The Cleveland Indians entered this offseason with just a handful of key roster decisions to make regarding members of their 2015 team.
Three players – Mike Aviles, Gavin Floyd, and Ryan Webb – have already filed for free agency. The Indians announced this past week that they were electing to decline Ryan Raburn’s option for the 2016 season, making him a free agent. As for internal moves, that leaves any remaining 40-man roster additions and the arbitration statuses of a handful of players to navigate.
While many of the arbitration discussions will be quickly and easily resolved, the Indians do have some discussions to have regarding Lonnie Chisenhall and Josh Tomlin. Both men have their pros and both men have their cons, especially regarding what they are projected to earn through arbitration for the coming season. The Indians will have to make a decision as to whether that dollar amount is worth the sporadic production that they have received from both men throughout their Indians careers.
While the dilemma regarding Chisenhall has its own unique components, so too does that of Tomlin.
MLBTradeRumors.com has done a fantastic job over the last few years of projecting a player’s potential arbitration salary. Tomlin, who is to some degree a man without a spot in the rotation for next year, is projected to earn $3.1 million. Cody Allen, Tribe closer coming off of a very underrated 2015 season, slots in at $3.5 million, while Chisenhall looks to get around $3.0 million.
The Indians rotation, as currently stands and has been rumored to be “subject to change” since the July trading deadline, has Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar as locks, as long as one of them does not turn into trade fodder. Trevor Bauer pitched effectively at times before a late season demotion to the bullpen when Tomlin and Cody Anderson were pitching more effectively. Bauer and his deep pitch arsenal and spotty control would not presumably be a bullpen option in the coming season.
That leaves the Indians with a decision to make regarding Tomlin and Anderson.
Both pitched well enough to merit consideration for a rotation spot heading into the 2016 season. Both have minor league options remaining. The Indians could elect to bring back Tomlin and his approximate $3 million contract and let the two battle it out in Spring Training for a rotation spot, with the loser waiting in the wings in Columbus as the next man up or, in the case of Tomlin, maybe even finding a spot on the club as a needed long man in the Indians bullpen. Or, in the event that the team deals from depth, both could find themselves in the mix at the Major League level.
Tomlin is an interesting complement to the Indians rotation in much the same way that Anderson is. The “Little Cowboy” is not a hard thrower, which could cause havoc for opposing teams after dealing with significantly harder throwers like the rest of the primary starting options from last season.
To draw what feels like an unorthodox and unfair comparison, liken the Indians’ situation to that of the New York Mets during their National League Pennant winning season in 2015. The Mets had young and hard-throwing arms in the rotation in Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, and Noah Syndergaard. Steven Matz was similar in limited action. And then there was Bartolo Colon.
Colon started 31 times for the Mets, leading their staff, at the age of 42. His fastball had no giddity-up to it, at least not compared to the majority of MLB pitchers. He did, however, have movement and had an impeccable control of his pitches, leading the league with just 1.1 walk per nine innings. He walked a total of 24 batters in 194 2/3 innings, or exactly one fewer batter than he gave up a home run to over the course of the year. While Colon was a bullpen option in the postseason, he was 14-13 with a 4.16 ERA during the season. Those numbers might not blow you away, but he ate innings and minimized unnecessary runners on base via free pass to help negate some of the damage done by the long ball.
Tomlin was 7-2 in ten starts for Cleveland after returning from injury that eliminated him from the starting rotation equation in the spring. He logged 65 2/3 innings, threw two complete games, and had a brag-worthy WHIP of 0.84. His hit rate and walk rate per nine innings were both at career lows and his strikeout-to-walk rate was at a career best. In just one start did he fail to pitch into the sixth inning.
His control was its usual impressive. It actually rivaled his career best, when he led the league in 2011 with the same 1.1 rate. He paid the price for mistakes – 13 home runs surrendered in that small sample size – but just two of them came with runners on base. He had a seven-run lead when one of those non-solo shots happened and a four-run lead when the other left the yard.
In addition to being occasionally homer-happy, another problem facing Tomlin is that he just turned 31 in mid-October and, despite playing in parts of six MLB seasons since 2010, has yet to register an entire season of work without spending a portion of the year in Triple-A or lost to an injury. He missed the final five weeks of the 2011 season with right elbow soreness, a wrist injury and later Tommy John surgery in 2012 that carried on into 2013, and his right AC joint surgery at the beginning of this past season.
Tomlin made $1.5 million in 2015, half of what he is forecasted to receive after a ten-game season.
The Indians may feel that the potential Tomlin has shown is worth the $3 million investment moving forward, especially if comparable replacements, both statistically and financially, cannot be found on the free agent market. How they handle his contract situation may be a direct reflection of how the club is able to upgrade and retool over the next two months before arbitration figures are filed and exchanged in mid-January.
Photo: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II