Okay, so Justin Masterson is gone. He was the Tribe's best pitcher over the last five years, but after being slowed by injuries this season, and with his free agency rapidly approaching, the Indians pulled the trigger on sending him to the Cardinals for outfield prospect James Ramsey, one of the better talents in a strong farm system. I'm on record as liking the trade well enough, but now I want to look at where it leaves the Indians, both for the rest of 2014, and for 2015 too.
Have the Indians given up on this season?
Maybe sort of, but even if they have, can you blame them? Masterson was ineffective all season until being placed on the DL a few weeks ago. Sure, he made a handful of good starts, but most of his outings put the team in a hole and taxed the bullpen too much. St. Louis is obviously willing to gamble that he's ready to return to form, and he might be, but this trade doesn't make the Tribe any worse for the rest of this season, it just eliminates one possible route to getting better. My guess is Masterson pitches better over the next two months than he did before hitting the DL, but not as well as he did in 2013.
Masterson was scheduled to return on Friday though, and to hold down a spot in the rotation for the rest of the year. Who do the Indians turn to now?
Corey Kluber is an ace, better this season than Masterson has ever been, better than anyone on the Indians has been since Cliff Lee in 2008. He's under team control through 2018, so whether the Indians lock him up on a longterm extension or not, he's not going anywhere.
Trevor Bauer still isn't the pitcher we'd hoped we were getting 20 months ago, but he's made very real strides this season, and he certainly isn't losing his spot in the rotation anytime soon.
After that things get a little murky...
Josh Tomlin is next in terms of starts (14) and innings (86.2) this season, but he's been inconsistent, with a 4.47 ERA built on a mix of very good games and very bad ones, and was recently send back down to Columbus.
Zach McAllister has been a solid, league-average sort of pitcher over the last couple years, but the results have not been good this season, as he's carrying a 5.65 ERA and he's dealt with a lower back strain as well.
Danny Salazar was viewed as the team's new ace by a lot of fans during the offseason, but walks and home runs got him sent down to Triple-A in May, he only returned to the Indians last week, and is still sporting a 4.96 ERA for the year.
T.J. House was viewed as a second (or third) tier prospect entering the season, but he's made nine starts for the team and done better than most of us expected, with a 4.50 ERA.
Carlos Carrasco was just about as bad as a starter this season as he was last year, which is to say, really bad. He's been great as a reliever though, just as he was last year, and maybe he should get another crack at starting.
Beyond Kluber and Bauer, I'd go with McAllister (while his ERA is a mess, his peripherals are right in line with what they were the last two years, and his FIP is actually better this season than either of those two) Salazar (to get a more extended look at where he's at, and because he's got the highest ceiling of the candidates for spots 3-5), and Tomlin (because while not being quite what you want from a member of the rotation, he's better than House, and has pitched some very good games).
House will probably still be needed, because MLB teams rarely get through even two months without a sixth starter appearing at least once, meanwhile, I'd leave Carrasco right where he is. I've been sour on him as a starter for a long time, so my preference for keeping him in the pen might just be confirmation bias, but I think that's the role he's cut out for.
What about next year?
We'll never know if the Indians would have made Masterson a qualifying offer or not, something thats purely would have depended on how he pitched in August and September. It's possible he would have been back next season, but that spot is now open.
Kluber, Bauer, Salazar, and McAllister I'm okay with, in terms of them being in the rotation to begin the year. Kluber is a #1 right now, Bauer and Salazar are probably each a #3 or 4 (certainly with the potential to improve upon that), and McAllister is a #5. Ideally the team would go out and sign a #2 starter, but that's easier said than done.
Still, the Indians will have the money they're not paying Masterson, and whether you count that as the ~$10 million they were paying him this season, or the ~$14.5 they would have paid him if he accepted the QO, it's enough money to land someone meaningful. Just understand that at that price point, on a one or two year deal, you're looking at guys with question marks.
There are those who love to point out what a mistake the Indians made by not bringing Scott Kazmir back, and there's a fair amount of truth to that. Don't forget that Kazmir was playing independent ball in 2012 though, with a horrible track record in terms of health, and that he was something like a league-average starter for the Tribe in 2013, not the All-Star he's been for Oaland this season. Tim Hudson has worked out really well for San Francisco, but he's 38 years old, and was coming off a season in which he missed two months with injuries and had one of the worst ERAs of his career. No one should have been surprised if neither of this guys worked out for their new team this season, and if the Indians land this offseason's version of one of those two, they'll be far from a sure thing.
The Tribe's best chance at having a legit #2 is for Bauer and/or Salazar to develop into that guy. Short of that, the rotation is likely to be a trouble spot next season.