Jul 31, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Josh Tomlin (43) delivers a pitch in the third inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Battle for the Fifth Starting Spot Going Down to the Wire

Fifth Starting Spot Not Yet Decided

Besides the Carlos Santana saga at third base, the other positional battle worth noting has been the competition for the fifth and final starting spot in the rotation. Heading into spring training, a number of candidates were expected to compete for the spot. However, unlike last season when Scott Kazmir dominated the competition, no one has asserted himself as the top candidate.

On Friday, Terry Francona said just as much to reporters in the most non-committal of non-committal answers. When asked whether or not the competition would come down to the wire, he had the following to say, as reported by Zach Meisel of Cleveland.com:

“You don’t know,” Francona said. “In our game, you pick up the paper every morning, and you see in any camp, somebody has a strained shoulder, somebody turned an ankle. I hope it’s not us, but that’s part of dealing with Major League Baseball. I know I keep falling back on it, but that’s because it’s how I feel. We want to let our guys get ready for a season, try to see the best of them and then we’ll try to slot them where we think helps us best.”

So there you have it. At this current point Francona and his staff have no idea who will win the final spot in the rotation. I emphasize final starting spot and not the fifth spot because when asked about Danny Salazar, he clarified his spot in the rotation. Essentially, Salazar will begin the season in the fifth spot, with the winner of this spring’s competition filling in the fourth starting spot.

As of right now, we can probably make a few assumptions in regards to who won’t be in the starting rotation come opening day. Shaun Marcum, who was signed to a minor league deal this winter, has yet to throw a pitch in a live game situation. His rehab from thoracic outlet surgery has been slow. He has thrown batting practice but at this point it’s far to late in the game for Marcum to be a viable option.

Also out of the conversation for the final spot is Trevor Bauer. The top pitching prospect in the organization has shown little progress in his attempt to rediscover what made him so great. He came to camp with a new delivery and new approach and the results just haven’t been there. Bauer has been roughed up in four appearances this spring to the tune of a 10.29 ERA with 12 hits and 5 walks. And yes, it is a small sample size, but it seems likely that he will begin his year in Triple-A to straighten out his issues.

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Feb 24, 2014; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cleveland Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco takes part in the annual photo day at Goodyear Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

That leaves one of three potential candidates, all of which has performed well so far this spring. They are, in no particular order, Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Harang, and Josh Tomlin. Each brings something different to the table, all of which could be extremely valuable to the Indians in 2014.

Take for instance Carlos Carrasco. Of the three pitchers still vying for the final spot, he has the highest ceiling and the most lively arm. Unfortunately, Carrasco, a former top pitching prospect himself, has struggled to find his place at the big league level. We’ve seen flashes of it here in there in a handful of starts, but he has never been able to do it consistently. So far this spring Carrasco has been impressive. He’s posted a 1.29 ERA and nine strikeouts to go along with only one walk in seven innings of work.

The tricky thing about Carrasco is his current situation in regards to minor league options. It’s tricky because he doesn’t have any left. If he doesn’t make the Indians starting rotation, he would have to clear waivers before heading back to Columbus. Given the arm and potential he possesses, that seems unlikely. From that standpoint, it would seem likely that Carrasco will make the Indians opening day roster either in the rotation or in the pen, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

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Feb 24, 2014; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cleveland Indians pitcher Aaron Harang took part in the annual photo day at Goodyear Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

For Aaron Harang, the appeal is his veteran presence. On a team full of young players, particularly on the mound, the Indians could use someone like Harang. He’s seen and been in almost every situation you could possibly imagine out on the mound. He could help teach the younger pitchers the ropes. Going this route would be similar to when the Indians had Kevin Millwood and Carl Pavano. And it’s not as if Harang has pitched poorly either. So far this spring he has a 1.80 ERA in 5 innings of work, about as good as Carlos Carrasco. There is also a chance that the Indians could name Harang to the starting rotation and then flip him for assets during the season, a strategy we have seen them utilize before.

Finally, there is Josh Tomlin. After missing much of the past season and a half due to Tommy John surgery, the “Little Cowboy” is back. So far this spring he’s pitched the most innings of any other pitcher in the organization, 14 to be exact. In those 14 innings of work, Tomlin has looked great. He has posted a 2.57 ERA, struck out 14 batters and only walked two thus far. He’s impressed Terry Francona and may be the actual leader in the clubhouse.

Much like Carrasco, the Indians may decide to utilize Tomlin out of the bullpen if they choose to go a different route with the starting rotation. And while Tomlin has expressed a preference for starting, he has also shown in the past that he has no problem coming out of the bullpen. He could prove to be a valuable asset in long relief situations or emergency spot starts.

However you choose to look at it, the Indians have a decision to make. They have three legitimate candidates for the finals starting spot, all of which have pitched great this spring. That’s not a bad problem to have. It sure beats the alternative of scrambling for a pitcher last-minute thanks to injuries and underwhelming performances. Whatever they decide, whether it be Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, or Aaron Harang, the Indians should have a solid and well rounded starting rotation.

Tags: Aaron Harang Carlos Carrasco Cleveland Indians Josh Tomlin Starting Spot

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