Starting Pitching Looking to be Dominant Again in 2016

It’s been said time and time again that “pitching wins baseball.” You can hit as many home runs as you want, or be one of the best defensive teams on the planet, but if you don’t have a starting rotation that can get you past the fourth inning each and every night, then you’ve got yourself a huge problem. For the Indians in 2016, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.

Going into 2015, the Indians were predicted to win the World Series by plenty of news outlets, but especially by Sports Illustrated (jixes). The reason they were predicted this way was due what their great rotation at the time, which consisted of the most recent Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, followed by newly redefined Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and lefty T.J. House.

Unfortunately, the Tribe didn’t even sniff the World Series, but they were able to experience something great within itself – the emergence of one of best Indians rotations in recent history.

During 2015, the Indians hoped to use guys like Gavin Floyd and House as mainstays in the rotation, but due to injuries and inconsistencies, Salazar was given a great opportunity to succeed and rookie Cody Anderson emerged with the Tribe and showed what he could do at the major league level. Salazar, who started the season in Triple-A after a miserable spring training, ended up putting together a great season. In 30 games, Salazar threw a 3.45 ERA with a K/9 of 9.5. He struck out 195 batters, just shy of the 200 mark. Salazar coming into his own was a huge part of why the Indians rotation was so solid. It’s going to be crucial that Salazar continues to mature and progresses towards becoming a top of the line starter that he’s projected to become.

Kluber may not have had as strong of a season in 2015 as he did during his Cy Young campaign, but that doesn’t mean he had a bad season. While his win-loss record doesn’t indicate he was phenomenal, win-loss records also don’t really indicate anything at all. In 32 starts for the Tribe, Kluber went 9-16 with a 3.49 ERA. He posted a 9.9 K/9, which dropped a bit from 2014 when it was 10.3. Kluber was also hurt by the Indians defense before the infield renovation. His FIP for the season sat at 2.97, which indicates that the defense let Kluber down by half a run. Regardless, Kluber is going to be entering the season at 30 years old, so regression could be expected, but as of right now there’s no indication that Kluber is going to be anything less than the ace he has shown he can be.

The guy that completes the Indians’ 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation is Carrasco. Being the most interesting story of the rotation, Carrasco has been through a lot with the Tribe since they acquired him from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Cliff Lee trade in 2009. From having Tommy John surgery, to serving multiple suspensions, to demotions and being sent to the bullpen, Carrasco has worked his way into becoming one of the top starters in the MLB. In 2015, he posted a record of 14-12 and an ERA of 3.63. In his 183.2 innings of work, he struck out 216 batters and had a K/9 of 10.6. Prior to the start of 2015, Carrasco signed a four-year, $22 million deal with two options for 2019 and 2020. The Indians put a lot of faith in Carrasco and took a risk that he would hopefully repeat what he did at the end of 2014, and he certainly lived up to their expectations and more. He poses the ability to not only be the ace of any rotation, but also has the ability to win the Cy Young Award in 2016.

The big three, Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar, are solid and reliable going forward into 2016. The next two spots in the rotation is where things start to get a little more fuzzy. Currently, the fourth spot is locked up by Bauer. This is going to be his fourth season with the Tribe, and he still has not yet shown that he can be completely relied upon each start. In 2015, he had a record of 11-12 with an ERA of 4.55. He had a K/9 of 8.7, but a BB/9 of 4.0, which was half a point higher than in 2014. His HR/9 was at 1.2, which is not a good sign when most of your games are played at Progressive Field, which can be a very high home run hitting park in the right conditions. Bauer’s biggest issue is his inconsistencies between each game.

Last season in the first half, Bauer was outstanding. In April, Bauer posted an ERA of 1.80 in 25 innings. He ended the first half with a solid ERA of 3.76, but his xFIP sat at 4.27, which doesn’t bode well for Bauer’s individual performance, but was aided by the Indians defense and his ability to strike out batters. In the second half, Bauer had an ERA of 5.73. He was eventually bumped to the bullpen in September, where he spent the rest of the season with the exception of one last start. If Bauer hopes to stay in the rotation, he’ll need to work on being consistent from start to start.

The last spot of the rotation is slightly up for grabs between Josh Tomlin, Anderson, and House. Anderson had a solid rookie season where he put up an ERA of 3.05 in 91.1 innings. Being a large ground ball pitcher, Anderson was greatly aided by the Indians new-found defense after the promotions of Francisco Lindor and Giovanny Urshela. While Anderson has another option, there’s a chance he could start the season in Triple-A Columbus.

Tomlin started the season on the disabled list after having shoulder surgery, but he came back to the MLB with a vengeance. In his ten starts with the Tribe, he had an ERA of 3.02 and a record of 7-2. Tomlin had never been this solid with the Tribe in his six seasons with the team. He’s certainly gone through his own trials and tribulations after having Tommy John surgery and a plethora of demotions and call ups between the MLB and Triple-A Columbus. After putting up a solid partial season in 2015, the Indians rewarded Tomlin with a two-year, $5.5 million contract with an option for 2018. Whether or not Tomlin makes it in the rotation, he’ll still spend his season with the big league club due to his experience in the bullpen as well.

House is another interesting candidate. When he broke onto the scene in 2014, House was dominant from the left side of the mound. With his side-winding delivery, House knows how to induce a ground ball when he needs to, and with the Indians defense he could potentially be a tremendous addition to the back end of this rotation. House’s issue though has been staying healthy. He barely pitched at all in 2015, which could set him back going into this season. If he has a solid spring training though, he could be awarded with a rotation spot, or at the least a spot in the bullpen.

Outside of the obvious candidates for the rotation spots, the Indians have a lot of interesting arms in the minors that could affect the team at the major league level at some point in either 2016 or 2017. The most notable arm is Michael Clevinger. After breaking out in a big way in 2015, Clevinger could be the next big name that breaks onto the scene in Cleveland in 2016. If the Indians ever need a spot starter, Clevinger could be the first name that is called. Eventually he could become a big part of the rotation, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s up in Cleveland for good. A couple of other names to keep an eye on for the future are Will Roberts, Adam Plutko, Ryan Merritt and Shawn Morimando.

The starting rotation is going to be what separates the Tribe from the rest of the teams in the AL Central. No other rotation in the Central even comes close to what the Indians have, which will truly benefit them since their offense may not stand up to what some of the other teams may be putting up. As long as the rotation keeps doing what they did in 2015 and the defense continues to play as consistently as it did in the second half of last season, the Indians may very well have a chance of taking the Central Division title.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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