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Rotational conversation at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

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Danny Slazar (REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk)

Danny Slazar (REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk)

The holidays have passed, and the New Year is in full bloom here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and I’ve got my thermal underwear, as the temperature is hovering right around zero, with a wind chill somewhere south of that. This is the time of the year that really has me missing baseball.

The freezing temperatures have a chokehold around a Greater Cleveland area that doesn’t have any more football to watch, and has been mesmerized by another basketball season full of more dysfunction than one city should have to endure.

While the hot stove season is still in full effect, this is the downtime that can drive a fan absolutely crazy. The Indians certainly haven’t been stagnant, but after last year’s rapid upheaval of a “thought-dead” organization, the few moves that have been made just haven’t put the wind behind many sails.

It can be utter torture, especially when you watch the spending several other teams have made this offseason, including some small market team located right here in the A.L. Central.Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be the discontent that usually runs rampant here on the North Shore, as the Indians still have a team, on paper at least, that can contend for a playoff spot. How close, or far into the playoffs this team can go is up for debate, but the Indians certainly shouldn’t be a team that falls back to their 2012 level of futility.

My only fear is that the Indians have fallen back into their pattern in recent years of following up a winning season without making a move that could get them over the hump of the past year’s stopping point. The Indians had to win ten games in a row to close out the season in a playoff spot, and were out after the one game playoff. They’ve lost two starting pitchers off that rotation, and while Danny Salazar fills in part of that hole, there does seem to be questions with regards to whether or not the rotation is going to reach the 2013 standards.

In Today’s Corner, Mike Hattery and I are going to continue our dialogues on the Indians in 2014. Today we’re going to focus on the Indians rotation, but also take a cursory look at the A.L. Central as well.

With the Twins and the Royals addressing their rotations, and the Detroit Tigers sending away Doug Fister, it might be good to compare the Indians losses with the rest of the division, to see exactly where the Indians stand.

The Off-Season Dialogues: Rotational Edition

Cleveland Indians Detroit Tigers Kansas City Royals Minnesota Twins Chicago White Sox
Justin Masterson Justin Verlander James Shields Kevin Correia Chris Sale
Danny Salazar Max Scherzer Jeremie Guthrie Ricky Nolasco Jose Quintana
Corey Kluber Anibal Sanchez Jason Vargas Philip Hughes John Danks
Zach McAllister Rick Porcello Danny Duffy Mike Pelfrey Erik Johnson
Carlos Carrasco Drew Smyly Yordano Ventura Samuel Deduno Felipe Paulino
Josh Tomlin Wade Davis Vance Worley Andre Rienzo
Trevor Bauer Andrew Albers
Shaun Marcum Kyle Gibson
Scott Diamond


Jim: Mike, I wanted to take a good look at the starting rotations of all the A.L. Central clubs this week, and when you take a cursory look, they are quite interesting. When you go spot-by-spot through each team, you can really see the strengths and weaknesses of the Indians rotation as it stands right now.

I know that there are a lot of different “big ideas” that we can take from our first look, but let’s keep it a bit more general to start. Let’s take a look at our “first glimpse” thoughts via this rotation.

At first glimpse, I thought that Kansas City and Minnesota had drastically improved their rotations, but looking closer, I realize that they overspent to keep their rotations afloat, unless I’m missing something dramatic.

The Royals, in particular, seem to have taken a step backwards. I’m not saying that Ervin Santana is a superstar, and a cursory look says that Vargas matched Santana in wins, but I just don’t see Vargas matching Santana’s 2013 season. I also like Duffy, and think that Ventura is a potential star in this league, but I actually think this rotation will be worse than last year. Now James Shields is a really nice pitcher, and Jeremy Guthrie is as well, but you can make an argument that Shields isn’t quite a #1 starter, and that Guthrie is, at best, a MOR type.

The Twins have a bunch of names there that I don’t know about, but adding Nolasco and Hughes, while certainly improving their rotation a bit, doesn’t seem to make them all that more impressive overall. It’s an okay rotation for sure, but nothing overtly special.

