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Trend Spotting: Spring optimism abounds

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Rogers Hornsby once said “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Alas it is upon us, green grass, the crack of the bat and the distinct opportunity to overreact to single inning samples. Conceding that the only grass I have seen since October was televised, never the less, as soon as I witnessed this week’s exhibition games a small piece of my mind escaped to that simple place, where all it can see is the bliss which baseball provides.

I may be misguided or merely prejudiced against other sports but spring training seems to be entirely different than any other preseason. It is a land laden with every generation. I will never forget the moment I met Bob Feller in Winter Haven. He asked a simple question, I offered no answer but some sort of squawk in awe of the man I met. Spring training integrates the past, the present and the future, blending the comfort of nostalgia with the euphoria of what may come.

These moments are small and fleeting but compelling none the less. Last season we witnessed a baseball resurrection in Scott Kazmir. An Odyssean like return to prominence with each outing creating optimism about his journey reaching a happy end. There were other moments, one of what the future may entail. Late in spring trainingFrancisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez got the opportunity to play together up the middle, and what we saw was special, dynamic. Indeed, it was hard not to be overcome with optimism, watching them play defense together.

Which brings us to today, as the games provide us with a daily distraction, I have brought in two other senior IBI writers to discuss what we are excited to see in 2014. I suppose the most pertinent place to start is who, if anybody, can replace Ubaldo Jimenez in Steve Orbanek’s heart.

Orbanek: Well, I don’t need to tell you guys that no one can “replace” Ubaldo Jimenez. I mean, c’mon, that grin? Whether you love Jimenez or hate him, even both of you have to admit that you’ll miss watching that smiling face return to the dugout after a solid performance.

Though, as you both know, I have the tendency to get infatuated with my favorite Cleveland athletes, and there are certainly two candidates who I could see having a Jimenez-like place in my heart. The two I refer to are right-handed starters Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister.

These are obviously two very different players, but they’re also two very important pieces to the 2014 club. With the losses of Jimenez and Kazmir, a number of players are going to have to be expected to step up their game, and Salazar and McAllister are prime candidates. We all know how electrifying Salazar was to close out the 2013 season, so I’m excited to see how he progresses in 2014. If anything, I’m just a tad annoyed that he pitched 52 innings last year because I think we all would agree that he would be a prime candidate to take home AL Rookie of the Year honors.

There is a similar level of intrigue that surrounds McAllister though. I’ve been higher on him than most for some time, and that can be attributed to two things: his strong K/9 rate throughout his career and his ability to eat up innings. Unfortunately, we saw his K/9 rate take a bit of a hit last season, but I’m interested to see if he rebounds. McAllister added a power splitter this offseason, which he believes can generate some swing-and-miss. The jury is still out on that, but I’m intrigued that he would be so proactive about expanding his repetoire.

I know we discussed this briefly the other day Michael and you said something along the lines of, “It’s never a good sign when a pitcher adds a new pitch at the Major League level.” I responded that we saw Cliff Lee have tremendous success when he added the cutter, but as you noted, this is just one case. I’m sure there are a dozen more examples where this type of thing had the opposite effect. Still, I can’t get over my intrigue here. McAllister’s quiet nature and work ethic kind of reminds me of Lee, so that could explain my enthusiasm. It’s definitely going to be an interesting thing to follow this season.

Actually, the entire rotation is going to be interesting to follow. What do you guys think? Can the Indians replicate last season’s success with a rotation that consists of Justin Masterson, Salazar, Corey Kluber, McAllister and the unnamed fifth starter?

Hattery: On the face of things, it is incredibly easy to enter 2014 with more confidence in our rotation than 2013. This is because Masterson took a significant step forward, Kluber and McAllister followed suit, as well as Salazar looking special. Thus, having more confidence entering the season than last is a responsible assumption.

Yet, each player offers certain concerns. One can expect Masterson’s strikeout rate to take a small step back from 2013 production but the majority of the step forward to remain establishing him as a front end talent. As for Kluber and McAllister, each has but a single season with solid big league production; however, I must confess that I expect Kluber to take another significant step forward.

