When the 2011 season began for the Cleveland Indians, everyone’s biggest question mark spot was the starting rotation. There were very few sure things when the Wahoos went west to start Spring Training in Goodyear, Arizona. Here was what we knew on March 1st:
- Fausto Carmona would head the rotation.
- Justin Masterson would follow, but many still viewed him as a reliever long term.
- It would take nothing short of a complete collapse in Spring for Carlos Carrasco not to break camp with the Tribe.
- Mitch Talbot was out of options and the organization had a strange fascination with keeping him in the rotation.
- The fifth starter job was going to be a three-way battle between Josh Tomlin, Jeanmar Gomez, and David Huff. Whoever didn’t win the job would go back to Columbus and essentially be the “next men up” in case of injury and/or failure.
- Former #1 pick Alex White was also on the horizon and was charging hard.
So how did things shake out?
Carmona (7-15, 5.25 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) started opening day and by September had the organization scratching their heads at what to do with him. Masterson (12-10, 3.21 ERA, 1.28 WHIP) has turned himself into the ace of the staff. Carrasco (8-9, 4.62 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) showed promise with a solid six start stretch, but then was lost for 12-18 months thanks to Tommy John surgery. Talbot (2-6, 6.64 ERA, 1.85 WHIP) is who we thought he was, was DFA’d, yet inexplicably made a one start return during the final week of the season. Tomlin (12-7, 4.25 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) became a rock solid, middle of the rotation, strike-thrower who will be in the rotation for years to come. Gomez (5-3, 4.47 ERA, 1.51 WHIP) and Huff (2-6, 4.09 ERA, 1.42 WHIP) both had their moments. Zach McAllister (0-1, 6.11 ERA, 1.87 WHIP) made himself a factor with a solid AAA season and made four spot starts. White (1-0, 3,60 ERA, 1.53 WHIP) took Talbot’s rotation spot, made three solid starts, but a finger injury derailed his season, and he was eventually dealt to Colorado as a part of the Ubaldo Jimenez (4-4, 5.10 ERA, 1.45 ERA) blockbuster deal.
We will get to Ubaldo in a little.
So where do we sit as we look to the 2012 season?
There is no doubt that the opening day starter will be Masterson. He was terrific all season before wearing down in September. He logged a career high in innings (216), wins (12), and strikeouts (158) and deserved better. No pitcher in Wahooland had worse run support than J Mast. When the Tribe bats went into their June/July swoon, Masterson seemed to lose every start 2-1 or 1-0. His stuff, when he is on, is filthy. There were some games that he threw nothing but fastballs and got away with it. The big right-hander turned a lot of people, me included, into big fans of his in 2011. I was one of the ones driving the “Masterson should be a setup man” bus. I’m glad to sit here today and admit I was way off.
Backing up Masterson will be Jimenez, the lightning rod of the Tribe collapse in late August. The Indians brass made the most controversial trade of this year’s deadline, sending their top two pitching, White and fellow #1 pick Drew Pomeranz, along with two other prospects to Colorado for Ubaldo, a tantalizing talent who was struggling while looking for a contract extension from the Rockies. The reports were that both the Yankees and Red Sox, who badly needed another starting pitcher, checked out Ubaldo physically, and they were scared away by what they saw. The Indians doctors gave him a clean bill of health, and expected results right away. Unfortunately, the pre-2010 Ubaldo that we all hoped we’d see did not come around.
Sure, he made a couple of nice starts, struck out a lot of hitters, and occasionally hit 98 on the gun. But his quirky delivery seemed to be inconsistent and under the brightest lights, Jimenez wilted. He started the game that for all intents and purposes was the death knell for the Tribe. Had the Indians won that fateful Sunday in late August, they would have stayed 2.5 games back of the Tigers. Instead, Ubaldo laid a big egg, and the Indians came up one run short in a failed eight-run comeback in Detroit. The two teams went in opposite directions from there. I’m not blaming Ubaldo, but for what the Indians gave up, the return over the last two months was not pretty. The numbers tell the story. He made 11 starts for the Indians and carried an ERA of 5.10. He did strike out 62 in 65.1 innings pitched, but he averaged just under six innings per start. Maybe he wasn’t 100% healthy. Scratch that – I hope he was wasn’t 100% healthy.