I’m not going to say much about the Tigers rotation. It’s just not as good as it was last year with Fister gone, but Smyly is functional as the fifth starter. They aren’t deep, and I think injuries could be an issue, but they are still the cream of the crop as far as the central goes.

I have nothing good to say about the White Sox rotation, other than to say that Chris Sale is absolutely phenomenal. There’s nothing really special to say about their rotation past Sale. Quintana seems like a MOR type, John Danks hasn’t been all that good in three years. Erik Johnson looks to have some upside with a quick look at the numbers, but doesn’t seem to have the intangibles to be anything more than a MOR guy or worse. Felipe Paulino is a marginal major-league starter at this point, and Andre Rienzo seems to have marginal upside as well. Trading Jake Peavy was just insane, looking back.

I’m going to table my Indians thoughts for a moment, but it seems to me that there isn’t a staff in the A.L. Central that got markedly better. The Tigers are still really good, but the rest seem average-ish.

Mike: This is a really interesting piece to parse out, as the differentiation in rotation talent in the central is particularly obvious. I am of the volition that a rotation can be judged based on two criterias: 1) Whether the top three starters in the rotation are high upside types who can anchor a plus rotation. 2) Whether the 7,8 starters have the talent to keep the team in games, offer competent innings.

This is because attrition rates are incredibly high in rotations especially at the back end, truthfully when I look at each of these rotations, even with the ambiguity in the #5 slot, the Indians easily have the 2nd best rotation. One with a lot of upside.

The Royals clearly have the darkhorse rotation, while I clearly like the Indians front four better right now, the Royals have two upside guys who could change the equation in Ventura and Duffy.

Of course that could be said of multiple teams as one would think Bauer or Carrasco have upside in the #5 slot.

The Royals rotation to me is the one with the most possibility for fluctuation while Shields is a stud and Ventura an immense talent, the Royals are heavily on reliant on Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie on a team that hopes to contend.

Right now Jason Vargas projects as the Royals #3 or #4 starter this ought to be concerning. Vargas career numbers:

4.30 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 5.73 K/9.

The notion being that he is the definition of a fifth starter, a man merely relied upon to log innings and hopefully keep his team in games. This is the #3 starter on a team that is hoping to contend.

Guthrie is not better: 4.24 ERA, 4.75 FIP, 4.72 K/9.

Thus the Royals will be relying on two fringy, backend starters to be middle of the rotation arms on a so-called contender. Of course their bullpen helps to bridge that gap but we are merely talking starting pitching.

Thus, when looking at the Royals, a mediocre offensive team that lacks depth, with a middling rotation, I think the gap between the Indians and Royals is larger than national pundits believe.

I must concur with you Jim, the Twins while I believe to be marginally better aren’t particularly good and won’t really be anything more than a collection of middle of the rotation types.

I think the White Sox top three is interesting and I absolutely love Sale but really there is little else to consider on their front five.

AS for the Tigers the rotation is the best in the central but it is undoubtedly weaker. This including the fact that I am a big fan of Drew Smyly. I think he is a very solid pitcher in this league and a tremendous #5 starter.

However, Doug Fister was an absolutely huge loss and there is a legitimate marginal value gap between Fister and his replacement Smyly. Fister was a top 15-20 starter in MLB the past few seasons and compares favorably to David Price over that time period.

Putting aside the fact that the Tigers probably got fleeced in that deal, the rotation will take a step back but remains the best in the division.

Of course now it is time to consider the Indians rotation, just how good can it be my friend?

Jim: Before I get there Mike, you mentioned attrition rate, and I want to address the Tigers for a moment. Their rotation was rock solid last year, with all five of their starters knocking out 177-plus innings this year, including their top three with over 200. There truly wasn’t much of a difference in 2012 with the Tigers, although they split their #5 between Drew Smyly and Anibal Sanchez, who they dealt for mid-way through the year. The year prior to that, nearly the same thing, with their top four starters over 180 innings. If one of their durable starters go down, they really don’t have anyone worthwhile to replace them.

Are they playing with fire?

