Terry Francona’s re-made Indians will take the field full of confidence and excitement, ready to turn the page on the debacle that was the close of the 2012 season and the Manny Acta era. ActaBall is no more. Long Live TitoBall. Ownership had seen enough. The hiring of Francona signalled a new day was upon us. It was time to turn the page and move forward. There was an enormous amount of negative energy surrounding the franchise. Things had to change. We just had no idea how quickly and how massive the changes would be.
Gone (for now) are the days of seeing a band of merry-4A players rotating in left field, third base, and the utility spots. GM Chris Antonetti, with the help of Team President Mark Shapiro and owner Paul Dolan, added not one, but two big name, big money free agents. Between Francona, Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourn, the Indians want you all to know that they mean business. A once barren farm system is getting stronger with the addition of top prospect Trevor Bauer in the Shin-Soo Choo trade. Bauer joins Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin, Ronny Rodriguez, and Shawn Armstrong as names to know down on the farm.
But it is no longer about the future. It is about the NOW.
Yesterday we broke down the position players and the mass turnover there. But today, on Opening Day 2013, we will look at the starting rotation, which is the key to the Indians success. While the team made huge news with the signings of Swisher and Bourn, the rotation additions were of the much quieter variety. When you take a gander at the Tribe’s one through nine on paper, you can see a vast improvement. Can you say the same about the starting pitching?
Everyone knows that if you can’t pitch, you can’t win. And while I am as optimistic about the 2013 season as anyone you will find, I have serious reservations about the viability of this group as a whole.
Justin Masterson gets the ball on Opening Day in Toronto. Two seasons ago, I banged the drum all offseason that J Mast should be in the bullpen. Then all he did was take his shoe to my behind and prove me wrong. Not only did he prove to be a quality starter, but at times looked like an ace. Then after a 2012 Opening Day performance where he struck out 10 and gave up just two hits in eight innings, Masterson never looked like the guy we hoped he would be. Enter Francona, who managed Masterson in Boston and called Justin one of his “all-time favorites.” The hope is that Masterson’s mental frame will improve under Francona and he will be able to re-find the arm slot that he was able to so easily repeat in 2011. There is no doubt Masterson has great stuff, but can he find that consistency that the Indians will need?
Masterson is one of the two most important pieces to the rotation’s ultimate success. The other is everyone’s favorite whipping boy Ubaldo Jimenez. At the trade deadline in 2011, Indians GM Chris Antonetti made the decision to mortgage the future of the rotation (i.e. Alex White and Drew Pomeranz) on a guy with a shaky shoulder and a half year of dominance. Ubaldo has now been with the Tribe for essentially a year and a half and has a record of 13-21 with an ERA of 5.32 and a WHIP of 1.57. Once known as a high-90′s strikeout pitcher in Colorado, Jimenez has become a complete shell of his former self. Yet here the Indians are, once again counting on him to regain his Colorado form. I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one. Here is the thing, Ubaldo is now on his third pitching coach in three years in Cleveland. Maybe Mickey Callaway can be the guy who can solve the enigma that is Ubaldo’s delivery. Spring brought mixed results. My biggest concern with Ubaldo is between the ears. He is almost Fausto-like. Once things start to spiral down for him, he has a hard time making them stop. One thing is for sure, the Indians cannot contend for a playoff spot if Ubaldo pitches the way he did in 2012. More good news – Jimenez is slated to start the home opener against the Yankees next Monday.
In searching for a veteran, middle of the rotation starter, the Indians wanted someone who would eat innings, have something to prove, and not cost them a fortune. Enter Brett Myers. The 32-year old right-handed spent the entire 2012 as a late inning reliever for the Astros and White Sox. He was a starter the majority of his career, save for his 2007 stint as the Philadelphia closer. Myers used to overpower guys earlier in his career, but that is no longer the case, though he does lead with his fastball. I have to say that I’m very skeptical giving a guy who pitched out of the pen a year ago the third spot in the rotation and hoping that he gives you 200+ innings as a rotation stabilizer. Myers can be surly at times, but with Francona in the clubhouse that should not be a problem. More of a concern was his lackluster Spring where opponents hit ..383 against him and he sported a WHIP of 2.10. Now Spring numbers can mean very little – Myers was getting himself back into starter mode, but I am still very concerned about his viability.
The guy I do expect big things from in 2013 is fourth starter Zach McAllister. The big right-hander was the most reliable pitcher former Manager Manny Acta trotted out out to the mound every fifth day in 2012. He has swing and miss stuff and is the kind of power pitcher the organization loves. And to think he was heisted from the Yankees for Austin Kearns. McAlister wasn’t assured a rotation spot this Spring, despite having a leg up, but he pitched well. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if by the middle of May, McAllister is viewed as the Tribe second best starter behind Masterson.
The final spot, which was up for a serious competition in Goodyear, was won by one of the long shots, left-hander Scott Kazmir. His story has been well documented this spring. The former All-Star and first round, can’t miss kid watched as his velocity dropped to the point where he fell off the Major League radar. He spent 2012 in the Independent League. Fast forward a year and he is the latest in a long line of Tribe reclamation projects. Whether he works out or not remains to be seen, but early in the Spring, Kazmir was Francona’s best starter, and he let the world know it. In the end he beat out Carlos Carrasco for two reasons: Carrasco’s up and down performance, and the fact that he had options left. I wouldn’t expect Kazmir to suddenly regain his all star form, but I do expect him to be a five/six inning pitcher. Essentially what a fifth starter should be.
There are options aplenty should one or two of these starters falter. Carrasco, who is coming off of Tommy John surgery, will get the first call. He was throwing 95-MPH heat late in March and if not for the emergence of Kazmir, would be the fifth starter. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Corey Kluber, and top prospect Trevor Bauer will be in line behind Carrasco. Dice-K rejoined the organization to work out his breaking stuff and improve his velocity. He has an out-clause if another Major League team wants to snag him. He decided to stick with the Tribe because of his relationship with Francona. Bauer will not be rushed.
As I said before, there is no bigger question mark surrounding the Indians than starting rotation. This group will most likely make or break this team. Masterson and Ubaldo have to perform up to their top form if the Tribe is going to hang around and contend for a playoff spot. Myers needs to be what the Indians hope he will be, a 200-innings plus stabilizer. A jump up in game from McAllister and a rebirth of Kazmir would all do wonders for Francona’s club.
(Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)