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Orbiting Cleveland: A future forecast for the rotation

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Some say pitching equals championships. While many have their own opinion on whether that theory is accurate, it is true that pitching does equal contention more often than not.

For the Cleveland Indians, the hope is that pitching does indeed lead the team toward contention.

With their record at 69-58, the Indians are currently 2 ½ games back in the American League Wildcard race. The Tribe faces a tall task over the next few weeks, and while they’re still in the race, it’s hard to label this team as a favorite to take home one of the two Wildcard spots.

However, there is one reason for optimism, both for this season and especially for the future — pitching.

To be blunt, the Tribe’s pitching was less than stellar in the first half. At the All-Star break, the team had a 4.31 ERA, which was good for 26th in all of the MLB.

However, the Indians have now posted a 3.07 ERA after the All-Star break, which ranks fifth overall during that span. The strong performance has also helped the team lower its ERA all the way down to 3.99, which is now good for 19th in the MLB.

For as impressive as the pitching has been, there are still many concerns moving forward.

Corey Kluber is still on the disabled list with a sprained middle finger, which has been a huge loss for the club. Also, left-hander Scott Kazmir has not been himself as of late as he’s allowed a total of 10 earned runs in his last two starts.

This makes sense though as Kazmir’s inning total is at 119, and he recently mentioned that he had a “dead arm.” Players and managers usually try to be close-mouthed about these types of things, so you know it’s never a good sign when a player openly admits that he’s feeling fatigued.

Despite the question marks surrounding Kluber and Kazmir, the rotation has also received a colossal boost from one Danny Salazar.

Plain and simple, Salazar has been electrifying since making his Major League debut on July 11. In four starts, the right-hander has posted a 3.52 ERA and is striking out 11.3 batters per nine innings. Yep, he’s been that kind of nasty.

However, question marks also surround Salazar simply for the fact that he will eventually reach his innings limit, and thus will have to be shut down.

So while there is a chance that the Indians could compete and claim one of the Wild Card spots, it may not be all too realistic. This team will likely hang around into the end of September, but the rotation is going to have to perform remarkably well for the Tribe to earn a trip to the postseason.

In other words, the immediate future seems somewhat questionable. The future beyond that though, it’s bright —New York City lights bright.

Every team wants to have young, effective, Major League starting pitching. For the first time in years, the Indians have that in bunches.

Between Justin MastersonZach McAllister, Kluber and Salazar, the Indians have four quality starting pitchers that are 28 years old or younger. Furthermore, three of those four starters (McAllister, Kluber, Salazar) cannot be free agents until 2019 at the earliest.

It gets even better.

All four of the aforementioned starters can bring the gas. Each starter has a plus fastball, and all four of them have have almost reached or topped 96 mph at one point this season. Each starter’s max velocity this year is represented below:

  • Justin Masterson — 97.4 mph
  • Zach McAllister —95.7 mph
  • Corey Kluber — 97.5 mph
  • Danny Salazar — 100.0 mph

It’s been a long, long time since the Indians had so many starters that were able to bring the heat like this group.

So, moving forward, what exactly does the rotation look like in the future? Who can we pencil in to be a part of the Indians’ Opening Day rotation in 2014?

At this point, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that Ubaldo Jimenez will not be a Cleveland Indians in 2014. That may not exactly be his fault though.

Jimenez has had a resurgent 2013 season as the right-hander has gone 9-7 with a 4.00 ERA in 128 1/3 innings of work and 24 starts. FanGraphs estimates that Jimenez has been worth 0.9 wins while Baseball Reference has him at 1.0.

That’s not exactly great, but it’s not terrible either, especially considering that Jimenez is making only $5.75 million this season. If he finishes strong, Jimenez could end up being worth 1.5 wins, which seems to be worth that price point.

Regardless, it seems clear that the Tribe’s front office wants to finally wash their hands clean of Jimenez, and it’s hard to blame them. When Jimenez was acquired from the Colorado Rockies in July 2011, the Indians expected to receive a bonafide, front-of-the-rotation starter, which is exactly why the team was willing to part with its top two pitching assets in Alex White and Drew Pomeranz.

However, Jimenez scuffled mightily in 2011 and 2012, and while he’s been effective this year, it’s clear that he’s not much more than a back-of-the-rotation type at best. Jimenez and the Indians have a mutual option next year for $8 million with a team buyout of $1 million.