Mike: Obviously by sliding Smyly from his role as lights out reliever, depth starter to #5 starter in place of Fister the Tigers decreased their  margin for error in the rotation. Perhaps one could say that due to their continual rotation health and large innings loads they may be due for an injury but that is a challenging assertion to make.

In my opinion, a major injury to the Tigers rotation as with any rotation would be devastating but we have little predictive data for such an occurrence.

One piece I will mention, the Tigers have frequently shown the ability and willingness to improve their rotation via trade over the past decade. This has required the expenditure of multiple minor-league assets. At this point it does not appear that they have the talent to do so as their best trade chip, Nick Castellanos will be relied upon at the big league level.

Thus, if an injury was to occur they would probably be forced to cover from within, which lacks any substantial option.

Of course these remarks seem a lot like that of an economist “on the one hand.. on the other” but I will never be a one handed or single minded baseball fan.

Jim: You never count on another team’s injuries, but the Tigers have been remarkably healthy with regards to their rotation. It’s been excessively frustrating to watch that team hit home run after home run with regards to their rotation, but am interested in looking at how they’ve handled their pitchers over the years. I’m not a big believer in chance outcomes, and seeing five guys with 180-plus seasons year-after-year is a model I’m always interested in mimicking.

Of course, it helps when you have had the resources that the Tigers have had. With the Tigers offense perhaps a little more weak, and perhaps with a bullpen that may seem improved, but may not be, perhaps there will be more stress on older arms than there has been in the past.

Now to the Indians.

In my initial look at the Indians, I do like their depth. When you look at the bottom four options, not many teams have that phenomenal mix of power (Carlos Carrasco), youth (Trevor Bauer), control (Josh Tomlin) and veteran (Shaun Marcum). The problem with the depth is that one of these guys is going to be in the rotation, as it stands now.

I’ll get to that in a second.

I love the Indians top-three. I don’t think that Justin Masterson will ever have that Cliff Lee type year because of his limited arsenal of pitches, but I do think that there is still room for him to grow. Lee took off in his 2008 season thanks to a new approach and a willingness to develop new pitches, even after his Cy Young year. I don’t think Masterson is going that route, but he clearly understands his limitations more than in the past, and if he controls the zone this year in an improved fashion, I think you’ll see a bit of a jump.

I don’t have to tell you, Mike, just how much I like Danny Salazar, and I know that you feel the same. I feel like we’ve talked about this 100 times already, so I’ll be brief. You can make a case that Salazar has four plus pitches, which people can’t seem to wrap their heads around. His fastball is one of the best in baseball, and his fastball-changeup combo is a one-two punch that has been special. His slider is questioned a lot, but it’s better than people think.

If he could develop a sinker as a legitimate pitch, and combine that by not having to challenge hitters up in the zone the way he does, you would immediately see that home run rate come down. Now, I’m not talking about throwing a slider 20% of the time, but if he could come up with something that keeps him down in the zone to keep hitters guessing, it could generate a big season. That may be for 2015 and beyond.

I need to see Kluber continue his trajectory, and I have no clue where that’s going. Will he continue to be one of the best pitchers in baseball, as he was for a good stretch of the 2013 season, or will he turn back into that pumpkin…that he was prior to that. He has the mid-90s two-seamer, a really  good cutter that he can work on both sides of the plate, and a really nice slider. The cutter was something he had been working on since the end of the 2011 season, and it finally took shape. The two-seamer was new in 2012, and it replaced his four-seamer because he kept his velocity, and it moved a ton more.

That was the difference, and while I’ve been hesitant to support him in the past, I do think he’s here to stay. Now, his slider is real slurvy, and I’ve heard some really smart guys call it different things in the same conversation. I like that. If it confuses the “experts,” what chance do the hitters have.

I love Masterson and Salazar, but if you said to me at the end of 2013 that Kluber was this team’s best starter, I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t think he’s going to regress, and I just love his demeanor.

So, the top three are special.