As for the McAllister issue, I confess significant reticence about adding or substituting a new pitch. There is little doubt that the addition of a plus or above average offering would have immense value but it has distinct challenges. Attempting to add a pitch is a rigorous process which can distract from preparation for the regular season. Lastly, controlling and manipulating a secondary offering takes time, which is incredibly challenging to do at the big league level.

I love your point about Salazar. I in a small way wish that Salazar was rookie eligible outside of the fact that he gained and succeeded in his major league opportunity.

In terms of recognition, I have little concern of Salazar receiving adulation. While he may not win a ROY, if he pitches over 175 innings this year, which is a challenge no doubt, he will receive Cy Young award votes. I understand that this is bold but considering his talent it is less risky than one would think. I frequently am criticized for my tendency to look at the Indians with a glass half empty approach, which is why I know I am not the only one that sees that.

Salazar is a special talent and I cannot wait to watch him pitch throughout the 2014 season. If there is one person that I will not miss watching pitch this season it is Danny Salazar. As for the fifth spot it is a mess to me, without an outcome where I would have any sort of confidence.  One question on my mind, if we handicap who will win the fifth starter slot, is it different than if we ranked the options for best case scenario?

Pete: I know there is a lot of optimism for the #5 spot in this rotation with the mix of Josh TomlinShaun Marcum,Aaron HarangCarlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, but I have to temper that with a large serving of skepticism. Don’t get me wrong, there are interesting intangibles to each of these guys, but there are equally concerning knocks on each.

The optimist would say that Josh Tomlin is a poor man’s Tom Glavine, who lacks velocity but is a precision artist on the mound who only lost his “stuff” thanks to injury. The pessimist would say that the league has long ago figured out Tomlin, whose wispy pitches will get crushed by major league bats.

The optimist would say that Shaun Marcum is only a year removed from being considered a really, really good starter that was coveted by several teams. The pessimist would say that his thoracic outlet surgery will derail him from ever being anything but a scuffling former starter trying to find one more chance with substandard stuff and bum health.

The optimist would say that Aaron Harang is only a year removed from back-to-back double-digit wins and a sub-4.00 ERA. The pessimist would say he was horrible in the AL with Seattle and is washed up.

The optimist always says that Carlos Carrasco has just incredible stuff, had that wonderful six starts in 2011, and was only derailed by injury. The pessimist says that Carrasco has a five-cent head, can’t locate, and has had enough wasted chances to last a lifetime.

The optimist says that Trevor Bauer is back to his old self, is repeating his arm slot, and finally clicking on all cylinders as a top-ten prospect. The pessimist says that Bauer is far too analytical for his own good, and listens to his twitter followers more than his coaches.

Truth be told, it’s feast or famine for all five guys. So, if I’m going to give odds here, I’d say that Harang has no shot, Tomlin will be a spot starter when needed all year, Bauer will be stuck in Columbus for the foreseeable future and Marcum will be struggling for health for much of spring, and won’t be ready for awhile. That leaves Carrasco to start, and he did look okay on Thursday in his two innings. Honestly though, by August, don’t be surprised if Cody Anderson is the guy that grabs this spot. I know that the masses that know far more than I will submarine this thought that was first brought up by Orbs, but Anderson has the stuff and ability to overpower the minors in the same way that Danny Salazar did last year.  Sometimes players are just too good. A lot will have to happen, but he’s going to force his way onto this team.

So, how about this: Carrasco gets his shot, and struggles with some highs and lows over a couple of months, before moving to the pen. Marcum or House or someone else steps in until the all-star break, and then Cody Anderson makes his debut.

How’s that for out of the blue?

Hattery: Audacity is beauty Jim. Creativity when discussing baseball is a beautiful thing because if we have learned anything while watching this fluid art, what is expected rarely occurs. Perhaps this is the great blessing of baseball. Those who prognosticate with certainty and unquestioned confidence know little, those who project with reason and separate from a need to be right are those who are freed to enjoy this perfect game.

