Is the Indians Starting Rotation in Need of Change?
I really hate it when people do this. It shows a lack of understanding of the nuances of baseball to call for big changes in response to a couple of games. These guys have talent, after all, or they wouldn’t have made the team to begin with. Over the course of a season, everyone has slumps, but they generally revert to the form they have shown over the long run, so you just need to be patient.
But dammit, you can’t burn up the bullpen and put the offense in a five run hole twice every trip through the rotation. That is essentially what has happened to the Indians in every game started by Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco.
I was keeping track of Salazar’s most recent start against the Royals while watching Trevor Bauer pitch for Columbus at Huntington Park. While Salazar seemed to have no backup plan when the Kansas City hitters figured out his fastball, Bauer was in command throughout. He mixed his pitches well, was efficient (101 pitches in 6.2 innings, 63 strikes), and kept the hitters off-balance throughout the game. Most importantly, there were a couple of times where Bauer would lose his mechanics for a couple of pitches and he would start to look like he did last year, but he found it right away and avoided any damage. In other words, he did what Salazar and Carrasco have been unable to do this year. I realize he was not facing major league hitters, but he also looked good in a spot start for the Indians.
So what do you do if you are the Indians? Josh Tomlin is also pitching well in Columbus, on the heels of a strong spring training. Tomlin also has a track record of major league success. Remember when he was automatic for six innings every time he started? That would be pretty nice right now. It is easy at this point to assume that the rotation would be better with Tomlin and Bauer than with Carrasco and Salazar, but making hasty moves like that is risky. For one thing, if Bauer or Tomlin comes up and fails, you really have no options unless Salazar figures things out in a hurry in Columbus. For another, it would look like a panic move, which makes the entire team uptight.
Personally, I thought Tomlin should have made the team at the start of the season. They can talk all they want about Carrasco’s potential, but the guy is 27 years old, with nothing in his track record to suggest that he can be a capable major league starter. Does anybody see a scenario at this point where Carrasco gets released, goes somewhere else, and wins fourteen games? I think the guy is what he is – he can look spectacular for an inning or two, but he doesn’t have the makeup to sustain whatever he needs to do it for six or seven innings. If they want to put him in the bullpen and see what happens, fine. But I can’t take having my stomach in knots every five days because I never know when he will implode on the mound. Tomlin isn’t going to win a Cy Young, but he will give you six innings and keep the game close on a consistent basis, which is as good as any other fifth starter in the AL.
As it happens, Tomlin is on the same schedule at Columbus as Carrasco is for Cleveland, as long as there are no rainouts. So in theory, Tomlin would be ready to start in San Francisco Friday night if the Indians wanted to make the decision quickly. My guess is that Carrasco makes that start, but if he struggles and Tomlin is effective, Tomlin will start against the Angels next Wednesday.
Bauer has been pitching in Columbus on the same days as Salazar, so their fates are probably linked in the same way as those of Tomlin and Carrasco. This is a tougher call, because Salazar was so spectacular last year while Bauer was prone to unraveling. The bigger difference is that, whereas expectations for Carrasco and Tomlin are somewhat limited, you can picture both Salazar and Bauer as aces someday, so this decision needs to be made with more in mind than winning games in April. The bottom line will probably come down to whether the Indians believe that Salazar can develop and trust his secondary pitches while facing big-league hitters. He will probably get a few more starts to show that he can do so, but it is hard not to believe that Bauer would give the Indians a better chance of winning games right now, and that has to be part of the decision.