In the same offseason where teams are desperate enough to give 36-year-old Rich Hill $48 million dollars, Jeremy Hellickson $17.2 million, or Charlie Morton $14 million over two seasons, starting rotation stability is a rarity. Not for the Cleveland Indians. Injuries sapped their starting pitchers throughout 2016, but they will have the chance to try again in 2017 with the same group of stellar arms.
Even with this certainty, there is still room for a few surprises. Like last year, when Trevor Bauer effectively played himself out of a starting role in spring training then back into one within a few weeks of the regular season. Much like last year, the Indians have six or seven (or even eight if you want to be generous) potential starting pitchers just waiting for their shot.
Only the top three of the starting rotation — Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar — can be considered great and truly counted on to carry the team through the season, but the Indians have a plethora of fourth or fifth starters on the cusp. Because of this, we may not want to be so quick to assume Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin’s starting jobs are secured.
Now, let me be clear: This post is meant as potential surprises. I would still expect Bauer and Tomlin to have starting jobs at the beginning of the 2017 season, if nothing else because of how they pitched down the stretch and into the playoffs. They have both earned a starting spot, but they both also have histories of being inconsistent starters.
But let’s circle back a minute and talk about those top three.
No surprises here
Kluber is going to be the ace, there is no longer any doubt about it. There wasn’t much debate last season, but at least some people saw Carlos Carrasco as the team’s “true” number one pitcher prior to 2016 — even they should be swayed now. The Indians get nowhere near the World Series without Kluber’s postseason dominance. Maybe Carrasco would have done the same thing, but we’ll never know since he broke his hand late in the season and missed all of October.
Now that Carrasco’s back, though, he can easily be penciled into the number two slot. Battling through injuries all year long, Carrasco started just 25 games with a 3.32 ERA and 3.72 FIP last season. His peripherals were not as good as his dominant 2015 campaign, but a fully healthy Carrasco is still nightmare fuel for opposing batters. If he can avoid awkwardly stepping on bases and taking baseballs off the hand he should be alright. And if he’s alright, he is the team’s number two starter with no competition.
A bad spring training could make things interesting for Salazar
The number three spot is where things get a little interesting. I would still expect Danny Salazar to have the job handily, but it’s the first rotation spot where some doubt could seep in.
Salazar started last season looking like a Cy Young candidate. From April through June, his 2.22 ERA and 3.10 FIP — as well as a 10.32 K/9 — were enough to carry him to his first All-Star selection. Unfortunately, he had to miss the Midsummer Classic, as well as many other starts. First it was a sore elbow, then a sore arm, then there were reports he wasn’t working hard enough to come back. It all just kind of spiraled out of control and, if the Indians hadn’t gotten as far as they did, I wonder how much blame would have been placed on Salazar. He should be back and ready to go for spring training, but there will always be some question marks.
At worst I could see Salazar taking the Bauer route from last year — start the season in the bullpen and eventually work his way back into the starting rotation. He would have to be really bad in spring training for that to happen, though. So bad that someone like second-year pitcher Mike Clevinger projects to be better than him to start the season. That might happen eventually, but 2017 is probably a little early.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Salazar’s greatness is assumed off of one really good season. His walk rate has always been an issue but it doubled last season and it hurt him a lot. If he cannot keep his control issues in check, he might be out of the rotation relatively quickly. Probably just not out of spring training.
...and then there’s Trevor Bauer
As Matt discussed in his recent Facebook Q&A, many do believe that Bauer would be better served out of the bullpen. We have seen in recent seasons that Bauer excels when he narrows down which pitches he uses. He can throw something crazy like seven pitches, but when he focuses on his fastball, sinker, and devastating curveball he becomes a much better pitcher. A shift to the bullpen would keep him more focused on those few pitches and keep his fastball dialed up.
The pieces behind Bauer are better than they were last season, too. His main competition then was Cody Anderson and TJ House, since Mike Clevinger had not emerged yet and Ryan Merritt had only 30 innings past Double-A. This season, both of those young pitchers have some major-league seasoning — the latter having pitched the Indians into the World Series, no less. And while I would not consider Cody Anderson a lot of competition for a rotation spot, he is still lingering. Adam Plutko could be in the mix this season as well, even if it’s as a fringe contender like Clevinger was in 2016. If Bauer stumbles again throughout spring training he could find himself a dominant reliever for a good chunk of the season instead of a starter.
I don’t even know what to make of Josh Tomlin half the time. Part control wizard with total domination of the plate, part guy who can’t help but throw meatballs over the middle of the plate. It just depends on which game — or string of games — you are watching.
Tomlin had a late season collapse which resulted in a couple missed starts and a lone relief appearances in 2016, but he was still a big reason why the Indians found themselves in the World Series with his late season heroics — including his last five starts in which he allowed five earned runs in 26.2 innings. But you can never count on that Tomlin showing up every game, it’s just not realistic.
The bottom line with all of this is that, just like last spring training, the Indians are flooded with back-of-the-rotation starters. It’s far too early to write in Bauer and Tomlin (and maybe even Salazar) into the rotation in blood. Maybe just in pencil. Colored pencil. The kind that’s hard to erase but you can if you try really hard.