April 23, 2014

Trevor Bauer, and the Indians’ starting pitching outlook

Trevor Bauer is a game-changer. Yes, the new Cleveland wunderkind is only 21 (he turns 22 in January) and has just 4 (bad) games of MLB experience under his belt, but his sheer presence drastically changes the starting pitching algorithm for the Cleveland Indians going forward.

Obviously, there’s a certain amount of risk associated with Bauer. I’d be amiss if I didn’t address that. According to all the reports out there, he’s eccentric, stubborn, abnormally intelligent, a bad rapper, practically revolutionary and thus, seemingly was at odds with Arizona’s upper management, which is why the No. 3 overall pick in 2011 was on the trade block at all. He could not become the star many expect him to be. That’s possible, and you always have to address that fact when dealing with a very limited MLB sample size.

But, undoubtedly, the UCLA product has more upside and MLB-readiness by far than any other starter in the entire Indians system. He could immediately slot into the starting rotation from day one — but it’s not exactly certain if that will be the case. Either way, with the Indians owning his rights through 2018 (at least), and the fact he’s dominated AA/AAA batters, he’s the bright future of the Indians pitching outlook for many years to come.

In 2013, Cleveland’s starting rotation under new manager Terry Francona and new pitching coach Mickey Callaway appears to be the following: Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister, Bauer and a potential veteran free agent. Guys such as Corey Kluber, David Huff, Carlos Carrasco (returning from Tommy John surgery) and Jeanmar Gomez still figure to be in the conversation pending injury/other problems.

For that potential veteran free agent spot, the Indians have been rumored to be interested in folks such as Edwin Jackson (29 years old; 45-41 with 3.98 ERA, 7.3 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 with five teams since start of ’09) or Shaun Marcum (turns 31 tomorrow; 33-19 with 3.62 ERA, 7.5 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 with two teams since start of ’10 — he missed all of 2009). I don’t know for certain by any means if one of those two guys will certainly be a member of the Tribe next year, but they are just two of the hottest names. They won’t step in and immediately be the No. 1, but the team is also conceivably looking to spend a decent amount of money on a consistent No. 3/4 type.

In other words, even though Bauer is now in the mix and Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) is no longer around, there’s no guarantee the Indians rotation will necessarily be that much better. Adding a 21-year-old with limited MLB experience does not lead to immediate improvements of a pitching staff. And the veteran free agent is not expected to be one that will provide several wins above average. Instead, the goal is the future.

Which brings me back to the point about why Bauer is such a game-changer. Coming into this offseason, the most glaring weakness of the entire organization was starting pitching depth. That’s not just because the rotation ranked 13th in the AL and 28th in MLB with a 5.25 ERA; it’s also a product of trading away the two highest-drafted starters in recent franchise history (recall: Alex White and Drew Pomeranz). So the majority of the remaining talent is pretty far down in the pipeline.

Last month, I looked at the odd rate of turnover in Baseball America’s early 2013 prospect rankings for the Indians. In that list, here are the starting pitchers mentioned and where they played last season:

RHP Mitch Brown, 2nd round 2012, 4/13/1994
AZL Indians: 2-0, 3.58 ERA, 8 starts, 27.2 IP, 26 K, 10 BB

RHP Danny Salazar, signed in 2006 out of DR, 1/11/1990
Carolina: 1-2, 2.68 ERA, 16 starts, 53.2 IP, 53 K, 19 BB
Akron: 4-0, 1.85 ERA, 6 starts, 34.0 IP, 23 K, 8 BB

RHP Dillon Howard, 2nd round 2011, 7/1/1992
AZL Indians: 1-7, 7.90 ERA, 12 games (10 starts), 41.0 IP, 35 K, 18 BB

RHP Austin Adams, 5th round 2009, 8/19/1986
DNP — Tommy John surgery

LHP Elvis Araujo, signed in 2007 out of VZ, 7/15/1991
Lake County: 7-10, 5.00 ERA, 28 starts, 135.0 IP, 111 K, 61 BB

RHP Felix Sterling, signed in 2010 out of DR, 3/15/1993
Lake County: 4-8, 6.58 ERA, 24 games (18 starts), 93.0 IP, 71 K, 40 BB

RHP Jake Sisco, 3rd round 2011, 12/9/1991
Mahoning Valley: 1-6, 5.03 ERA, 15 starts, 77.0 IP, 45 K, 30 BB

RHP Kieran Lovegrove, 3rd round 2012, 7/28/1994
AZL Indians: 0-2, 6.00 ERA, 8 games (7 starts), 21.0 IP, 18 K, 9 BB

McAllister also was on various 2012 lists, but I removed him from this list for an obvious reason — he’s no longer a prospect. But let’s get something straight first: These were the best starting pitching prospects for the Indians entering 2013, before the Bauer trade. It’s an abysmal list.

