I find it difficult to get too excited about Brett Myers. Given the way he has bounced between the bullpen and the rotation over the past few years it is hard to imagine he will be more than a six-inning pitcher this season, and his stats indicate he is at best a fourth starter and the Indians have about six of those already. He has had fairly good peripheral stats throughout his career, but has never been a dominant pitcher and will probably be about league-average. If the Indians give him decent support he may win 12 games. If this is the big addition to the rotation it is a disappointment.
Be that as it may, I do not believe any free agent signing or trade will be the biggest factor for the Tribe’s rotation this year. If you look at all but the best teams in the American League, most of them have two starters who can be counted on to give a solid performance most every time out; the good teams also have a third starter who is at least somewhat consistent. No doubt the Indians are hoping Myers can fit that criterion.
Just about every team has a guy in the fourth spot who is either young, has an injury history, or has been inconsistent over the past few years. The fifth spot, as a rule, is even shakier. The Indians fit right in with the rest of the league in those two spots. They have set themselves up so that five or six guys have a shot at the last two spots, with Zach McAllister and Carlos Carrasco the likely favorites. But none of the contenders has enough of a track record that a sensible person would bet on them winning more than 10 games this season. That’s okay, though, because most of the American League is in the same situation.
Where the Indians need to get better in order to contend is the top two spots in the rotation. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez were among the worst pitchers in the league last year. Regardless of improvements to the lineup or development of young players throughout the roster, unless a major acquisition is in the offing (given the money already spent this offseason, that would appear to be unlikely) the success of the team in 2013 rests on the shoulders of these two pitchers.
Fortunately, both Masterson and Jimenez have histories that indicate 2012 was the exception rather than the rule. Masterson was one of the top 10 pitchers in the American League in 2011, and Jimenez started the All-Star game for the National League in 2010. If they can return to their peak level or something close to it in 2013, it certainly becomes easier to envision the Indians as contenders. A look at their 2012 results shows that the potential for a rebound is there, particularly for Masterson.
Masterson made 34 starts last year and failed to complete six innings in 11 of them. In those 11 starts, Masterson had an ERA of 10.97. In the other 23, his ERA was 2.91. Jimenez had a similar dichotomy, although the fact that he failed to complete six innings in 13 out of 31 starts is concerning. In his “bad” starts, Jimenez had an ERA of 9.30; in the others it was 3.34. The fact that both of these pitchers were able to perform at a high level in the majority of their starts indicates that their problems were mechanical or mental, and gives reason for optimism that a new manager and pitching coach may be able to help them reach that level more consistently.
To illustrate the importance of solving this problem, in the 24 games in which these two pitchers failed to complete six innings, the Indians’ record was 4-20. In other words, the top two pitchers put the Indians 16 games in the hole before anything else happened. The bright side is that if this problem had not occurred the Tribe would have been nearly a .500 team, even with all of the other problems that occurred. Given that the front office has moved aggressively to address most of the roster’s other deficiencies this offseason, it is easy to see how rebounds by Masterson and Jimenez could lead the Indians to a winning season in 2013.
As to how likely this is, I feel it is more likely that Masterson will rebound than Jimenez because Masterson at his best was better in 2012 than Jimenez—numbers aside, Masterson had several stretches of strong performance over multiple games while I cannot recall Jimenez being highly effective in back-to-starts since he came to Cleveland. In addition, I feel that the Indians will be more patient with Masterson because they control him for two more years and therefore have more of an interest in either fixing him so he will contribute or in building up his trade value. I believe that, because Jimenez will be in the last year of his contract, if he struggles early in the season he will be quickly taken out of the rotation, as the Indians will conclude that he is a lost cause and will not wish to have another season sabotaged by their rotation.