If the Indians plan on contending in 2012, the old Ubaldo, the guy with the rep that they traded for, better show up.
SIDE NOTE – I maintain that if White doesn’t tear ligaments in his index finger that he never comes out of the rotation, has a solid rookie season, and the Indians never deal for Jimenez. We will never know for sure.
Behind the top two will be the steady, soft-tossing, crafty righty from Texas. Josh Tomlin has to be at the top of the list of pleasant surprises for this year’s team. He won a job out of Spring with ease and never looked back. Next to Masterson, he was the Indians most consistent starter. The numbers didn’t wow you, but every time he pitched, his team had a chance to win and he rarely made the killer mistake. Tomlin is the kind of pitcher manager Manny Acta loves – he just throws strikes (21 walks in 161.1 IP). He is a fly ball pitcher who gave up a lot of homers (24), but the majority of them were solo shots. JT was shut down in April with some elbow soreness, but will be back strong in 2012, pitching in the middle of the rotation.
The fourth spot may or may not be manned by Carmona. The Indians hold a manageable $7 million option on him for 2012 that they will most likely be picking up, but watching him every five days makes you want to pull your hair out. At times, he looks like the guy who was dominant in 2007, but those starts have become too few and far between. What we saw mostly in 2011 was the five and fly guy who puts runners on base and allows his emotions to get the best of him before imploding with a big inning. Outgoing pitching coach Tim Belcher couldn’t solve the riddle that was Carmona and maybe a new voice will help him harness his abilities. If anything, Carmona is a back of the rotation innings eater; he made 32 starts and logged 188.2 innings. Think of him in the Brad Penny/ Brett Myers/Freddy Garcia mold. You can no longer view him as a top of the rotation guy.
The final spot is where things get dicey. It’s going to be a crapshoot for Chris Antonetti and Acta. Carrasco will be lost for the season with elbow surgery. You can forget about Talbot (the pitching version of Austin Kearns – has nine lives in this organization). White and Pomeranz, the two guys who we were all told were the future of this rotation, are now pitching in the thin air of Colorado. So there are two spots and probably four real in-house contenders.
Gomez was the Indians best starter over the last three weeks of the season. His stuff isn’t going to wow anyone, but he has the knack for working out of jams. The righty split time between Columbus and Cleveland over the past two seasons and seems ready for his real shot. Huff came back to Cleveland and re-invented himself, thanks to some solid coaching from AAA guru Ruben Niebla. He came up to make a spot start in Minnesota and shocked everyone in the Tribe fan base and front office with seven scoreless innings. He followed it up with three more quality starts and the Indians felt as though they may have struck gold with their former first round pick. However, come September, David Huff remembered he was David Huff. My Tribe spies tell me the Indians are really counting on Huff for a big 2012 and that the time for him to put up or shut up is now. With Carrasco out and the White/Pomeranz duo long gone, Huff has to make himself a factor. McAllister and lefty Scott Barnes, who both had solid AAA seasons for the champions in Columbus, should provide depth and will be seen at some time in Cleveland in 2012.
Acta also told the press in one of his post-season media sessions that the Indians will look at the free agent market for rotation depth. But again, we know this will be in the style we have seen in the past with guys like Carl Pavano (good), Kevin Millwood (solid), and Jason Johnson (a horrible idea). Let me be the first to suggest the reclamation project out of San Francisco – Barry Zito. The Tribe could always use a lefty, especially one with a big chip on his shoulder looking to prove he still has it.
One thing is for sure, we will feel much better about the rotation options heading into 2012 than we did in March of this year.
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