Tribe Rotation in Much Better Shape Than a Year Ago
By Craig Gifford
Last season Cleveland’s starting pitching rotation was one of the worst in baseball. As spring training opened, off the heels of a strong winter for the Tribe, the prevailing thought was the starting five would be the unit most likely to prevent the Indians from playoff contention this year. However, as the preseason enters its final week, the rotation may actually be more of a strength than anyone could have imagined.
When the calendar flipped from February to March, the Indians’ starters consisted of a number one and two, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, who pitched far below expectations in 2012. Number three was $7 million free agent pickup Brett Myers. The Indians were hoping to convert him back to a starter following a season in which he pitched out of the bullpen.
Beyond the top three starters, who had their own question marks, the back end of Cleveland’s rotation was even more of a mystery. It consisted of around 10 pitchers, ranging from rookies to veterans hoping to make a comeback, who were all question marks.
While spring training is not exactly good for definitively answering questions, it is good for inviting hope into an area of the game that once had little amounts of it. Masterson and Jimenez have both struggled at times, but both have also showed glimpses of correcting the wildness that haunted them a year ago. Myers has been hit hard to a tune of a 7.11 ERA, but the focus for him this spring has been re-stretching out his arm to be able to throw a starter’s quantity of innings. No need to worry until his ERA is north of 7.00 on May 1.
While it is nice to see the top three doing what they need to be ready to go this year, it is the bottom of the starting staff that has seen the biggest growth in optimism and depth. A midseason call up last year, Zach McAllister has pitched well enough in the Cactus League to be promised a starting pitching job over a week ago. He is the number four starter. Until Thursday, there was a tight, battle for the final spot in the rotation.
On Thursday, two of those pitchers were sent to Triple-A Columbus. Potential future top-of-the-rotation starter Trevor Bauer and 2012 rookie Corey Kluber each found out yesterday that they would open the season in the minors. They will work to further fine-tune themselves before seeing the bright lights of Progressive Field. That leaves Scott Kazmir and Carlos Carrasco for the final spot.
Both remaining pitchers are interesting candidates. Kazmir is a former All-Star who has not pitched a full season since 2010 and has not had a decent season since 2009. He has been dominant this spring and is likely going to be the number five starter when the season opens. He has truly been a find for the Tribe from the free agent scrap pile.
Carrasco is looking to come back from 2011 Tommy John surgery that robbed him of the entire 2012 campaign. Before his elbow troubles, Carrasco was looking like a keeper. Both are south of 30, giving hope that each can have good years ahead of them. Kazmir would give the Indians a lefty in the rotation, while Carrasco may need some more time before truly being ready to face top-level hitting again.
Assuming the veteran 29-year-old Kazmir make the big league club, Carrasco will join Kluber and Bauer with the Clippers. That is three pitchers who will start the year in the minors and have Major League experience. A fourth could be Daisuke Matsuzaka. He was told this week he would not open the season in Cleveland. Management would like Matsuzaka to go to Columbus and he appears to be agreeable to that. It would mean four almost-Major-League ready pitchers would be a phone call away should the Tribe need them.
If 2012 was any indication, the Indians will need at least one or two of the pitchers from Triple-A at some point. Ineffectiveness and injury did not help the Tribe’s rotations last year. Derek Lowe started the year off hot before showing signs of age and tapering off. Josh Tomlin was struck by arm problems and had to undergo Tommy John surgery, himself. All the Indians had at the ready were the untested Jeanmar Gomez, McAllister and Kluber. Each showed promise, but also looked very much like lost rookies at times.
This year, the Indians are much more prepared for a slip up or injury. Should Kazmir or Myers show they are not able to fully come back to a MLB starting staff or McAllister prove to not be quite ready, there will be options on the farm. Options are a great thing.
Bauer, Kluber, Carrasco and Matsuzaka should all be ready to go if needed. All have pitched in the majors before – some much more than others. The fear of bringing on board a rookie who is not ready is less an issue this season than last. An injury to a starter struggling will not derail the season as it did a year ago.
Teams that have success during the year are those with depth. Injuries are a part of the game. The teams that can withstand the pains and lulls that come with a 162-game schedule have the best chance to play baseball in October. General Manager Chris Antonetti did a splendid job finding free agent pitchers and trading for Bauer to augment a once depleted and ineffective starting rotation. Where once there was little hope, there now is the thought that Cleveland’s starting rotation my not necessarily sink a season of promise.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer