Guardians reliever Sam Hentges has been shut down due to a shoulder issue and will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis moving forward, manager Terry Francona announced this morning (link via Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer). Hentges felt discomfort after his most recent spring outing, and a subsequent MRI revealed inflammation.
“Week-to-week” is an ominous designation for Hentges, who quietly broke out as one of the best lefty relievers in the league last season. The 26-year-old logged 62 innings of 2.32 ERA ball for Cleveland in 2022, fanning a hefty 29.4% of his opponents against a better-than-average 7.8% walk rate and a mammoth 61.5% ground-ball rate. He allowed just three home runs on the season and, in addition to dominating left-handed batters (.143/.194/.176), held right-handers in check as well (.215/.301/.315).
It was a remarkable transition for Hentges, a former fourth-round pick (2014) who’d made his MLB debut in 2021 but struggled as both a starter and a reliever during that rookie campaign. Hentges pitched nearly the same number of innings in ’21 (68 1/3) but was rocked for a 6.68 ERA with vastly inferior strikeout (21.4%), walk (10.1%) and ground-ball rates (45.8%) to the ones he recorded in ’22. Hentges scaled back the usage of his four-seamer, slider and curveball during his sophomore season in Cleveland, instead leaning heavily into his sinker. He also saw his average velocity jump considerably — from 94.8 mph to 96.1 mph on the four-seamer and from 93.3 mph to 95.7 mph on the sinker — when working exclusively in shorter stints.
Hentges wasn’t limited to one-inning stints during that breakout showing, either. He worked more than one inning in 26% of his appearances in 2022 and on six occasions completed two or more frames. That prevented him from ever working on three consecutive days, but he was still a vital cog in what was one of MLB’s best bullpens in 2022; Guardians relievers worked to a collective 3.05 ERA — the fifth-best mark in the Majors. The Cleveland bullpen also ranked sixth in strikeout rate, seventh in home-run rate and ninth in walk rate.
As it stands, Hentges is the only lefty projected for a spot in Francona’s bullpen to begin the season. Tim Herrin is the lone southpaw reliever elsewhere on the 40-man, though lefty starters Joey Cantillo or Konnor Pilkington could potentially be called upon as bullpen options if needed. Lefties Phillip Diehl and Caleb Baragar signed minor league contracts with non-roster invites over the winter, and homegrown southpaw Andrew Misiaszek also got an invite to camp.
There’s no indication at this time that Hentges is in jeopardy of missing a substantial chunk of the regular season, but if the Guards want to add some insurance, the free-agent market still has a few notable names. Zack Britton, Will Smith and old friend Brad Hand are all currently unsigned.