Now, you look at Zach McAllister, and I have to admit that I’ve never been impressed, even when he was fairly dominating in April and May. If you take out McAllister’s last start when he injured his finger, he was essentially the Indians second best starter. His ERA was 3.08, and Masterson’s was 3.07. Now, he wasn’t as good as Masterson in the sense that he was a bit more hittable and didn’t have a dominating out pitch, but he also didn’t walk a whole lot, and was able to go deeper into games than in the past.

Then he missed June and was never the same.

He just needs to be decent, and I think the likelihood is there. He’s a perfect #4 or #5 starter, with #3 potential. He just has to regain his confidence. Spring Training will tell the tale there.

Now, to this fifth spot.

Ideally, I think we’d all like to see Bauer grab this and run with it, and that may not be right out of spring training, even if he’s pitching well. The Indians are hoping that his mechanics changes are for real, and there is apparently some smiles in Arizona right now, and Mickey Callaway and Terry Francona have been eyeballing his tweaks, and are happy.

Of course, this is second hand info, but I’ll take it for what it’s worth.

There’s going to be a sincere push to get Carlos Carrasco into that #5 spot, and he is as good as any. Mike, you noted his K-Rate, and I’ll let you talk about that, but I want to make sure we understand the myth of Carrasco for a second.

He was really good for a month in 2011. From June 7th through June 29th, Carrasco was dominant. He went 4-1 with a 0.98 in five starts, while striking out 28 and walking only five. It was beautiful.

But it was a month.

Prior to that, he was 4-3, but had I nice, robust 5.18 ERA. He wasn’t horrid, but he wasn’t close to good, other than making it to six innings here and there. He struck out 32 in 57 innings, and walked 18. After his June 29th start, he pitched for a full month before injury, and it wasn’t good at all.

He was 0-5, with a 7.92 in six starts. I’ve heard folks say that he was hurt…for six games…and 30 innings.

Maybe as July progressed, but c’mon. Prior to 2011, there was sparks of decent, but nothing that made you think he was special. After 2011, he’s been nothing but bad as a starter.

My point isn’t to berate Carrasco, it’s just to point out that his body of work is a fair myth. Can he be good again? Maybe. But anyone that says he’s got the background to be special is quite simply pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It’s pure and utter speculation. I know Callaway is a wizard, but there’s just no substance to that.

He’ll have his chance, but we shall see.

I’m not going to run through Shaun Marcum’s numbers here Mike, but I am intrigued with his veteran presence. Now, he was not good last year, but he clearly was hurt, had surgery, and it was pretty serious stuff. Thoracic outlet syndrome has been made out as a never-come-back sorta surgery, but that’s simply not true.

Kenny Rogers had the same surgery when he was 36, and he arguably played his best baseball after, winning 87 games after that. There are other examples, but you get my point.

My money is on Marcum here to win that last spot. He’s the veteran, and I think they’ll slot Carrasco into the pen, and use him as the next guy in the rotation.

Tomlin was a warrior in 2011, and can be an important piece, but I’m just not buying him as a legitimate candidate as a starter. Let me put it to you this way. If Marcum, Bauer and Carrasco are so bad in the spring that Tomlin wins this job, then the depth of the rotation isn’t good, and Marcum will be gone anyways.

I still think the Indians are in this free agent market, and I think Ubaldo Jimenez is a guy they will look at. He was horrible in 2012, but that’s the outlying season. We talked about it in our pod last night with our boy Steve Orbanek, and a poster backed it up with FIP and xFIP numbers. I’m not going to run through them, but you can make a more legit case that Ubaldo is close to elite than you can say that a guy like Josh Tomlin is a legit major league starter on a team that wants to contend for a World Series title.

There are some minor league guys that could play a part here, but again, that means the supplemental options and depth got injured, or just weren’t very good.

We’ve talked about this rotation a lot Mike…what are your thoughts? I don’t think this rotation is as good as Detroit’s, but I do think that if you put Masterson, Salazar and Kluber up against Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez, it’s closer than people think…especially if Salazar and Kluber are truly what we think they are.

Mike: Masterson took a huge step forward in 2013, one which inspires far more confidence  in future performance than his 2011 season. The reason being that secondary offering, Justin’s slider took a huge step forward helping elevating his K/9 from 6.58 in 2011, 6.94 in 2012 to 9.09 in 2013.