In many ways my expectations of the fifth slot mirror my friend Jim. I love Tomlin, as storyline, as human being, as an individual to consume a mediocre beer with, he cracks the top thirty. Yet, his upside is sixth starter, this is neither unfair or diminishing of his value. Most big league teams have at least 30 starts by those who are not in their starting five. I feel comfortable relying on him to keep me in ballgames as the dog days of summer enter and the rotation wears thin but if he is given 30 starts his warts will show.

Marcum’s injury and Harang’s career mediocrity make them disinteresting candidates for the fifth slot in the rotation but valuable guys to possibly contribute if an injury or major regression occurs.

The only two arms that can impact the rotation positively out of the gate are Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. I can’t help but think the best outcome for the Indians is if Trevor Bauer forces his way into the rotation for 2014.

While Carrasco is not a known quantity, he has received enough opportunities to incite considerable doubt. In fact, his K/9 while solid in the minor leagues is not special, thus any comparison to Salazar’s stuff is haphazard. When rating the quality of pitch a determining factor is control, Salazar flashes plus control with his fastball and changeup as well as average control of his slider.

Until Carrasco proves he can control his fastball in the strike zone any positive projection is one founded in inordinate hubris.

Of course as I decry Carrasco’s control I somehow am intrigued by Bauer which I should deservedly be scorned for. Bauer is enigmatic but that curveball is something to dream on and his ability to create swing and miss is truly special. He probably has as many questions to face as Carrasco in terms of control, however he is younger, and has shown a recent  willingness to make adjustments.

In all likelihood, Carrasco is handed the job purely based on options. Perhaps this gives him the comfort and confidence necessary to succeed. I posit, that the best case scenario is if Bauer goes out and seizes the moment, controls the strike zone, and uses devastating secondary offerings to confound hitters.

I will allow Orbanek, the resident Swami to tell us what we must truly expect in 2014.

Orbanek: I have to say that I think your articulation was spot-on Mike. It appears as if that fifth spot in the rotation is Carrasco’s to lose. Heck, it may be his already. That’s where I see a problem. I don’t expect Carrasco to last long in this role, and given the evidence, I don’t think anyone should.

With Carrasco, the term that is always thrown out is “stuff.” Everyone seems to clamor about just how good his stuff is. But having good stuff does not necessarily make for a good pitcher. His career K/9 rate in the Majors is 6.2. There are plenty of pitchers out there with bad stuff who can still post a far superior K/9 rate. In fact, it’s hard to believe a pitcher can hit the upper 90s with his fastball and still deliver such little swing-and-miss.

So, with that in mind, here’s my prediction. Carrasco will be the fifth starter come Opening Day, but I don’t expect that to last for too long. I expect his performance will be somewhat up-and-down, and the Indians will probably move him to the bullpen fulltime in June. There’s going to be two reasons behind that move. Yes, Carrasco’s average performance will be a contributing factor, but I believe the Indians will also want to make room in their rotation for a pitcher, who I expect to just carve up hitters in Triple-A: Trevor Bauer.

That’s probably a shock as I have been as down on Bauer as anyone over the past year, but dating back to the moment we first acquired him, I’ve always been enamored with the right-hander. Perhaps it’s his brain. Maybe it’s his enticing stuff. Or it could just be that the guy seems to be such a prick. Needless to say, he’s an exciting player to follow. I can’t know for sure that he’ll return to form this year, but it’s Spring Training, and it’s time for optimism. I trust that Mickey Callaway will find a way to get through to Bauer, and if that’s the case, well, look out.

Can you imagine a rotation based around Salazar and Bauer in the years to come? If Bauer ever taps into his potential, this could be the best Indians’ one-two pitching combination in years. Since he first came over from Arizona, I said that Bauer is so vital to the future of this organization. That expectation seemed to be alleviated somewhat with Salazar’s progression, but just imagine if Bauer comes around. I’m saying he does.  And I’m saying he does in 2014.

Author: Michael Hattery

Currently an Attorney. I have been fortunate enough to be published at Fangraphs, The Hardball Times, The Athletic Cleveland, and Marquette Sports Law Review. Follow @snarkyhatman

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