We all expected the Indians’ rotation to experience some turmoil this season, but as we close the door on the series with the Royals we have three starters with earned run averages under 3.60 and a fourth, Ubaldo Jimenez, who has given up two or fewer runs in seven of his last nine starts. While the rotation bears the brunt of the responsibility for the eight game losing streak that just ended, one can begin to feel some degree of confidence that the Indians can anticipate an effective performance from their starting pitcher more often than not.
That, of course, doesn’t mean all issues are solved. Jimenez, for one, has pitched into the seventh inning in only three of thirteen starts, more because of high pitch counts than ineffectiveness. This is not an earth-shattering issue, but anytime the bullpen is working the sixth and seventh inning it is a concern, because the nature of baseball is that the guys used in those innings are those not skilled enough to be trusted with the eighth and ninth, although in the Indians’ case Matt Albers, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw have been more consistent than Pestano and Perez so far.
The other, more obvious concern is the fifth rotation spot – assuming McAllister’s finger injury is healed within the next few weeks. Scott Kazmir has now made eleven starts for the Indians, and has given up four or more earned runs in six of them. His WHIP is 1.65, which would be 48th out of 49 starting pitchers in the American League if he had enough innings pitched to qualify. With a June ERA of 7.98, it is tough to make a case that things are trending in the right direction.
This issue will likely come to a head when McAllister is ready to be activated. At that point either Kazmir or Carlos Carrasco will be dropped from the rotation. This made Carrasco’s start Monday against Kansas City critical to the decision-making process. The four-hit performance, especially the efficiency and the command that he demonstrated, had to give the front office cause to at least think that Carrasco will stay in the rotation after McAllister is ready to return.
That makes Kazmir sixth in the pecking order by any rational analysis (seventh, depending on whether you think Trevor Bauer is ready). Think about it; he is on a one-year deal, so even if he rebounds it will simply give him enough leverage to go elsewhere next year. The best case scenario at this point is that Kazmir strings together enough good starts in July that somebody gives up a mid-level prospect for him. Seriously, though, do you see that happening?
Assuming McAllister is back by around July 1, that would give Kazmir and Carrasco as many as three starts each to show that they deserve to hang around. Here’s hoping that they make the choice difficult for Francona. Best case scenario is that Kazmir shows enough that they keep in around to help the bullpen (he’s a lefty, remember). A guy who can go three innings in a pinch would be a huge plus for this team. Even if Ubaldo has figured everything out, he is still going to have occasional start where he reaches 100 pitches in the fourth inning, and the rest of the staff is young enough that we can’t assume they will be solid every time out. The only thing worse than having your starter give the game away by the third inning is having to burn out your entire bullpen in a game where your chances of winning are in the single digits, then not having somebody available the next day when you have a chance to win.
The Indians’ solution to this problem thus far has been a 13-man staff, which ended temporarily today when Lonnie Chisenhall was called up and Matt Langwell went to Columbus. With Chris Perez expected to be activated this weekend, it will be interesting to see who goes. A 13 man staff means a three-man bench, and with Mike Aviles starting at short the bench is a lot less versatile. If two of your three bench spots are a 43-year old who can’t field or run and a 39-year-old who can’t hit, your options are limited. The logical guy to go is probably Rich Hill, who has allowed 19 base runners in his last six innings (not a typo). If Francona is committed to the thirteen man staff, he will need to bite the bullet and cut Jason Giambi loose. McDonald (or someone) needs to be on the roster to play short, Gomes needs to catch, and Raburn is the only extra outfielder, at least until Swisher’s shoulder gets better.
The invisible man in all of this is Brett Myers, who in a barely noticed move last week was moved to the 60-day disabled list. This move had little practical significance since Myers had already missed almost two months, but he appears nowhere near being ready to help, and you wonder what role he would play if he did get healthy.