This is an absolute leap in terms of productions one which is incredibly rare. Furthermore it speaks positively to his ability to continue his current success. In 2011, Masterson was helped by an abnormally low HR/FB and other factors.

In 2013, Masterson’s success was based far less on factors outside of his control and far more on factors under his control.

With this understanding I find it easy to project a repeat season for Masterson with the addition of 15-20 innings which is the production of a plus two-starter, can absolutely be the #1 on a division winner.

Salazar is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. In all seriousness, I have grown weary if the incessant attempts to find flaws with Danny Salazar. I understand, he wasn’t highly touted. The national media, local media missed on him. Missed the indicators, missed the talent. 

Salazar has a Sidd Finch like arm, Salazar not only flashed plus stuff in the minors but his statistics always portrayed his upside, unlike Carlos Carrasco but that is for later.

Yes, Salazar has his imperfections, a fastball with mediocre movement, granted this is humorous considering his plus control of the pitch coupled with elite velocity. Which made it one of the most unhittable fastballs in baseball last season but please focus on the movement.

Add in Salazar’s changeup which ranks as one of the 20 best pitches in MLB. Creating incredible swing-and-miss. Thus, the Indians have a starter with two of the most devastating pitches in MLB but yes lets focus on his imperfections. The elevated HR rate may never decrease but it is not particularly punishing.

The only question is that slider, if one takes an analytical look you realize it is not as bad as people would lead you to believe in fact it is an average to above average pitch, which is all it needs to be. The major issue with the slider was not its legitimacy as a pitch but rather the usage rate which you pointed to Jim, it already produces an adequate whiff rate and can get better.

I am almost always a stickler about using small samples as they have the power to be incredibly deceptive but sometimes we can use them to tell us how special a moment was.

As long as we don’t use them too heavily to be predictive tools then they make for humorous comparisons.

The upcoming statistics come with the following disclaimer: I am not in any way saying that Salazar’s career path will follow the same arc or is remotely comparable. I am merely using it to show how special Salazar was in 2013.

Danny Salazar 2013: 10 GS, 52 IP, K/9 11.25, BB/9 2.60, ERA 3.12, FIP 3.16

Bob Feller 1936: 8 GS, 62 IP, K/9 22.03, BB/9 6.82, ERA 3.34, FIP 3.49

The only question for me surrounding Salazar’s capacity is surrounding how many innings he will be able to pitch. If this guy can go 180 innings then you will be getting 180 innings of an ace.

This guy if healthy(I am hedging my bets here and I should be punished for it) will be one of the 15 best starting pitchers in MLB next season, you can take that to the bank.

Bringing us to Kluber, Corey’s 2013 season has become increasingly ignored and underrated akin to Billy Boyd in the Stone of Destiny. Digressing, Corey has taken a mammoth step forward and really it was based on a single thing, control.

Kluber has always had above average stuff even though it was not noted as frequently as the beloved Carlos Carrasco.

The shifting walk rate is no small issue, in the minor-leagues facing hitters with lesser plate discipline, Kluber frequently posted BB/9’s of above 4. Last season, with the Tribe it was 2.02.

Kluber and Callaway have pointed to a shift in fastball grip which seems to have been an essential factor but what does that mean about 2014.

Kluber to me is a lot like Masterson in that his improvement was based on things that he controlled, it was not due to a deflated BABIP or a fluky strand rate.

Rather Kluber made a mechanical adjustment that allowed him to control the strike zone and harness his above average repertoire. In fact, based on peripheral statistics I expect him to take another step forward in 2014.

Which has us moving past the top-3 with incredible confidence in the front-ends ability to matchup against playoff teams.

As for Zach McAllister I believe he is a serviceable four starter, to me he is a wealthy man’s Jason Vargas. He can keep you in ball games, have an ERA that sits within a few points of 4.00 on either side and not make you think twice about his spot in the rotation.

Jim, you covered the five spot admirably, so I am going to merely rank the contenders with a few quick thoughts.

