CLEVELAND — The Indians turned Vinnie Pestano into Mike Clevinger.
They shipped out Jake Westbrook and got Corey Kluber in return.
Four players, most notably Shin-Soo Choo, begat Trevor Bauer.
When 2008 American League Cy Young winner Cliff Lee became too expensive, the Indians traded him for a package of players that included Carlos Carrasco.
Say what you want about the Indians’ lackluster lineup. But as Clevinger allowed one hit and recorded a career-high 12 strikeouts in a 5-3 home-opening victory over the Chicago White Sox on Monday at Progressive Field, the Indians continued to exhibit their mastery in another area.
They have won three consecutive AL Central Division titles because they know how to take other team’s pitching rejects and turn them into top-of-the-rotation-caliber starters.
Granted, it hasn’t all been the Indians’ doing. Clevinger, Bauer, Kluber and Carrasco are known for their work ethic. Carrasco learned what it took to excel from watching Kluber. Clevinger became workout partners with the fanatical Bauer. Kluber may have gotten the nickname “Klubot” for his lack of emotion on the mound, but he’s also an automaton when it comes to his routine between starts.
Most of the credit goes to the players themselves, who have an internal fire, a drive to be the best.
But the Indians also know how to identify under-the-radar talent and nurture the players they acquired in trades, especially pitchers.
“That’s the cool part here. There’s unlimited resources,” Clevinger said Monday. “It’s how much work you want to put in, how much you want to invest into the statistics, whether it’s your mechanics or it’s your lifting, whatever the case may be.”
Kluber experimented with his switch from a four-seam fastball to a two-seam sinker during a rain delay workout with then-Triple-A pitching coach Ruben Niebla in 2011. When it was finally refined, the sinker made the rest of Kluber’s pitches more effective and helped him win Cy Young awards in 2014 and 2017.
After the first award, Kluber thanked Niebla, former Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, now-president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and then-vice president of player development Ross Atkins (now the Toronto Blue Jays general manager) for waiting on him to develop.
Bauer tested the Indians’ patience even more. His outside-the-box training and development of new pitches, like his 2019 change-up, has turned a seeming draft bust — he was the third overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011 — into arguably the Indians’ ace.
Carrasco has become a model of consistency, topping 200 strikeouts in three of the past four seasons. Only five players in Indians history have reached that mark at least three times.
Now under pitching coach Carl Willis, Clevinger seems to be taking the same steps as his rotation brethren. Last season he set career bests in every pitching category, totaling over 200 strikeouts in 200-plus innings. After the All-Star break, he led the AL in opponent batting average (.189) and had the league’s second-lowest ERA (2.31).
On Monday he touched 97 mph on the radar gun on a cold day that he said saw his velocity dip slightly from the spring.
“Clev made a huge jump last year and it wouldn’t shock me if he finds a way to make another jump this year, just because he’s such a hard worker and he cares about his craft,” Indians manager Terry Francona said pregame.
The Indians seem to have pitching development down to a science, and one of the keys is Niebla, in his seventh season as the Tribe’s minor-league pitching coordinator and starting his 19th year with the organization.
“We have good people like Ruben Niebla, guys like that who have worked with these guys,” Francona said. “But it comes down to the guys. Clev got to a point last year that was really impressive, then he shows up this year stronger, ready to take another step. That doesn’t happen without guys wanting to be really good.
“We’re pretty fortunate and we know it. Every one of our starters wants to be really good and they get after it and they carry a big load. They never seem to be running on empty, [and] that’s because of them.”
Francona is giving his starters the praise they genuinely deserve. But not to be overlooked are the skills of the dealmakers and the effort of those toiling behind the scenes in player development who traded Vinnie Pestano for perhaps the Indians’ next big thing.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.