That price point does not seem too terrible if Jimenez were to produce like he did this season, but it seems unlikely that he will be back. While he’s been effective, he’s walking a career-high 4.9 batters per nine innings. That’s basically the definition of living dangerously.

So with Jimenez being gone, the Indians will have to find at least one replacement for the rotation, and the most probable candidate would seem to be Kazmir.

Kazmir has been one of the most encouraging stories of the 2013 season as he’s gone 7-6 with a 4.39 ERA in 22 starts and 119 innings of work. What makes this so impressive is that it’s actually been Kazmir’s first Major League action since 2011 when he made just one start with the Los Angeles Angels.

The velocity has also been back for the man formerly known as “Kid-K” as Kazmir has averaged 92.1 mph on his fastball with a high of 96.2 mph. These reasons combined with the fact that he is left-handed make Kazmir an intriguing player and one that the team should look into resigning.

There are some red flags, however.

As his workload has increased, Kazmir has begun to tire and his effectiveness has decreased. Perhaps a better offseason conditioning plan could avoid that in the future, but it’s hard to look past Kazmir’s history with injuries.

Also, if Kazmir does continue to perform well, there’s always a chance that he pitches himself out of the Indians’ price range. In a perfect world, he might be willing to offer the team a hometown discount, but history shows us that this is just not always how things work.

Two candidates that could possibly replace Kazmir are right-handers Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. Both are former top prospects, but both players have also struggled with their consistency.

Carrasco has a 7.43 ERA in nine games and 40 innings for the Indians this season, but he’s been stellar at Triple-A Columbus where he’s gone 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA.

Bauer has been a tad more erratic as he has a 5.29 ERA in four starts with the Indians this year, and the Triple-A results have not been much more encouraging. In 20 starts and 111 innings with the Clippers, the right-hander has posted a 4.14 ERA while walking 5.1 batters per nine innings. A player may be able to get by with a walk rate like that in the minors, but it will come back to kill you in the pros.

Even with their flaws though, Carrasco and Bauer remain high-potential arms. There is no telling if they will ever tap into that potential, but the hope is that at least one of them manages to become a quality Major League starting pitcher.

There are some other options as well.

Left-hander T.J. House has had a solid season at Columbus as he has a 4.32 ERA in 21 starts. House has actually been more effective than the numbers indicate as in his last eight starts, he has been particularly strong as he’s gone at least five innings in each outing and allowed no more than three runs.

House profiles as a back-of-the-rotation type at best, but he’s intriguing because he’s been such an effective minor leaguer and, well, because he’s left-handed. The 23-year-old House would be a huge darkhorse candidate to join the rotation, but it is at least an option nonetheless.

An even more unlikely candidate is power right-hander Cody Anderson, who recently joined Double-A Akron. Anderson has been dominant this year and has posted a 2.59 ERA in 132 innings and 25 starts between Akron and High-A Carolina.

There is pretty much no chance of him joining the rotation at the season’s start, but he is someone to watch as the year progresses. Armed with a mid-90s fastball, plus cutter and an average changeup and curve, Anderson seems to be on his way to becoming a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter with a chance of becoming something more.

Anderson is also appealing because he represents another example of the Indians having a young, controllable starting pitcher. If he continues to develop, Anderson could be a great insurance policy if the Indians are unable to resign Masterson to a long-term deal.

So, with all that being said, it looks as if the 2014 rotation will look something like Masterson, Kluber, McAllister, Salazar with the fifth spot going to either Kazmir, Carrasco or Bauer. Now take a minute to compare that Opening Day rotation to other Opening Day rotations that the team has fielded in recent years:

As you can tell, the 2014 Opening Day rotation is shaping up to be easily the best unit that the team has fielded since 2008. Of course, given the volatile nature of starting rotations, there is always the chance that next year’s rotation could break down and falter. After all, injuries do happen, and many of next year’s starters still have only a limited body of work.

However, the potential is definitely there for the Tribe’s rotation to be very good in 2014. More importantly, the potential is good for this rotation to be good for many years to come.

The key this offseason is for the Indians to resign Masterson as he’s a proven innings eater and can fit in nicely as a No. 2 starter in this league. The Tribe has some decent backup options in Carrasco, Bauer, Anderson and House, but Masterson is kind of the glue that holds this rotation together, so resigning him should be the team’s top priority.

While these next few weeks are sure to be a combination of entertaining/nerve-racking, Tribe fans need to remind themselves to stay calm regardless of what happens.

You see, even if this season starts to go sour, this rotation is proof that the next few seasons could be really sweet.

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