First, let me apologize in advance. Speculating about playoff rosters before clinching a playoff spot is messing with karma in a bad way, and I should know better. As an example, my dad called me during the AFC championship game one year and asked me if I wanted to have a Super Bowl party with him. After all, the Browns had a seven point lead and had just downed the ball on the Denver two, so why not plan ahead? If you’re old enough to remember the Browns in a playoff game, you’re…well, you’re probably pretty damn old, for one thing.
In any event, if the Indians can sell playoff tickets I can write a blog, but if things go south I’ll take the blame. There’s not a lot of interesting questions about the offensive positions. Jason Kubel is probably the bubble guy. Do you keep a good bat around to pinch hit at the expense of an extra bullpen guy or ahead of Jason Giambi, since Kubel can play the field? With all the off days in the playoff schedule, the eight man bullpen is probably unnecessary, so I would say yes, but Francona has been going the other way all year, so I don’t expect him to change his stripes now. Leaving Giambi off the roster would also be a surprise, whether it makes sense or not.
In the bullpen, Perez and Joe Smith are locks, but otherwise I expect Francona to go with the hot hand or try to optimize match-ups. That may mean Carlos Carrasco or an extra lefty gets a nod over someone who has pitched out there all year, but in the playoffs you do whatever works. For relievers, the hot hand can change dramatically in ten days, so speculating now is pointless, although I would be stunned if Cody Allen or Marc Rzepczynski is left off.
The question that would keep me awake at night if I were Francona is the rotation. The only guy I would say is a lock to start a postseason game right now if the Indians make it is Ubaldo Jimenez. Who’d have thought we’d ever say that three months ago? Ubaldo would actually be pitching the Wild Card game on normal rest if things stay the way they currently are, so that works in our favor, but it also means that if we advance to the division series he would not be available until Game 3 at the earliest.
Justin Masterson would be a lock if he is healthy, but that’s a huge if right now, and even if he’s healthy do you start him and see how far he can go or keep him in the bullpen and use him more creatively? For the purposes of this, let’s assume Masterson will not start a playoff game unless the Indians advance. Danny Salazar is a lock unless the Indians decide his innings limits are more important than winning a playoff game or they feel he would limit their flexibility by not being able to get deep into games.
Assuming Salazar is used as a starter, that leaves at the most two spots for starting pitchers. I would put Corey Kluber in the third spot. The Indians have won all three of Kluber’s starts since he came off the DL, and he has come up big on numerous occasions to break losing streaks all year, including the last game of the most recent Detroit series. If the Indians lose that game, I don’t think we are discussing playoff rosters right now.
Although the fourth starter may miss a turn or two during the playoffs because of extra off days, he would probably pitch the opener of the division series if the Indians get that far, because Kluber and Salazar would pitch the last two games of the regular season and Jimenez would pitch the Wild Card game. If the Indians somehow have a spot wrapped up before the last series, Francona may move things around to have his top starters ready, but that seems unlikely. That adds a great amount of significance to this decision.
As much as I love the comeback that Scott Kazmir has made, I think he is the odd man out. Quite simply, I think he has hit the wall. It’s totally understandable, giving his lack of competitive pitching in 2011 and 2012, but you can’t let sentiment rule what you see on the field. Monday night his pitches were flat and all too hittable. I know he struck out twelve just a couple of starts ago, but he’s given up four or more runs in six of his last nine starts. Four runs allowed will lose you most playoff games.
Zach McAllister hasn’t been much better than Kazmir since coming off the DL, and I may alter this opinion after I see them both pitch this weekend, although I would be hesitant to jump to conclusions based on what happens against the Astros, who would have difficulty beating Columbus. I would attribute McAllister’s struggles since returning to difficulty regaining the feel for his breaking pitches. Sunday he went almost exclusively with fastballs, and had his best start in a month. If that trend continues he is probably my fourth starter.
The next decision is what to do with the guys who don’t make the postseason rotation. Managers tend to have quick hooks in the postseason, and it is not uncommon to have a guy warming up in the bullpen from the first inning, so having a guy in the pen who is capable of going 4-6 innings is huge. You could see a scenario where Francona works the rotation to have both McAllister and Kazmir ready on a given day, starts one and has the other warming up whenever there’s a sign of trouble in the early innings. The best case scenario is that you stay in a game when your starter falters; the worst case is you get through a blowout loss without taxing the rest of your bullpen.
The good news is that this is the time of year where Francona makes his money. The fact that he has been through pennant race and playoff pressure multiple times should be an advantage, in that he can judge which players are ready to respond to the pressure and which will be overwhelmed by it. In a short series where the talent gap is small, one decision can make the difference. Having a guy in the dugout who has been there before will help.