  1. Carlos Carrasco: Personally I don’t believe he has earned the confidence which the front office is showing him but it is put up or shut up time for Carrasco. Has to begin to get more out of his plus offerings than he has to this point.
  2. Trevor Bauer: If Bauer seizes this spot, this will be a dream scenario. The question will be whether he has rediscovered a mechanics that he can repeat from start to start, month to month.
  3. Shaun Marcum: The guy when healthy was an innings eater who collected a surprising amount of strikeouts. Has nothing on the fastball but a plus changeup, love his upside to cover innings with a solid ERA at a low cost but wouldn’t bet on him.
  4. Josh Tomlin: I love Josh Tomlin but if he wins the final spot in the rotation then  your high impact arms have disappointed terribly. Tomlin is simply not a full time starter and is best suited to be a long man.

There is a lot of upside for the final slot in the rotation but also considerable risk. This portion to me is the difference between the Indians being an 84 win team and a 90 win team. Trevor Bauer to me has the greatest capacity to transform this ballclub. While his 2013 season raised more questions than answers if he can figure it out, this rotation could be one of the 10 best in baseball.

Of course that is a really big if.

Jim: I want to follow up with Mike’s “comps” to Bob Feller, as I more or less pushed and prodded him for a week to take a look at this.

We realize that Salazar isn’t Feller, and even in a perfect world, Salazar’s career could be astounding and never touch Feller’s brilliance. Our point here was to point out that Salazar’s rookie season was special, and that there really aren’t many other starters in the history of the Indians’ organization that had quite the start that Salazar had over a short sample size.

We’re clearly bullish on Salazar, as are many others outside the Indians’ umbrella who are likely a lot more objective than we are as fans, and others are as detractors. There is work for Salazar to do, as there is for any 23-year old about to enter his first full season, but coaches and managers have raved about him since he crossed my path here in Carolina in 2012, so I don’t doubt that the power-righty will avoid the regression that many suggest.

That’s our hope, and it’s really necessary without the qualified veterans that the Indians lost in Jimenez and Kazmir. I’m as bullish on this rotation as the next guy, but I’m tired of hearing that “this rotation is more solidified than our rotation was at the start of 2013.” There’s a lot of truth to that.

But I’ll take that point, and counter with this: If the rotation had more questions in 2013, how did that turn out? They were far superior than anyone though. the lesson learned there is to understand that what’s on paper isn’t always a lock for outcome. You can never have too many starters, and you can never spend enough money to get them.

As we wrap this up Mike, I do like this rotation as is. We’ve bantered about the 85 win number, but I do think there’s more there should Kluber, Salazar and McAllister pitch up to their potential. The key is health. If all three maintain it, their trajectory is up, and not down.

This is the clear #2 rotation in the Central, and while I don’t see any scenario in which they are better than the Tigers, when we get to the offense next week, we’ll talk about how the Indians may actually be better over the long haul.

I still think this rotation needs fine-tuning, but compared to the rest of the Central Mike, if Josh Lyman were talking Tribe, he wouldn’t hesitate in saying, “I drink from the keg of glory…bring me the finest muffins and bagels in all the land.”

Next week, Mike and I will take a look at A.L Central infields, as they are constructed right now. If you want to listen to Mike and I discussing the Indians rotation, take a listen to our podcast from last week, right here:

You can subscribe to the IBI/CSI family of podcasts, which is the home of Smoke Signals and CSI, right here:


Author: Jim Pete

Jim KNOWS that Albert Belle deserved the MVP, and that the false prophet, Mo Vaughn did not. He thinks that Mike and Greg Pruitt are truly related, because, c'mon, what are the chances? He cries at least once a day, watching videos of LeBron's block, followed by Kyrie's shot. He loves miracles at Richfield, Ron Harper, parking at Gate D, Alex Cole park dimensions, and the glorious Kenny Lofton, who is the REAL Alex Cole. When he isn't writing or talking Cleveland sports for EHC, he moonlights as a husband, father, coach, teacher, Twitter screamer, golfer, runner, and lover of spaghetti carbonara. He also commutes from Raleigh to the North Coast, because it builds character

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