Questions and Options are Plenty for Playoff Rotation

There’s nothing quite as fun as counting your chickens before they hatch.  No, this is not another article about Cody the Rally Chicken, but one that examines the Indians options as they hopefully head toward another fun October run in the playoffs.

While the Indians have not clinched any kind of spot in the postseason, it is certainly interesting to think of the possibilities for a potential playoff starting rotation.  The questions are numerous and the options are even more so for Manager Terry Francona, who could go a number of different ways depending on a couple of different variables.

The question of “who would be the number one starter” has been a relatively obvious one all year, as Justin Masterson has had an All-Star season and carried the staff to victories over some top notch competition.  Masterson, however, strained his left oblique in a loss to the Baltimore Orioles on September 2 and has not pitched a game since.  The other members of the Indians rotation have stepped up and filled in nicely for their missing ace, so when crunch-time comes it may or may not be smart to reinsert Masterson into a starting role.

“What we’d like to do is figure out if he’s going to be healthy,” said Francona in a Plain Dealer article by Paul Hoynes, “and then see how to best use him as a weapon.”

Francona is obviously hinting at a possible bullpen spot for Masterson for the remainder of the playoff chase and during the postseason—should the Indians make it that far.  The role would be nothing new for Masterson, who bounced back and forth from the starting rotation to the bullpen during his first two years in the Major Leagues.  In 2008-09 with Francona’s Boston Red Sox, Masterson appeared in 52 games as a reliever compared to only 15 starts.  Masty also appeared in nine games out of the bullpen during the ’08 playoffs and pitched well as the defending World Champs lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS.  His last appearance out of the bullpen was in July of 2011.  It is an option and a question that Francona is running out of time to decide on.

“Obviously, you just don’t start him and let him go nine innings,” said Francona. “But do you start him and let him go three or four innings or do you bring him out of the bullpen?”

If the Tribe’s skipper elects to put his ace in the bullpen or if Masterson is not healthy enough to return, the Indians still have a very good number one option in Ubaldo Jimenez.  Jimenez has spent his last 20 starts revitalizing his career and competing for the title of “Hottest Pitcher in Baseball” while posting the lowest ERA of any pitcher in the American League since the All-Star break.  Jimenez has been outstanding in the month of September as well, probably cementing his name on the AL Comeback Player of the Year award.

If Jimenez is indeed the Indians number one heading into the playoffs, then that leaves a number of capable arms to fill in behind him.  Scott Kazmir, like Jimenez, has spent 2013 revitalizing his career and has been downright nasty at times during the season.  Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister have enjoyed breakout seasons, going from mediocre-at-best in 2012 to rock-solid options in 2013.  Lastly, Danny Salazar has shown more promise than any pitcher over the last two months and cannot be overlooked either.

Too many good pitchers a good problem to have, but it’s one that Francona has to hit the bulls-eye on.

In all likelihood, the Indians would use a four-man rotation in the postseason—assuming, of course, that they make it there.  As it stands now, Jimenez is the only 100% lock to be in that potential rotation, as arguments can certainly be made for and against the other five contestants.

Behind Jimenez and a presumably healthy Masterson, Kluber is probably the next best bet to pitch an October contest.  If Jimenez is a 100% lock, Kluber is probably around a 95%.  Kluber has turned in an outstanding sophomore campaign, posting a record of 9-5 and an ERA of 3.62 over 24 appearances and 22 starts.  He has proved to be the Indians best control pitcher, walking the fewest batters of any starter (31) and throwing the fewest wild pitches (1) as well.  The downside to Kluber is that he is the most recent to come off of an injury, although the finger problem has seemed to have little impact on his September starts.

After Kluber comes Francona’s biggest decision; choosing between McAllister, Kazmir and Salazar.  Salazar will likely be the first pitcher eliminated from the conversation, despite the fireballing right-hander’s dominating strikeout pitch.  The young phenom would likely be sent into the Tribe’s bullpen and would fill a role somewhere as a bridge to the back end due to his pitch count limitations.  Francona has been religiously sticking to his 75-80 pitch count on Salazar, who is still recovering from Tommy John Surgery.  Salazar’s inexperience and tendency to work in a lot of punch-outs often inflates his pitch counts early, forcing Francona to pull him in the fourth or fifth innings.  A four-inning starter is obviously not ideal in the postseason.  Also, Salazar would be amazing in the bullpen.

This scenario leaves both McAllister and Kazmir to fill the one potential remaining rotation spot, assuming that Masterson is healthy.  Kazmir has pitched in eight postseason games in his career while McAllister has none.  Kazmir has gone through dominant stretches during the season while McAllister has been simply steady.  Kazmir is the lone lefthanded option in the rotation while McAllister is just another righty.

Having said all that…the correct answer would still be McAllister.

Even with Kazmir’s experience, ability to dominate and different look, McAllister has just been consistently better this year…especially down the stretch run.  It’s very possible that Kazmir is simply running out of gas, as his last seven starts have seen a 2-5 record with a 5.82 ERA.  Over the same stretch, McAllister is 4-2 with a 4.08 ERA.

The options all hinge on Masterson and whether he will be healthy enough to start or not.  If he’s not, then Salazar likely still remains in the bullpen while Kazmir would join the other three righties in the rotation.  Masty has started throwing some, but is still not expected by many to make a start for the rest of the regular season.  On Wednesday, Masterson threw from 120 feet and was scheduled to throw his first bullpen session on Friday.

“I felt good,” Masterson said earlier this week. “I got out to over 100 feet than I moved in and threw with some pretty good intensity.”

“The fact that he’s recuperating so fast, we all feel good about that,” said Francona of his #1 starter.  “I get to the ballpark early, but he beat me here today.  That’s a guy who is trying.  It makes you feel good.”

Even if Masterson’s efforts aren’t enough to get him back, Francona doesn’t let his nerves get the best of him.

“It’s fun to wake up nervous.  You can’t wait to get to the ballpark.  Every game is so meaningful.  I’m enjoying that a lot.”

Photo: Associated Press

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