | 46-50 | 51-60 | 61 – 70 | 71 – 80 | 81 – 90 | 91 – 100

Fox On The Run

40. Jake Fox, 2B 3rd-round pick (95 overall) in 2021 6’0” 185 B: L T: R 2/12/2003

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Signed for $850,000 as a high-school shortstop, he has played only nine games there as a pro along with eight at third base, 31 in center and 66 at second. Want a comparison? Jason Kipnis immediately comes to mind. Picked out of college as an outfielder in the second round in 2009, “Kip” was moved to second a year later and gave Cleveland fans nine good seasons (2011-19) of hustle (135 steals) and pop at the plate (126 homers) from the left side. They are about the same size with very similar skills. Fox is faster (28-for-31 stealing in 117 pro games), potentially better in the field and may have better hand-to-eye coordination and bat control.

Fox may never be as hip as Kip to Cleveland fans, but projects as a top-of-the-order, on-base demon. By adding some muscle, he could hit 15 homers a year, too. His dad, Blane, played seven years in the minors (1985-91) in four farm systems as an outfielder. Pop coached Jake and Lakeland Christian HS to the Florida 3A state title in 2019.

Long, Slow Road Back

39. Ethan Hankins, RHP 1st-round pick (35 overall) in 2018 6’6” 230 B: R T: R 5/23/2000

Five years ago, scouts were drooling over the big right-hander with a 97-mph fastball that had incredible run and sink along with an 82-mph slider with late break. In 12 innings for the USA Under-18 team in 2017, he had a 0.75 ERA and 27 strikeouts. Some forecast the Georgia high school phenom as the top pick overall. They shied away after shoulder tightness caused Hankins to miss a month and his stock dropped. Cleveland took him at No. 35 and paid him an over-slot $2,246,022 to sign instead of going to college. He worked on a 75-mph curve, quickly blending in a high spin rate back-breaker that actually became more effective against young hitters than the elite heater.

Shutdowns Are Downers

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After COVID shutdown the minors in 2020 and working only 64 innings (47 hits allowed, 78 strikeouts) as a pro, Hankins had Tommy John Surgery in May of 2021. He has pitched one inning since. This season may be his most important. If he regains his previous stuff, the soon-to-be 23-year-old should still be a rotation prospect. When healthy, he worked both sides of the plate well though he could lose command of that tailing, sinking fastball. He was learning to use a changeup with sink and was showing the ability to vary the tempo of his delivery and high leg kick to throw off the timing of batters even more.

Hankins will need time to get all the moving parts in sync on that big body and throw free and easy again. He will probably remain at extended spring training until it warms up in Ohio, where he could pitch for the High-A Lake County Captains or Double-A Akron RubberDucks.

Mini Moundsman Makes Mark

38. Will Dion, LHP 9th-round pick (276 overall) in 2021 5’10” B: L T: L 4/17/2000

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Nicknamed “Mini Kershaw” for a delivery that replicates that of three-time NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, the little lefty has had big success the past two years across three levels. In 140 innings, he fanned 178, walked only 39, and allowed 96 hits with a 1.96 ERA. Those are Kershaw-like numbers! All from a lower-round pick signed for $125,000 from McNeese State, where he showed similar stuff: 16-6, 3.01 ERA, 220 Ks, only 38 walks, and 129 hits allowed in 170 innings. Where does it come from? It began with a tip from Jared Gothreaux, his coach in high school, where Dion struggled. He put a box at Dion’s feet and told the teen to put his front (right) foot on it and pause before throwing.

