McAllister Looking for Spot in Rotation or Bullpen

This spring a lot of the focus around the Cleveland Indians has centered around a young, promising rotation anchored by reigning American League Cy Young  winner Corey Kluber.

Over the final two months of the 2014 campaign, the Tribe’s starting five was arguably the best in baseball. Kluber clinched his hardware during that span in headlining a rotation that saw young guys like Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, T.J. House and Danny Salazar lead the team to the brink of what would have been a second straight postseason berth had the offense done just a little more.

The foursome behind Kluber stepped up in a big way and many now expect that group to take the next step this year and enjoy a full season as a dangerous group of starters that could contend as one of the game’s elite pitching staffs.

Not named in that aforementioned group is Zach McAllister. The 27-year-old had a campaign he would likely rather forget last year. In all, he was 4-7, with 5.23 ERA in 22 games, 15 of those starts. Along the way, there were numerous low points and many bumps and bruises.

At this point, it is hard to believe that last spring he was in the position of guys like Bauer and Carrasco. In 2014, McAllister was that young pitcher poised to take the next step. He was actually on level footing with Kluber, at that time, maybe even a little ahead of the Indians now number one starter.

After a season of injuries and ineffectiveness, combined with other pitchers showcasing their talents, McAllister finds himself in an unenviable spot this Cactus League season. He now has to reprove himself after taking a major step back last year.

In 2012 and 2013, the Cleveland right-hander was making the Tribe front office look great as it seemed it had absolutely fleeced the Yankees in a 2010 trade that saw the Indians send veteran outfielder Austin Kearns to New York for the promising pitcher.

Kearns was out of baseball after playing in all of 19 games in 2013. Meanwhile, McAllister received his first extended look in the Majors in 2012, going 6-8 with a 4.24 ERA.

In 2013, McAllister lost a month due to a strain to his right middle finger. He still started 22 games, was 9-9 and had a 3.75 ERA. Remove a rough month of August and McAllister’s numbers were actually better than that. He was a mainstay and key contributor in the rotation during the September drive to the Wild Card that year.

As 2014 training camp, there was a lot of hope that McAllister and Kluber could slot into the No. 2 and 3 spots in the rotation behind then-ace Justin Masterson. Heading into last March McAllister and Kluber were often said in the same breath as they were on similar career trajectories with McAllister actually two years younger. Kluber had the better record in 2013, but McAllister had the slightly better ERA. Oddly enough, both had finger injuries that season.

As last season went along, however, McAllister’s season couldn’t have gone any more differently from that of Kluber. The year started well enough for McAllister, in his age 26 campaign. He was 3-2 with a 3.82 ERA in six April outings.

However, he struggled in four May starts and was put on the 15-day disabled list on May 22 with a lower back injury. He returned to the rotation on July 12 and pitched all right in his first two starts. However, his second two starts in July were disastrous as he surrendered nine earned runs in 7.1 innings in outings against the Royals and Mariners.

It was around this time that House, Carrasco and Salazar were starting to pitch well and were opening eyes. The Indians decided it best to send McAllister to Columbus to get his game and body back in gear.

He pitched well in Triple-A. However, the Tribe’s starting five was on such a role in August there was simply no room for McAllister in the rotation when rosters were expanded in September. Cleveland put McAllister in the bullpen for the final month. He pitched 19 innings in eight games, which included one spot start. He enjoyed a nice bounce-back month with 2.84 ERA.

Now McAllister is in Goodyear, Az. hoping to build off that final month. He is looking to resurrect a career that took several wrong turns last season.

This spring presents a bit of good news/bad news for McAllister. The bad news is that it will be very hard for him to earn a spot in the rotation. Even with offseason acquisition Gavin Floyd suffering what could be a season-threatening injury, there is not a lot of room in the starting five.

With the way the five starters threw at the end of last season, the Tribe organization almost owes it to itself to see if that same group can pick up and lead the club the same way at the start of 2015. Beyond that group, the Indians also have veteran starters Josh Tomlin and Bruce Chen vying for spots in the rotation.

The good news for McAllister is that he is out of minor league options. That said, he almost has to make the Opening Day roster. Otherwise, barring an injury, if the Tribe tried to send him back to Triple A, the team would risk losing him off waivers. With pitching in high demand around Major League Baseball, there would surely be a team that would love to snag a still young starter who has had success in the big leagues.

Unless one of the four young starters behind Kluber has a totally awful spring, it would seem, McAllsiter will probably find a spot in the bullpen as a the team’s long-reliever. As Carrasco did last year, McAllister could perhaps get himself back on track coming out of the pen and bide his time until the inevitable injury or someone performing below expectations.

It is how Carrasco went from disastrous start to 2014 to superb finish and possible number two starter this season. Carrasco got himself righted during a midseason move to the bullpen where he seemed to finally put it together at the Major League level. Maybe McAllister could do the same this year.

It would appear to be a longshot that McAllister will break camp in Cleveland’s Opening Day rotation. However, it would seem a longer shot that he would be off the team, entirely. As long as McAllister is on a mound, in an Indians uniform, he has a chance to get things back on the track they were going his first two full seasons with the Tribe. As several young Tribe starters proved in 2014, sometimes all you need is that opportunity no matter how long the odd seem.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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