We are officially a full month into the 2019 baseball season, and the Columbus Clippers find themselves atop the International League West with a record of 18-12. Last week the Clippers finished off the month with a road trip, going 4-3. Columbus took two of three games from the second place Indianapolis Indians (15-14), and split a four game series with the last place Toledo Mudhens (11-18).
The big story of the week is the promotion of James Karinchak, the right-handed relief pitcher who has been lighting up AA. Besides outfield darling Oscar Mercado, Karinchak is the player fans have been most clamoring for the Indians to promote. And his performance shows exactly why fans are in a frenzy. In 10 games (and 10 IP) with Akron this season, Karinchak posted a 0.00 ERA, giving up only two hits while striking out 24 and walking a mere two batters! Even the Indians, who love bringing their prospects along S-L-O-W-L-Y, knew it was time to promote this guy to AAA. In his first two games with the Clippers last week, Karinchak posted a 0.00 ERA, walked one, and recorded all six outs by strikeout. He did give up one hit during his 2 IP, but no one is perfect.
Karinchak, a 2017 Indians 9th round draft pick, is building off his success from last year, where he went from Low-A Lake County to High-A Lynchburg, and finished off the season in Akron. Across that span he recorded a 1.29 ERA in 48.2 IP, with 81 strikeouts and 36 walks.
The Indians major league bullpen has performed better than expected this season, but anyone watching knows it could fall apart at any moment. The team has not identified an 8th inning arm to set up Brad Hand as the closer. Keep an eye on Karinchak. If he keeps blowing AAA hitters away as he did in AA, we may see him in Cleveland before the All-Star break.
Clippers Outfield Update Karinchak is not the only minor league player fans are anxious to see in an Indians uniform. Last week the Tribe optioned OF Greg Allen to Columbus to get everyday at-bats and work himself out of his offensive funk. In his place they promoted Jordan Luplow instead of Oscar Mercado, to the frustration of many fans. In fairness Luplow hit .353 in nine games with the Clippers before being recalled to the Tribe. But Mercado has played well for Columbus all season, is a natural CF who could platoon with Leonys Martin in CF, and seemingly has more upside than Luplow as a prospect.
Mercado has hit his first real slump of the season over the past week or so. His batting average has dipped below .300 for the first time since the beginning of the season. He’s currently hitting .284, and has struck out seven times in the past five games. Slumps are obviously a part of baseball, but it is important for Mercado to get every day AB’s and to work on cutting down his strikeouts. He is an exciting player with a real major league future. But Luplow is serving as a fourth or fifth OF for the Tribe right now, and will not see everyday AB’s. It is important that the Indians do not let the 24 year old Mercado languish in the minors for too long, but until they are ready to let him play everyday, he does need the work at AAA and will be better for it when his time finally comes.
As for Allen, he’s hitting .333/.400/.667 with the Clippers. He has four doubles in seven games, has scored six runs and stolen two bases. Allen was not playing regularly in Cleveland, which may help explain his .105 batting average and seemingly lost look at the plate before the demotion. Playing everyday for Columbus should help Allen get back on track. Allen played well for the Tribe last year and has a lot to offer both offensively and defensively. Here’s hoping he figures it out and finds his way to Cleveland again in the near future.
One more outfielder turning things around over the past week is Trayce Thompson. You may remember the 28-year old brother of Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson as one of Tito Francona’s spring training favorites. And you may have forgotten him since then because he has not done much with the Clippers so far this season. But in his last ten games Thompson is hitting .364 with three HR and nine RBI. After spending most of the first month of the season below the Mendoza Line, Thompson is now hitting .233 on the season. Hopefully that number keeps pointing upward as the weather warms up and the calendar turns to May.
Can Anyone Help the Tribe Replace Cory Kluber As everyone knows by now, last week the Indians lost Cory Kluber to a broken arm. There is currently no timetable for his return. With Jefry Rodriguez already taking Mike Clevinger’s turn in the rotation, the Tribe needs another assist from the minor league ranks to start in place of Kluber. Adam Plutko is pitching in Arizona and looks healthy, but he will not be ready for a few more weeks. Indians #1 prospect Triston McKenzie is also working his way back from injury and is not a healthy option right now. There was once a pitcher named Danny Salazar in the Indians organization. I think he may have been lost to a white walker during the Battle of Winterfell, or perhaps he was always a figment of our imagination. Either way, he’s not available. Cody Anderson started for the Indians on Sunday and it was a disaster. So who does that leave as an option to take the ball for the Tribe every fifth day?
As I’ve mentioned before in this column, the two best starters for the Clippers this season have been 27-year old Michael Peoples and 30-year old Asher Wojciechowski. Neither are top prospects, and it’s hard to argue anyone 30 or older is a prosect at all. But Wojciechowski does have some major league experience, and he’s been good for the Clippers this season (2-1, 1.67 ERA). Peoples has 3-0 record with a 2.96 ERA this season, and together they have anchored the Clippers’ shaky pitching rotation. Ironically both pitchers suffered their first bad starts of the season this past week, but have otherwise been rock solid. The Indians don’t have many other options until Plutko is ready to go. They could give Anderson another shot. But sending him back out to get drilled again may hurt his confidence as he is trying to fully recover from 2017 Tommy John surgery. The Indians have some really promising pitching prospects in AA, but it is not the Indians style to rush someone into major league action. My bet is Wojciewchowski gets the call the next time Kluber’s turn comes about. But with two arms already down for the count at the beginning of May, the Indians may have no choice but to make the call at some point for one of their promising youngsters to come up and try to save the day.