Soon, a friend told Dion that it looked like Kershaw’s odd way of pausing his delivery with hands held high. Dion discovered that not only did it make him deceptive to batters, but it enabled him to regather his tempo and balance — exactly what his coach wanted. A by-product was his ordinary fastball gained velocity and movement, his slow curve broke bigger, and both consistently found the strike zone. He has added a fair, sinking change from an overhand delivery that gets good spin on a low-90s heater and curve. Dion soon will be 23. Kershaw got to the majors at age 20 and at 6-foot-4 threw much harder in his prime so don’t expect another Cy Young winner in Cleveland, although Dion could be…

Like Tiny Tim

A decade ago, an even smaller lefty, 5-foot-7 “Tiny” Tim Collins helped the Kansas City Royals to the 2013 World Series with a similar pitch mix. Signed at 17 as an undrafted free agent by the Toronto Blue Jays, he was a three-year wonder in the minors (322 strikeouts in 217 innings, 32 saves) and then traded away. He never started nor saved a game in six years in the majors, but fanned 245 in 242 1/3 innings for three MLB clubs. Dion is trying to be the 11th McNeese State product to make the majors. Two played in Cleveland, first baseman Ben Broussard (2002-06) and 13-year reliever Bob Howry (2004-05 ).

Vroom From Vandy

37. Mason Hickman, RHP 5th-round pick (154 overall) in 2020 6’6” 220 B: R T: R 2/23/1998

Dan O’Dowd was Colorado Rockies general manager (1999-2014) after helping assemble Cleveland’s powerhouse team of the 1990s as director of player development (1988-92) and assistant GM (1993-98). So let’s take his word on Hickman. “I love this pick right here,” O’Dowd said on draft day as an MLB Network analyst in 2020. “Mason is a guy you’ve got to evaluate differently. He pitches on top of the strike zone, he’s got tremendous deception. So his fastball sits 89-91, but it plays up. He’s got a good top-to-bottom breaking ball, he’s got a changeup, he’s a strike-thrower, he’s highly competitive and he just wins. He’s won since he showed up on the Vanderbilt campus.”

Piling Up Ks

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O’Dowd had done his homework. Hickman went 19-2 in three seasons for the traditional NCAA power, though made only three starts in 2020 when COVID shut down the college game. He has only an 11-14 record as a pro but 213 strikeouts in 170 innings. In 2022, he held right-handers to a .194 batting average and whiffed 103 in 72 1/3 innings. He started 10 of 19 games at High-A Lake County, then got four saves in 10 games, all in relief at Double-A Akron.

The Guardians wanted to see more and sent him to the Arizona Fall League for eight more outings. Hickman is the ninth player and eighth pitcher picked from Vanderbilt by Cleveland including Jeremy Sowers (2004, 1st round) and Jensen Lewis (2005, 3rd round). The school previously sent 50 players to the majors including current Cubs star shortstop Dansby Swanson and seven all-star pitchers beginning with four-time all-star selection Rip Sewell (1932-49) and five-time pick David Price (2008-22).

Going In Style

36. Doug Nikhazy, LHP 2nd-round pick (68 overall) in 2021 6’0” 205 B: L T: L 8/11/1999

He got a $1.2 million signing bonus after being picked out of Mississippi, where he went 24-6 over three years and missed bats (149 hits allowed in 204 2/3 innings) without lighting up radar guns. He is what the late former all-star turned broadcaster Herb Score liked to call a “stylish left-hander”. That meant a guy with command of a good curve, sneaky fastball, and the ability to change speeds and throw strikes – such as old-school 20-game winners Dave McNally, Mike Flanagan, and Scott McGregor of Baltimore, Hall of Famer Tom Glavine of Atlanta and more recently Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox. You can include Drew Pomeranz, Cleveland’s first-rounder in 2010 from Ole’ Miss who now has 11 years in the majors with six clubs.

Wanted: Reliable Lefty

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Nikhazy may never approach any of them but has MLB potential with a four-pitch mix from an overhand delivery. His mid-70s curve has plenty of spin and drop. His fastball is in the low 90s, slider in the mid-80s, and changeup has good fade. In 21 starts at Lake County last year in his pro debut, he dominated lefties (.147 average against) and held right-handers to a .222 mark. He got 118 strikeouts though allowed far too many walks (68) in 93 innings. He consistently worked out of most jams, getting nine double plays and holding hitters to a .203 average with men on base. It may be a year or two and Nikhazy needs refinement but he has a chance to be the first reliable lefty in a Cleveland rotation since Cliff Lee. Nikhazy was age 9 when Lee went 22-3 to win the 2008 AL Cy Young Award.

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