Salazar is the only one in this list that is also on the Indians current 40-man roster. Almost all of these most recent results are pretty darn depressing too, and as clearly evidenced, none are far along in the system, besides Salazar and Adams, who had a solid 2011 with Akron, but is now over 26 years old.

Now, let’s take it one step further. I wanted to look at all pitchers that pitched significantly as a starter in the Indians minor league system last season, from short-season Mahoning Valley through AAA Columbus1. In my results, I found 33 guys that made at least 7 such starts for those teams in 2012. Here is a table, sorted by innings at the highest minor league level — no MLB stats are included.

Key: * indicates left-handed pitcher; levels range from 5 for AAA to 1 for Short-Season, with the decimals reflecting percentage of innings pitched at the various levels

Name ERA   K/9   BB/9   IP   Level
Corey Kluber 3.59   9.2   3.5   125.3   5.00
Chris Seddon* 3.44   7.9   2.0   123.0   5.00
Jeanmar Gomez 4.41   7.0   2.2   69.3   5.00
Zach McAllister 2.98   7.4   2.7   63.3   5.00
Kevin Slowey 5.14   6.2   2.4   49.0   5.00
David Huff* 4.83   5.3   2.3   138.0   4.97
Eric Berger* 5.27   8.0   3.0   111.0   4.80
T.J. McFarland* 4.03   5.3   2.5   163.0   4.63
Trevor Bauer 2.42   10.8   4.2   130.3   4.63
Matt Packer* 3.84   6.2   2.4   61.0   4.43
Toru Murata 2.89   8.0   2.7   74.7   4.08
Paolo Espino 3.31   8.2   2.8   122.5   4.05
Giovanni Soto* 3.93   7.4   3.6   121.3   4.00
Steven Wright 2.49   7.9   4.8   115.7   4.00
T.J. House* 3.56   7.0   3.0   149.3   3.83
Brett Brach 3.84   4.8   3.4   122.0   3.77
Danny Salazar 2.36   7.8   2.8   87.7   3.39
Francisco Jimenez* 5.42   5.1   4.5   116.3   3.03
Mike Rayl* 4.49   5.6   3.5   152.3   3.02
Michael Goodnight 4.64   6.3   4.7   145.3   3.00
Jordan Cooper 3.46   7.1   1.5   96.3   2.98
Will Roberts 5.12   5.3   2.2   153.0   2.80
Joseph Colon 3.43   5.9   2.8   126.0   2.11
Elvis Araujo* 5.00   7.4   4.1   135.0   2.00
Shawn Morimando* 3.59   5.6   4.2   110.3   2.00
Mason Radeke 3.38   9.6   2.0   109.3   2.00
Cody Anderson 3.20   6.6   2.7   98.3   2.00
Felix Sterling 6.58   6.9   3.9   93.0   2.00
Luis DeJesus 2.73   6.2   2.2   92.3   1.13
Jake Sisco 5.03   5.3   3.5   77.0   1.00
Ryan Merritt* 4.09   5.5   2.3   66.0   1.00
Geoffrey Davenport* 3.44   4.9   3.0   60.2   1.00
Luis Morel 4.89   8.9   5.1   49.7   1.00
Jacob Lee 3.12   9.8   2.5   43.3   1.00

 

I included Bauer there for obvious comparison reasons, too. Here are some quick notes from the table:

For starters, Chris Seddon and Kevin Slowey are not expected to be in the system next year, while Steven Wright was traded to Boston for Lars Anderson last season. T.J. House is another notable 40-man guy who I haven’t mentioned yet. Also, T.J. McFarland was claimed in the Rule 5 Draft by the Baltimore Orioles. It’s expected he will probably return to the Indians at some point, since he’s yet to appear in a single MLB game, let alone last an entire season.

It’s pretty obvious that Bauer leads this entire pack in K/9. He finished with 157 strikeouts in 130.1 IP last season — good for a 10.8 average2. Meanwhile, the average Cleveland pitcher on this list posted a very mediocre 6.7 and only four pitchers eclipsed the 8.2 mark. The top two minor leaguers were potential steals Jacob Lee and Mason Radeke, who spent their entire 2012 seasons with Mahoning Valley and Lake County, respectively.

