Is there a world in which the Indians trade Corey Kluber, don’t get a starting pitcher in return, and somehow still have a better starting rotation than they did a year ago? Since this is a lede and not a headline, Betteridge’s Law does not apply and the answer is, in fact, yes.
The emotional impact of trading Corey Kluber will always sting. It came at about the worst possible time for the optics of a franchise debating whether or not they should trade the best shortstop they’ve ever had, and it didn’t look like more than a salary dump at the time. But if a few dominoes fall in the right direction, it’ll look like another underrated move by the Indians front office.
The first thing that has to happen is for those still on the Indians to replicate what Kluber would do in 2020. Steamer and ZiPS both see Kluber on the downward trend of his brilliant career, but still worth 3.4 and 3.1 WAR, respectively. Even with the most optimistic projections, neither ZiPS, Steamer, nor PECOTA sees any one of Zach Plesac, Adam Plutko, or Aaron Civale coming close to that number. Not even combined.
In order to believe in the greatness of the 2020 rotation past the expected dominance of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Carrasco, you have to get a little creative with your expectations. You have to hope that someone like Civale — with his outrageous spin rates and deceptive control — busts through his projections to be underutilized as a fourth starter. Or you could hope that Zach Plesac’s offseason routine working with Mike Clevinger really has improved his velocity and intent on the mound. You should probably also hope that everyone else is good enough to force the option-less Adam Plutko to the bullpen.
The hope of Civale and Plesac is the kind of thing that can sneak past projection systems. Spin rates do not factor into projections, neither do things like Plesac’s unbelievable athleticism on the mound and deceptive pick-off move. Civale is a location artist in the same vein of Bieber — he had a walk rate above 5% just once as a starter in the minors, and last year in 57.2 major-league innings he issued 16 walks. ZiPS managed to notice Bieber before his ascent last season, and among the three systems, it’s the most optimistic on Civale’s chances in 2020 with a projected 4.80 ERA and 1.4 WAR in 123.7 innings. Plesac is an absolute wild card.
As for the second thing that has to happen in this post-Corey Kluber wasteland? The new core of the rotation has to carry them. Just like Kluber did with Trevor Bauer and Carrasco in years past, it’s up to Bieber, Clevinger, and once again Carrasco to keep the Indians relevant in the playoffs picture.
ZiPS projects Bieber to pitch 201.0 innings, but that’s the only Indians pitcher projected to have over 200.0 innings by any projection system. Carrasco and Clevinger have both done it in the past, but they’re both working through injuries in spring training. All three of the new core are projected to have ERA’s under 4.00 across the board; PECOTA is particularly bullish on Bieber, putting him at a 2.95 ERA, 11.50 K/9, and 3.8 WARP. Being that projections systems are notoriously conservative — especially for pitching — it’s not a stretch to think Carrasco and/or Clevinger could get below a 3.00 ERA, too.
As always, injuries will play a big part in how effective the Indians rotation is. It would appear that both Clevinger and Carrasco will start the season on the IL, which leaves the door open for Plutko and Jefry Rodriguez to hold down the final two spots in the rotation come Opening Day. With any luck, it’ll only be temporary.
As of now, Clevinger looks like he’s on pace to beat the 6-8 diagnosis he was initially given following his knee surgery in mid-February, but he’ll still require some ramping up once he returns to baseball activities. As for Carrasco, a report Wednesday revealed that he’s “a stretch” to make the Opening Day roster.
The Indians’ desperate need for depth last season unearthed the talents of Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale, but I don’t know how many more of those rabbits are left in their collective hats. We pretty much know what Plutko and Rodriguez are, and waiting in the wings are Logn Allen (who has looked awful in limited major-league stretches), and Scott Moss (who needs to work on command before he establishes a spot in the majors).
Shane Bieber 2020 Projections
Zach Plesac 2020 Projections
Adam Plutko 2020 Projections
Carlos Carrasco 2020 Projections
Mike Clevinger 2020 Projections
Aaron Civale 2020 Projections
The Indians are blessed with a bevy of starting pitching talent both at the upper and lower levels of its system. In fact, the Tribe’s Triple-A starting rotation will likely be better than some MLB team’s starting rotation, in my opinion.
At the Triple-A level this season, former top 100 prospect and southpaw Logan Allen will look to regain his top form after a lackluster 2019 that resulted in him being a centerpiece in the Trevor Bauer deal. Fellow-Bauer trade return Scott Moss was sensational after being acquired from the Reds. Jefry Rodriguez flashed potential in 2019 before getting injured. Southpaw Sam Hentges was flashing 99 mph during Spring Training and was a top 10 Tribe prospect entering last season before struggling. And don’t forget former Tribe No. 1 overall prospect Triston McKenzie, who is healthy and hoping to bounce back strong from a lost 2019 season.
But that’s not all. strikeout artist Eli Morgan impressed at both the High-A and Double-A levels in 2019, another southpaw Adam Scott is knocking on the door after impressing at High-A and Double-A while Jean Carlos Mejia hopes to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2019 and show the potential that saw him get added to the Tribe’s 40-man roster.
And we’re not even close to finished. Another former top 10 prospect Luis Oviedo is still just 20 years old and hopes to bounce back from a rough 2019 at Single-A while elite flamethrowers Ethan Hankins and Daniel Espino could both begin the season at Single-A. Carlos Vargas is another starter that easily hits the upper 90s with gas and had some flashes of brilliance in 2019 at Low-A.
Don’t forget 2018 first-round draft pick Lenny Torres, who returns from Tommy John surgery this year, or the next wave of college arms that include Xavier Curry, Hunter Gaddis and Cody Morris, among others.
The future is extremely bright for pitching in Cleveland, and the Tribe at this point practically has too many elite arms.
— Brian Hemminger
Around the AL Central
If there’s one place the Indians have a clear advantage in the American League Central, it’s starting pitching. They led the division with a collective 3.81 ERA last season, trailed by the Twins’ 4.19 and in a distance tie for third the Royals and White Sox both at 5.30.
The Twins brought back Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda but not much else. Dallas Keuchel landed in Chicago but his days of being an ace-level pitcher might be behind him. The White Sox do, however, have a pair of young arms in Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech that might rival the Indians sooner rather than later.