Here’s a not-so-subtle secret about baseball: Starting pitching has the ability to make or break a season. It doesn’t matter at what level. If you don’t have quality starting pitching, odds are you aren’t going anywhere. That is why there was so much debate surrounding the Indians’ starting rotation heading into Spring Training and who exactly would follow Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez on the hill.
Based on what we knew early on, it was almost a foregone conclusion that two spots were going to be filled Brett Myers and Zach McAllister. The Indians signed Myers with the stated intention of being a starter and McAllister earned his spot after being the Indians’ best pitcher in 2012. For either of them to lose their spot in the rotation was going to take either a catastrophic injury or an absolutely abysmal spring; luckily, neither has come to fruition.
That left the fifth and final spot in the rotation up for grabs between six legitimate candidates: Scott Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Trevor Bauer, David Huff, Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber. As of Monday, their stats broke down as follows (yes, it’s a very limited sample size):
What becomes painfully obvious is just how well Scott Kazmir has performed this Spring and how lackluster his competition has been. So far, this has been less a battle and more a statement by Kazmir that he’s taking the fifth spot in the rotation and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening. And, while Terry Francona has yet to make a final decision regarding the fifth and final spot in his rotation, the dominoes are beginning to fall.
On Monday, the Indians narrowed the race by one when they told told Matsuzaka that he would not be on the Opening Day roster. With the option of either taking an outright release or an assignment in the Indians minor league system, Dice-K opted for the latter. This was probably the best scenario for the one-time Japanese phenom. Still showing lingering signs from his recovery from Tommy John surgery, Matsuzaka struggled. He regularly worked himself into difficult jams with multiple base runners. Then again, that had become routine during his time in Boston. It also didn’t help that Matsuzaka also suffered a strained calf that temporarily set him back.
Trevor Bauer, the highly touted prospect acquired for Shin-Soo Choo is probably the one pitcher who could still steal the final spot from Kazmir. He has the arsenal of pitches, that much is for sure, and he’s pitched well in his 11 innings of work, striking out nine and only allowing a .214 batting average against. Unfortunately, there is no rush for the Indians to promote him to the Big League club for Opening Day. At this point in time they are better served allowing Bauer to gain additional minor league seasoning and call him up at some point during the season. This scenario could help ease his transition while also tempering expectations.
After Bauer things begin to get interesting—and not in a good way. David Huff finally looked as if he was ready to deliver on his potential after a successful, albeit brief, stint with the Tribe in 2012. In six appearances, four of which were starts, Huff was 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA. His 3.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.7 walks per nine innings were career bests. But, this spring Huff has seemingly regressed thanks to the long ball—he’s allowed 3 homers in 12 innings and generally been hit fairly hard so far. On the flip side, his 10 strikeouts are encouraging. Unfortunately, his performance has once again not been good enough to instill confidence in him moving forward.
As for Carlos Carrasco, not much was really expected from him this spring. After missing all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, this preseason has been all about knocking off the rust and finding the form that made him a highly touted prospect and one of the prizes of the Cliff Lee trade. So far, the results have been better than one could have imagined, but still not great. His 10 strikeouts are encouraging but the four free passes are not. Carrasco has given up nine runs, the most of this bunch, but he has also worked the most innings. And while his numbers seem decent enough to warrant consideration for the fifth spot in the rotation, Kazmir’s performance blows his out of the water. However, this is probably for the best; Carrasco needs time to get back into the swing of things, and a stint in the minors to start the season could be just what the doctor ordered.
Then there is Corey Kluber. For those of you who might not remember (or have chosen to simply block it out) Kluber finished last season in the Tribe’s rotation out of necessity. Simply put, it didn’t go well. Kluber went 2-5 with a 5.14 ERA and an ERA+ of 76. One encouraging sign, however, were Kulber’s 7.7 strikeouts and 2.6 walks per nine per nine innings. Unfortunately, Kluber also allowed 10.9 hits per nine innings with an .834 OPS against. This spring has been more of the same with Kluber allowing an OPS well over .900. That batters have hit .406 against him is also quite alarming.
That brings us back to Kazmir. Not only has he put up the stats to warrant an Opening Day promotion to the parent club, but the way he is getting it done has been even more impressive. Scott Kazmir looks like the Scott Kazmir of old. He is regularly hitting the low 90′s with his fastball and, more importantly, hitters are swinging and missing. His control issues also seem to be a thing of the past. When you put it all together, Kazmir looks confident. He looks like a pitcher who has all but won the fifth and final spot in the rotation.
So, when camp breaks in the coming weeks and the Indians announce their final decisions regarding the roster, don’t be surprised to see Scott Kazmir penciled in as the fifth man in the rotation. And who knows, as a former ace with a chip on his shoulder, Kazmir’s rebirth might be one of the biggest storylines in baseball this year.