It is amazing to think how different the Cleveland Indians starting rotation looks now after the completion of the season versus how it played out six months ago when the Tribe broke camp with two large question marks in the back end of the staff.
The revolving door that became the fifth starting spot was one of the handful of issues that would plague the Indians this season and ultimately cost them their shot of, at least, an American League Wild Card berth. While it may be a resolved issue for the time being, it took a while to get to that point and would take just one offseason trade or one in-season injury to put the team on the brink of disaster again.
There was faith at the top of the rotation breaking spring camp, when Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco were presumed to be on track to pick up where they left off in 2014. Kluber was the winner of the league’s Cy Young award and Carrasco pitched like a man possessed down the stretch after returning from the purgatory that was his stint in the bullpen. Trevor Bauer was a third arm in the mix, with high expectations and moderate success, but thought to be ready and able to take on the task of being the middle arm in the rotation.
And then there were the rest.
Things took a sour turn for the Tribe before the club could even pack up from Goodyear for Cleveland for the season. Free agent addition Gavin Floyd was brought in to resurrect his career on a $4 million deal that would give the Indians an established veteran starter on an otherwise young pitching staff. Injury soon befell him and his season was nearly lost, save for a late return as a member of the bullpen in September.
Zach McAllister left camp as the team’s fourth starter. He pitched in one game before being removed from the starting rotation. The 27-year-old righty took the mound in the Indians home opener, which just so happened to be the moment that 2-1 Cleveland took a nose dive in the AL Central standings. McAllister lasted four innings, giving up a walk and 13 hits while striking out five. His five earned runs on the day were one more run than the Indians would score and, four days later, he was pitching in relief of Carrasco after a liner to his head.
For what it is worth, McAllister was a viable piece of the bullpen, so he did have worth to the staff this season, something that many of the names to follow did not have. He was 4-3 as a reliever with 13 holds and his first career save in his 60 pinch-pitcher performances. He struck out 79 batters in 65 innings and posted a 2.49 ERA.
Danny Salazar was the next man up to take McAllister’s spot. A suspect routine and a poor spring sent Salazar, once heralded as the next big arm for the Tribe’s staff, back to Columbus after spending 30 games with the club over the last two seasons. He made one start for the Clippers, throwing six scoreless innings while allowing four hits and striking out seven, before he was forced into action for the Indians. He slotted into the rotation and had a strong season after his wake-up call, going 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA in 30 starts, matching his previous MLB career total. He struck out 195 for the Indians in 185 innings and toppled 200 Ks for the season with his Triple-A game included.
While Salazar provided an answer, T.J. House was providing more questions for the coaching staff.
The lefty, 25 at the start of the season, would give the Indians rotation a different look out of camp. The four starters who were slated in front of him were all hard-tossing righties and Salazar fit the same mold. House had seemingly come out of nowhere when thrust into the rotation in 2014, going 5-3 with a 3.35 ERA in 19 games, including 18 starts.
The results were much different in 2015. He gave up six runs on six hits with three walks while retiring just four of 14 batters faced in his first start of the season. He allowed five runs on seven hits in five and two-thirds innings in his second. He allowed three runs in three innings of his third appearance and five more on four hits in three innings in what would be his final MLB outing of the year. He was hit with losses in all four games and walked a total of 12 batters in 13 innings and hit two more. He landed on the disabled list with shoulder issues and would make just four appearances in Columbus before being shut down for the season, as the shoulder healed much slower than expected. He is now pitching in the Arizona Fall League.
Another lefty and a late add to spring training, Bruce Chen, stuck around at Triple-A at the age of 37 in the chance that an opportunity presented itself with the Indians this season, and on May 9th, he got the promotion to the Majors, replacing reliever Anthony Swarzak on the roster. He made 88 pitches in four innings in his first outing, taking a loss against Minnesota after giving up six runs on ten hits. He made his second start on May 15th against Texas and the results were not much better – he allowed three runs on seven hits in two and one-third innings and was yanked after just 35 pitches. He was designated for assignment and elected free agency on May 18th while announcing his retirement shortly thereafter, ending a professional career spanning all the way back to his first contract with the Atlanta Braves in 1993.
Shaun Marcum, another veteran looking to hold on in the game after injuries had cost him parts of several seasons, was called up briefly in April and looked good in a relief appearance, but was returned to Columbus after being designated for assignment. A little over a month later, he returned to Cleveland after going 4-0 in five starts for the Clippers with a 1.36 ERA and .207 batting average against. He made three starts in May – two good, one not so good – and three more in June, including throwing seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball against Seattle on June 11th, but on June 18th he was again designated for assignment with the Indians in need of bullpen arms.
He would finish the season 3-2 with a 5.40 ERA in seven games (six starts) in Cleveland and 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 16 games (14 starts) in Columbus. He elected free agency following the season.
Cody Anderson became the newest fifth starter on June 21st and, had it not been for an injury that slowed him down, the Indians may have not had to look for any other help over the course of the year. He allowed just three runs in total over his first four starts before giving up four on ten hits in two and two-thirds innings on July 22nd and seven in five and two-thirds innings on July 27th. He allowed four more runs on August 1st and six in two and two-thirds on August 7th and landed on the disabled list the next day with a left oblique strain.
He returned for one start in August and six in September, ending with a five game winning streak while pitching as effective down the stretch as he had to begin his Major League career. He was 5-0 in September with a 1.38 ERA.
Toru Murata made his MLB debut in a spot start in the back end of what was an ugly doubleheader in Baltimore for the Indians. The 30-year-old career minor leaguer gave up five runs on four hits in three and one-third innings for the loss. In Columbus, he had arguably his best full season of his career, going 15-4 with a 2.90 ERA in 27 games, including 26 starts and one complete game.
And then there was the Little Cowboy. Josh Tomlin made his triumphant return from injury in August. The then 30-year-old righty continued to confuse those watching, as he has historically shown flashes of great pitching before settling in to mediocrity. That was not the case this season for the Indians, who got ten solid starts out of Tomlin. He went 7-2 with a 3.02 ERA and threw two complete games. He walked just eight batters in 65 2/3 innings, with five of them coming in his final three starts, while seven of his 22 runs allowed on the year came over the final two appearances. He did allow a troubling 13 homers in his stint back.
To compare the lot, the primary four starters – Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, and Salazar – went a combined 48-50 with a 3.76 ERA in 122 starts. They threw a combined eight complete games, including one shutout, and struck out 824 batters in 765 2/3 innings. Their collective WHIP was 1.14.
Anderson and Tomlin were a different story. The duo was 14-5 with a 3.04 ERA in 25 starts and logged three complete games. While their combined 22 homers allowed were on pace with Kluber (22) and both Carrasco and Bauer (23 each), their ERA was lower and their WHIP came in at 0.99. They were a unique complement to the core four, more about location and finesse than brute strength. The primary starters struck out an average of 9.69 batters per nine innings while walking 2.59. Anderson and Tomlin averaged 5.79 Ks per nine and 1.83 free passes.
The other five to take the mound in a starting role – McAllister, House, Chen, Marcum, and Murata – combined to go 3-9 with an 8.89 ERA in 14 starts. They allowed 15 homers, averaged 6.99 K/9, and walked batters at a rate of 3.65 per nine innings. The quintet had a combined WHIP of 1.89.
The Indians’ season was still contested into September, but many of these key early losses in April and May provided by the five failed rotation candidates loomed large for a Cleveland club that finished just four and a half games out of the second AL Wild Card spot and just one additional game behind the New York Yankees for the first spot.
Every win counts, but at least the 2016 cast of candidates looks to be a solid group from which to choose.
Photo: AP Photo/LM Otero