— Yet, while talking about strikeouts, it also would be biased of me to not mention the elephant in the room: Bauer’s walk issue. He was at 4.8 BB/9 in his 48.1 IP in AA to start the season. He spent the majority of the year in AAA, where he had a 3.8 mark. But his four Arizona games were dreadful too: 13 walks in 16.1 IP for a 7.2 BB/9 stat. For as awesome as his strikeout ability is, only five of the 33 Indians pitchers listed above walked batters more regularly. And none of them pitched at the AAA level last season.

Among the guys that spent at least half of their season with Akron (3.5+), you can easily tell the absolute dearth of strikeout-pitchers. Is it really possible that Paolo Espino, Toru Murata, Eric Berger and Corey Kluber are the only guys at 8.0 or better? Wow. It’s pretty sad3. That’s where Bauer again comes in, in terms of being a standout guy at the top minor league levels.

— Akron had a number of guys who, although they didn’t strike folks out much, posted very impressive ERAs. Matt Packer, Giovanni Soto (of perfect game fame), House and Salazar come to mind as fairly intriguing prospects, who don’t have too high of ceilings, but could still reach the major league level at some point. At best though, it’s likely none of these four would be better than a No. 3 in the majors.

— In the lower levels, of course, the guys with the most upside were Araujo and Sterling, as mentioned above. Both had horrific 2012 seasons, where they struggled to keep a K/BB ratio above 2.0 and struggled to avoid bat-ball contact. The two most impressive pitchers were fairly unheralded entering the season, as Radeke and Cody Anderson shined for High-A Carolina.

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The point of this research was to show how the addition of Trevor Bauer significantly upgrades the Indians’ starting pitching projections for several  years to come. As shown by the 2012 rankings and stats, there are very, very few other legitimate starter prospects in the entire Cleveland organization. Most of the best guys have either been hurt recently, struggled mightily this past year or are still several years away from the majors.

So that’s why Bauer is an absolute game-changer. He has far more upside than any other pitcher I’ve mentioned in this article. He bails out the Indians in having one of the worst crop of starting pitching prospects in baseball. He also appears to be ready to start for the Indians in 2013, coming off a year when the team had one of the worst rotations in baseball — and franchise history.

It’s quite possible that this new addition could be a star for many, many years in a Cleveland uniform. And with very few other legitimate starting pitching prospects also on the way to Progressive Field, the organization might desperately be counting on his production.

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(Harry How/Getty Images)

 

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Footnotes:

  1. Noteworthy: Yes, there likely are some other guys in the AZL or DSL systems, as evidenced by Brown, Howard and Lovegrove above. Just wanted to keep this simple for now. []
  2. Bauer’s 157 strikeouts ranked 14th-best in the minor leagues last season. []
  3. Kluber likely has the best MLB potential of this bunch, but most likely as a middle-relief strikeout option. I’d be surprised if the other three carve out a long-term niche in the majors. []

  • Adam Rosen

    Great analysis. I hope we get Swisher and another SP. But I wouldnt be surprised if we came up empty on both.

  • architrance

    I hate how everyone keeps bringing up the incredibly small sample size of MLB starts last year. In those 4 games he gave up 4, 0, 7 and 2 runs, respectively. His second start (albeit against the Dodgers) was actually pretty good – 6IP 2H 0ER 1BB 6K and he got the win.

    And on the free agent front, what about Kyle Lohse, Francisco Liriano, Jair Jurgens or John Lannan? I’m sure they could bring in at least one of those guys on a modest deal (or Jackson/Marcum).

    And I’d love to see the Tribe sign Swisher, but is it worth losing a first round draft pick to the Yankees to add him? I don’t know…

  • mgbode

    Marcum would be on top of my list right now. Doubt we’d get him though.

  • Brendan

    Great breakdown Jacob. I realize we used Lars Anderson as a throw-in in the Bauer deal, but it’s really too bad we traded Steven Wright to get him. He seemed to be a guy that the Indians could have taken a flyer on with a ST major league invite in 2013 and see what he could do with that knuckler. I’ve read there’s a possibility he could make the Boston rotation at some point this season.

  • mgbode
  • matt underwood

    with the Tigers pretty much bringing Anibal Sanchez back as the Cubs have dropped out of the bidding, the tribe has basically less than zero chance to compete in this division with their pitching (and hitting for that matter). They did a good thing in aquiring Bauer, but they need to keep selling – it is shaping up to be a third or fourth place finish and another mediocre season. The orgainzation can’t play in the middle – it is either be all in or all out and rebuild. Not sure what their intentions are currently.

  • MJ

    The Tribe’s draft pick is protected, since they are in the top 10.

  • paulbip

    Bauer is a cancer and that’s how the tribe got him.

  • mgbode

    hopefully he can infect our staff. i’ll take 5 of him starting.