The Indians’ off-season is far from over, but they’ve already accomplished most of their goals. They’ve restocked the bullpen, found a powerful first baseman, and—perhaps most importantly—landed Nick Swisher. The Tribe’s last remaining need is for one more reliable starting pitcher. With the signing of free agent Brett Myers and the addition of prospect Trevor Bauer, the team already has a lot of options for 2013.
The team has likely rotation candidates in Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Zach McAllister, as well as depth in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and the lone left-hander, David Huff. Barring any unforeseen issues in spring training, the rotation will almost certainly feature Masterson, Myers, McAllister, and Jimenez. That leaves one remaining spot and plenty of other starters available to fill it.
With so many starting pitchers headed to camp in February, why do the Indians need to secure another one?
To start with, Masterson and Jimenez are both hoping for bounceback seasons after a disastrous 2012. In October, Masterson put part of the blame for his 2012 struggles on his inability to train last winter due to shoulder surgery. Although that probably wasn’t the only cause, a healthy offseason will certainly help him get back on track as the team’s ace.
Jimenez, who had an ERA+ of just 72 last year, was the definition of unreliable. His problems stem mostly from poor control, leading the league with 16 wild pitches and walking nearly 12 percent of batters. The Tribe’s new pitching coach, Mickey Callaway, has spent time in the Dominican Republic working with Jimenez to improve his mechanics and add some consistency, which will hopefully make a difference. It seems likely that both pitchers will make progress—honestly, Jimenez can’t get much worse—but nothing is guaranteed. If they fail to be helpful members of the rotation, what does that leave the Indians with?
In that situation, the Indians need to have young arms waiting in Columbus they can be confident in. Kluber showed promise last season with a low walk rate and a decent amount of strikeouts, but he is very hittable, averaging almost 11 H/9 and giving up too many home runs. He needs time to develop more, and would best serve the team by starting his season in the minors. Carrasco will face an innings limit as he returns from Tommy John surgery, and it seems likely that the team will have him start the season in extended spring training or a rehab assignment rather than shut him down later in the year when the team could possibly be in a close playoff race. It’s also uncertain how he will pitch, although he performed well in two of his three short starts at the end of last season.
Perhaps the only pitcher that the team can feel fully confident about is McAllister, who started 22 games last year and finished with an ERA+ of 92 and a 20 percent strikeout rate. Along with the rest of the rotation, the rookie struggled to prevent stolen bases—runners had a 95 percent success rate against him. Despite his problems, he showed that he has the skills to be the solid mid-rotation starter that the Indians need him to be. With nearly a full year of experience under his belt as he enters this season, he will be a key part of the pitching staff. Of course, McAllister probably could have had a more successful season in 2012 if not hindered by in-game pitching decisions.
Last season Manny Acta frequently mismanaged his starters, and it added to the struggles of a rotation that never quite settled in. In addition to being left in the game too long after a rocky start, pitchers often threw too much even on good days. In his July 26 start, McAllister threw 117 pitches over six innings. Before that game, he had an ERA of 3.18, but it soared to 5.29 during his last ten starts. Derek Lowe was perhaps the best example of this—he steadily declined from a 2.05 ERA to 5.52 after throwing 127 pitches in his May 15 complete game. A pitcher with 15 years worth of mileage on his arm should never have been left in so long, and he never quite recovered, leading to his collapse and subsequent midseason release from the team.
For as much as the Lowe signing has been criticized, it’s important to remember that he was playing extremely well up until that 127-pitch game. Had he been used differently early on in the year, the season might have had a different ending. While it is important to prevent overworking the bullpen, it’s even more vital to protect the rotation. Bullpen arms can be replaced much more easily than an injured or exhausted starter. Instead, pitchers were pushed past their breaking points and the team was forced to rely on calling up minor league starters that weren’t quite seasoned enough for a full-time role. That can’t happen again this year, if the Indians want to avoid the second-half collapse that they’ve experienced the past two seasons.
The additions of Myers and Bauer add both immediate and long-term help for a rotation that had been under too much pressure. Bauer, who will likely start out in the minors despite his tremendous talent, will help the rotation for the next several seasons. Myers, who had a 3.31 ERA last year while appearing out of the bullpen for the Astros and White Sox, is a temporary fix but can be counted on for around 200 innings of work. If Bauer or Kluber show a lot of promise and need to be called up, Myers can also be moved to the bullpen.
The only pitcher that hasn’t been mentioned is Huff, whose most redeeming quality is his left-handedness. He showed some improvement last season when he posted an ERA of 4.35 during 20 innings as a starter and also allowed no runs during his six innings of relief work. However, his inconsistency as a starter makes him seems more suited to a long-relief role, effectively leaving the Tribe with no lefty starting pitchers.
The team needs to find a left-hander who can provide them with reliable results, so they need to consider trading for one final starter. One name that has been mentioned is the Dodgers’ Chris Capuano, who had an ERA+ of 102 and a 3.0 K/BB ratio last year. This past season, his WAR (according to Baseball-Reference) was 1.8. That’s a major improvement, since Masterson had the highest WAR among Tribe starters last season…at 0.0. Capuano also posted strikeout and walk rates that were well-above league average, and 18 of his 33 outings were quality starts. The veteran pitcher would be a perfect complement to the team.
The Indians’ front office has done well in turning the rotation around already. One final left-handed addition would make it even better.