Competition for Rotation Begins with Varied Success in Split-Squad Victories
By Mike Brandyberry
Sunday declared the start of the competition for the fourth and fifth rotation spots on the Indians’ starting staff. While no spots can be won or lost quickly, the race is officially under way after all five serious contenders for the final two spots saw action yesterday.
With the starting rotation being the Indians’ most serious concern entering exhibition play, Manager Terry Francona and General Manager Chris Antonetti set out this winter to create a deep and competitive field for the final two spots. The field of competitors consists of an incumbent, along with injury reclamation projects, free agents and trade acquisitions.
“If you have a lot of questions going into the year, sometimes the answer is no,” Francona said prior to Sunday’s games. “That’s why Chris and I talked about trying to add depth this winter.”
The Indians used the split-squad games Sunday to feature a total of 13 pitchers between the two contests. Cleveland won both games, besting the Cincinnati Reds 3-0 and throwing a one-hitter by a combined seven pitchers along with defeating the Milwaukee Brewers 7-4 from the aid of six more arms.
“We have a number of young pitchers,” Francona said. “We certainly hope that some of them can knock the door down and claim a spot. We don’t want them to just make the team. We want them to help us win, so we’re trying to balance that together.”
Only Carlos Carrasco, one of the five contenders for a rotation spot, was responsible for allowing the opposition to score, Sunday. Carrasco started against the Brewers in Maryvale, allowing all four runs they scored in the first inning. It was his first appearance against major league competition since Aug. 2011 when he injured his right elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery.
Carrasco allowed four hits, four runs—only three were earned—while walking and striking out a hitter in his one inning of work. While Carrasco appeared nervous and not sharp, he also suffered from a fielding error by Tim Fedroff and a throwing error by Carlos Santana.
Scott Kazmir relieved Carrasco and threw two scoreless innings, allowing only a hit and striking out one hitter. Kazmir is working to resurrect his career after a groin injury in 2010 destroyed his mechanics and left him out of professional baseball by the end of 2011. He pitched last season for the Sugarland Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League before attracting the Indians’ eye this winter in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
Indians Manager Terry Francona has described Kazmir’s performance in Spring Training to date as, “scary good,” and has said his performance looks like it is ready for the season. Kazmir led the American League in strikeouts in 2007 and was an All-Star in 2006 and 2008.
Finally, young phenom Trevor Bauer pitched two strong innings in relief of Kazmir against the Brewers. He allowed a hit in each inning, while also striking out a hitter in each frame. The young right-hander was the third overall draft pick in the 2011 First Year Player Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks traded him to the Indians this winter as part of the three-team deal that sent Shin-Soo Choo to the Cincinnati Reds.
Arizona soured on Bauer after his quirks and pre-pitch routine became too much for their liking. Sunday was Bauer’s first game appearance as a member of the Tribe and his running, crow-hop, fire home for his first warm up pitch shocked Santana. The catcher wasn’t ready for the unique first warm-up pitch and mishandled the throw. Santana was ready in the fifth when he was able to catch the first flame fired during Bauer’s warm-up.
Meanwhile in Goodyear, Zach McAllister started for the Indians and began laying claim to the fourth spot in the rotation. Both Francona and Antonetti have said his place in the rotation is not certain, but he does hold an advantage against the rest of the competitors. McAllister pitched two innings, walking one and striking out two against the Reds.
“Everybody was pretty good over here, obviously,” Francona said this morning in his daily press conference. “There was a lot of positive stuff, a lot of positive feedback from everyone that was over here.” Francona traveled to Maryvale on Sunday, while Sandy Alomar managed the squad in Goodyear.
McAllister was relieved by veteran Daisuke Matsuzaka, who like Kazmir, is trying to rebuild his career after injury. Matsuzka had Tommy John in 2011 and struggled to a 1-7 record, with an 8.28 ERA in 11 starts after returning to action last season in Boston. The 32-year old right-hander promptly hit the Reds’ Ryan Hanigan with his first pitch before inducing a 4-6-3 double play on his second pitch.
Matsuzaka worked two innings, allowing a base on balls and the hit batsman as the only runners to reach base. The Japanese product was a one-time work horse early in his career according to Cleveland.com’s Bud Shaw and the wear and tear could leave this as his last serious chance in the American game. Matsuzaka once had a blazing fastball around 97 miles-per-hour in Boston, but was only clocked at 88-89 mph yesterday. Francona admitted he is aware of the drop in velocity, however, he is not concerned so early in camp.
“It’s probably a little too early, but I do look at it, but it’s not the end-all, be-all,” Francona said. “The harder you throw, the more margin you have for error, normally.”
Cody Allen relieved Matsuzaka with a hitless inning of his own and two strikeouts. Only Rich Hill allowed a hit to the Reds with Jerry Gil, T.J. House and Preston Guilmet each working a hitless inning of their own to close out the game.
With the revamped Indians major concern in Spring Training being their starting rotation, the decisions regarding the final two spots won’t be decided any time soon. The extra week of exhibition games due to the World Baseball Classic may provide an opportunity to gain a little more in-depth analysis before making any decisions. Regardless, the race has officially begun for the five contenders.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer