Cleveland’s Success Riding on Young Starters

The Cleveland Indians’ 2014 season would have been far less successful if not for the emergence of several key young contributors within the starting rotation.

The offense lacked consistency from some of the biggest names and highest paid members of the organization. The defense, for lack of better and more appropriate terms, was downright atrocious with the glove and arm while leading the free world in errors. The pitching staff, and in particular those in the rotation, kept the Indians competitive and on the outskirts of the playoff picture until mid-September, while both the offensive and defensive woes should have eliminated them far earlier.

If Cleveland is going to live up to some of the developing hype being generated by the media around the club, it is going to be this same group of young and generally inexperienced starters who are going to have to lead the team in the year ahead.

It will all start with 28-year-old Corey Kluber.

The Tribe righty, not necessarily young by league standards but more realistically in his amount of Major League experience, became the club’s fourth Cy Young winner in franchise history in 2014 with a breakout 18-9 season. He led the American League in wins and starts while posting a 2.44 ERA in his first full and injury-free season with the Indians.

His season seemed to come out of nowhere. He had shown some flashes of potential in the past, but the former fourth round pick of the 2007 draft by the San Diego Padres and an afterthought initially of the Jake Westbrook salary dump in 2010 has proven the doubters wrong with his impressive showing last season.

Kluber did his work behind an impeccable ability to keep runners off of the bases. In throwing three complete games and the third most innings in the league with 235 2/3, he allowed the seventh fewest hits and ninth fewest walks per nine innings amongst qualified pitchers, combining for a 1.10 WHIP that finished sixth best in the league. He jockeyed for the strikeout title throughout the year, ultimately finishing second with 269 while averaging 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He also kept the ball in the yard, allowing just 0.54 home runs per nine innings, the fourth best mark in the AL.

Can Kluber get even better, or will he regress back to the pack in 2015? After a pair of tough goes in his first two seasons in the Majors in 2011 and 2012, he posted an 11-5 record and a 3.85 ERA around a finger injury that slowed him some in 2013. His 2014 numbers were outstanding and could have been even better, had his offense provided him with more support. In his nine losses, five times his teammates scored no more than one run in the outcome.

The 27-year-old Carlos Carrasco, who will turn 28 at the end of Spring Training, finally burst on to the scene and showed the potential late in the season that the Indians have been long waiting for since acquiring him from the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009. It did not come without its difficulties, as a rocky April in the rotation resulted in his banishment to the bullpen but, once there, Carrasco looked dominant, posting a 3-1 mark in relief with a 2.30 ERA and .217 batting average against while working in increasingly more high leverage spots. In eight July appearances alone, he was 2-1 with a 0.93 ERA.

After manager Terry Francona re-inserted him into the rotational mix, Carrasco earned his keep. He went 5-3 with a 1.30 ERA in ten starts in August and September while throwing his name into contention as a front end of the rotation piece for the Indians in 2015. He struck out 78 batters and walked just eleven in 69 innings of work and had six games in that span with eight strikeouts or more. His masterpiece may have come in Houston on September 17th, when he threw a complete game, two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout against the Astros.

Anyone who has watched the roller coaster career that Carrasco has had in Cleveland should taper their optimism some, but all Tribe fans should hope that he can be as dominant to start the coming season as he was in ending this previous one.

The results from Trevor Bauer have been mixed and may appear a little more disappointing given the high expectations placed on the former third overall pick of the 2011 draft. But the newly turned 24-year-old right-hander showed steady growth last season after a pair of 1-2 efforts with ERAs over five in four starts in his first two seasons at the MLB level, first with Arizona in 2012 at the age of 21, and then in 2013 after the Indians acquired him from the Diamondbacks.

Bauer finished 5-8 with a 4.18 ERA in 26 starts. While the record may have left something to be desired, he drastically reduced his walk rate by more than half of his previous, albeit small, sample size. His hit rate increased by one hit per nine innings, but it seemed to mark a focus by Bauer to throw strikes and challenge hitters rather than to nibble. He finished the season with 143 strikeouts and 60 walks in 153 innings. He made quality starts in half of his appearances and he struck out a half dozen batters or more in the same number of games.

Bauer, like some of the other rotation candidates, spent a portion of his season in Triple-A. He started the season at Columbus and, after an early spot start for the Tribe in a doubleheader against San Diego, was 4-1 in six more starts after heading back down I-71. Like Carrasco, he is still an unknown, but the potential is there moving forward. Innings and durability could be a question, but he logged a professional high of 199 between his two Ohio stops in 2014.

The problem with the fifth spot in the rotation this season is the uncertainty surrounding any of the players up for the task. The primary competition seems to be between right-hander Danny Salazar and left-hander T.J. House.

Salazar, who turned 25 in January, was thought to be an integral piece of the Indians rotation for the future, but so far, the results have been lacking. Throughout his two seasons in the Majors, he has shown glimpses of being unhittable while other times allowing runs at an unsettling rate. Now, character concerns have trickled in as some serious offseason allegations of unsettling behaviors could factor in to his professional future.

He started last season poorly, going 1-4 in eight starts with a 5.53 ERA, a .301 batting average allowed, and a .369 batting average on balls in play. He surrendered eight home runs in 40 2/3 innings, but did manage 47 strikeouts. The K rate was not enough to keep him in town, as the Indians were forced to ship him back to Columbus for additional work.

His time at Triple-A produced mixed results. He still tallied some major strikeout numbers – shutting down 67 hitters in 53 2/3 innings – but he allowed 53 hits, a 1.51 WHIP, and an average of 4.7 walks per nine innings. He did return to the Majors later in the season and was stronger in his final eight starts, earning a 2-3 record while striking out 51 hitters in 47 1/3 innings and cutting his walk rate by more than half of that in Columbus. He also threw one of the gems of his young career, throwing a complete game eight-hit shutout against Detroit on September 3rd while striking out nine batters.

His chief competition, lefty House, was 5-3 with a 3.35 ERA in 19 games in 2014. He lobbed 102 innings at the big league level and another 57 in Columbus while going 1-4 with a 3.79 ERA. He averaged over a hit per inning allowed combined between the two levels and just over two walks per nine innings. House has maxed out at 164 innings in a season, thrown in each of the last two seasons. While his season total for strikeouts were down, his walk rate was improved and he allowed fewer base runners and total runs as a whole.

The 25-year-old southpaw, who may not have been on the radar of many outside of the club, may have an advantage over Salazar due to being the primary lefty option in the organization. The only other true left-handed starter heading into camp as potential competition is the 37-year-old Bruce Chen, who the Indians signed to a minor league deal this week despite coming off of arguably the worst season of his MLB career.

Other candidates for the fifth spot include Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister. Tomlin turned 30 in October and is entering his tenth year in the Indians organization. He is 29-28 in his Major League career with a 4.89 ERA in 85 games, including 70 starts. He may factor as a long man if unable to beat out the competition for the fifth spot.

The same challenge faces McAllister who, at 28 years of age, is entering his tenth season in pro ball and his sixth with the Indians. He has been unable to capitalize on prior opportunities in the rotation. He struggled to a 3-6 start with a 5.91 ERA in 67 innings of work to begin last year before an injury and a demotion to Columbus took him out of the rotation. When he returned in September, he worked primarily in relief, striking out 14 men in 13 innings with a 2.77 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, and a substantially better strikeout-to-walk ratio.

All of these men join the new arm on the staff, 32-year-old Gavin Floyd, in potentially making up the five-man staff. Floyd appeared in just nine games for Atlanta after fracturing his pitching elbow and missed the majority of the previous season with Chicago after Tommy John surgery. If he remains slotted in to the fourth spot in the rotation as expected, he instantly becomes the elder statesman of the staff.

If there is one thing in baseball you cannot have enough of, it is starting pitching. While the Indians have some depth on the roster to play with and some versatility due to some players still having minor league options remaining, the age of the staff as a whole, outside of Floyd and Tomlin, is still on the younger side. While many of these options are inexperienced, their youth and a lack of wear on their arms does benefit the organization overall.

The Indians success last season came from riding the revolving door of starting pitching arms and using the hot hand throughout the season. Much of the same could be expected for the season ahead.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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