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Countdown to Opening Day – 28
The Cleveland Indians’ decision to take it slow and cautiously with prized starting pitcher Corey Kluber should not be alarming, even if that was the common trend when news came out that he would not be rushed back to the mound during spring training.
He is not hurt, he pitched a simulated inning in front of a slew of younger Indians pitchers a week ago, and he will make his 2017 Cactus League debut on Monday afternoon when Cleveland hosts the Milwaukee Brewers at Goodyear Ballpark.
The Indians were dealt substantial losses in their starting rotation late last season, leaving manager Terry Francona with Kluber, fresh off of a quad injury late in September, and his four and five starters from the rotation, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer, as his three-man staff for the team’s lengthy run through the postseason. Top tier starting pitching arms can be hard to come by and especially on the fly, and that experience served as a harsh reminder to the Indians that they must find ways to protect those hot commodities. It is a long and grueling season and, if things go right once again for the Tribe, that season will carry on another month beyond game 162 again in 2017. They will need a rested and healthy Kluber come the start of the season, so a proactive and careful approach with their number one starter is a decision that was easy to make.
Kluber may just be the most important arm of the starting bunch. Once again a Cy Young candidate at year’s end after going 18-9 with a 3.14 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 32 starts in 2016, Kluber’s worth was no more evident than during a playoff run in which he was forced to do things that he had rarely or never done in his career. In addition to pitching multiple times on three day’s rest, rare air for the 30-year-old right-hander, he was making his first career postseason starts.
Waiting to kick off Kluber’s 2017 makes all the more sense when remembering that, for the first time in his Major League career, he had the honor of pitching on the final day of the baseball season, taking the mound on short rest again in Game 7 of the World Series. While the game might not have gone his way, Kluber left everything on the field during the Indians’ magical and improbable run through the playoffs.
While playing for an extra month would have already made for a short offseason for the members of the Indians and the Chicago Cubs, things have been compounded all the more by the return of the World Baseball Classic. The tournament led to an earlier start to the spring training routine, shortening the time frame between the end of the 2016 season and the beginning of official 2017 activities even further. As Kluber makes his season debut Monday, a large number of his teammates will be joining their temporary new ball clubs as the multi-country exhibition gets underway around the world.
Three of Kluber’s expected starting rotation teammates – Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Bauer – have all made their spring debuts and, in the cases of all three, each has made two appearances already. Tomlin has yet to pitch in an official spring game after the 32-year-old worked in a career-high 191 2/3 innings combined between regular season and postseason action in 2016. His regular season total alone exceeded his work with the Indians in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Like Kluber, he worked on short rest in the World Series on the Indians’ short-staffed three-man rotation but, unlike Kluber, he has missed significant time in the past few years with injuries.
Kluber will turn 31 on the Indians’ first off day of the regular season on April 10. He exceeded 200 innings by plenty for the third straight season in 2016, working in 215 innings in 32 starts before missing his final starts of the season with his quad injury. He added 34 1/3 more innings to that total over six starts in the playoffs, tacking on even more innings to his extensive workload. He was 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP against Boston, Toronto, and Chicago in October and November.
Kluber’s contribution in the regular season was deserving of the Cy Young votes that he got in his third place finish in the voting behind Boston’s Rick Porcello and Detroit’s Justin Verlander. He posted the second 18-9 season of his career and his 3.14 ERA was the second-lowest of his six-year MLB career. He threw three complete games and set a new personal best with a pair of shutouts, the second and third of his career. He topped the 200-strikeout mark for the third straight year and maintained an efficient 1.06 WHIP, the third season in a row that he has managed to give up just a hair over a walk or hit per inning pitched.
While he did not bring home the top pitching hardware at year’s end, he did receive some honors during the season. He was selected to his first career All-Star team in July, joining Salazar on the AL pitching staff as an injury replacement. His efforts the following month in regular season action earned him August’s AL Pitcher of the Month award. He ended the regular season with the third-most wins and complete games in the league, the fourth-best ERA and WHIP marks, and the fifth-most strikeouts and innings pitched.
Kluber’s numbers mirrored much of his performance from the season before, when he went 9-16 and led the league in losses in a reminder of how wins and losses are no longer a relevant measuring stick for gauging starting pitching performance. He cut back on his hits allowed per nine innings by more than half a batter last season, but he saw a nearly equal increase in his walk rate, leading to the slight two-thousandths of an increase in his WHIP between the two years. His strikeout rate remained over one batter per inning and he was the top pitcher in the AL in more fancy pitching statistics like ERA+ (149) and fielding independent pitching (3.26).
Now entering into some of the prime years of his career, Kluber is showing that his Cy Young season in 2014 was no fluke. In 98 starts over the last three seasons, he has a 3.01 ERA and 1.07 WHIP and has struck out 741 of the 2,697 batters that he has faced in 672 2/3 innings. The numbers serve as more than an adequate enough sample size to indicate that Kluber has consistently been really, really good for the club.
Once an overlooked acquisition from the San Diego Padres in the Jake Westbrook three-team trade (also involving the St. Louis Cardinals) back at the trade deadline in 2010, Kluber has become one of the game’s best and proved it over and over on the biggest stages at the end of last season. He has taken his former fourth round selection out of small school Stetson University in Florida and has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the mound, one who has proven more than deserving of the contract extension that he signed prior to the 2015 season and one who now pitches well under his actual value for a team-friendly $7.7 million for the coming season.
The Indians’ success in 2016 was in large part due to the stoic leadership provided by Kluber on a banged up pitching staff all season long, and that same team, now hungry to complete the job left unfinished last fall, will look to its ace to deal a winning hand.
Other notable 28’s in Indians history: Charlie Jamieson (1931-32), Vada Pinson (1970-71), Rick Manning (1975-81), Bert Blyleven (1981-85), Cory Snyder (1986-1990), Ben Broussard (2002-03)
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images