April 24, 2014

The Diff: Building the Cleveland Indians’ 2014 rotation

The Diff is your weekly Wednesday WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, The Diff covered a trio of topics related to Cleveland sports. This week, it’s time to focus on the Tribe’s starters.

The Diff

Entering 2013, the starting rotation was said to be the biggest weakness for the Cleveland Indians. While many still expected the team to at least finish around .500, it was in question whether the starters would possibly improve upon a third-to-last 5.25 ERA in 2012. Now 70 games into the much-hyped season, there have been some more mediocre results with lots of intriguing storylines on the rotation’s future composition.

For starters1, here’s a look at the starter numbers side-by-side through Monday’s games:

2012 – 5.25 ERA (28th), 6.1 K/9 (29th), 3.5 BB/9 (28th), 1.77 K/BB (29th), 1.19 HR/9 (22nd), .280 AVG (28th), 45.1% quality start percentage (T-23rd)
2013 – 4.36 ERA (20th), 8.0 K/9, (4th), 3.6 BB/9 (29th), 2.25 K/BB (24th), 1.22 HR/9 (25th), .253 AVG (12th), 46.4% quality start percentage (T-20th)

So yes, there have been improvements thus far. Most notably, as Jon pointed out in yesterday morning’s recap, you can see a difference in the strikeout ratio. That’s jumped way up. Also, it should be noted that, historically, scoring numbers are usually down in March/April. So the proportion of those games to the 2013 data skews it slightly downward for all teams.

But as we note the upgrade from downright-awful to solidly-below-average, I also wanted to go line-by-line through where this rotation might be in 2014. And in order to do that, we have to share some narratives for the main guys on the radar.

Yes, this is a premature activity. Yes, it’s impossible to truly project future performance based on what we have seen in relatively limited sample sizes. But doing this breakdown should help to provide some context for where things might be looking up for the team’s future.

The no-doubt returnees: Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister

Do I buy the idea that Justin Masterson is a legitimate ace? No. He has a career 4.18 ERA in 136 starts. He is 28 years old. Even this year, when he’s thrown two spectacular 1-0 shutouts, he has a 3.52 ERA, which only ranks 41st out of 98 qualified MLB starters. Yet, I certainly do buy the fact that Masterson is a very solid major-league starter. I think he’s better than what he showed in 2012. And he’s a second-year arbitration-eligible player in 2014, with possible free agency in 2015. It’d be an intriguing case to see if he signs long-term. He certainly should be an Indian and, most likely, the de facto ace next year.

Zach McAllister is the up-and-comer. He was even better than Masterson this season, posting a 3.43 ERA before going on the disabled list recently. At 25 years old, with 37 career MLB starts and with earliest possible free agency in 2019, I think we’ll get used to seeing him in Cleveland for a long time. McAllister (career 7.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9) strikes me as a more punchout-prone Jake Westbrook (career 5.1 K/9, 2.9 BB/9). He’ll rack up the quality starts and usually won’t get burned. Assuming his current finger injury isn’t a major issue a la Adam Miller and others, he should be a very solid starter for years to come.

The new star: Corey Kluber

Pre-2013, after those two pitchers and “the prospect” below, no one knew what the Indians rotation of the future might look like. But Corey Kluber has made the biggest stride this year toward cementing his long-term status with the team. At 27 years old, the light has finally turned on for the big Texan. He has an surprising 3.58 ERA in his 11 games (10 starts) this season. His 5.42 K/BB ratio not only leads the team, but also is historically impressive for a Cleveland Indian. Previously, I pegged Kluber as a long-term relief candidate or possibly a No. 5 starter. At this pace, and with this kind of electric stuff, he’s an ideal No. 3 with big-time upside. Similar to McAllister, his earliest possible free agency is 2019.

The wild card: Carlos Carrasco

Following the most surprising Indians pitcher in 2013, we have the most enigmatic: 26-year-old Carlos Carrasco. Once a three-time top-60 prospect in baseball, Carrasco was the second-biggest fish in the infamous Cliff Lee trade with Philadelphia. He showed brief flashes of brilliance before undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2011. Now finally at 100% health and off the curious suspension bug, he had one of the best MLB starts of his career on Monday. He only has a 5.18 ERA in his 36 career Indians starts. He’s a possible free agent in 2017, but the jury is still out on whether he could finally be a consistent contributor or perhaps just a AAAA flame-out prospect.

The prospect: Trevor Bauer

The No. 3 draft pick in 2011 and a two-time top-20 prospect in baseball, 21-year-old Trevor Bauer has the best pedigree of all pitchers on this list. Eccentric, quirky or perhaps just really smart, Bauer still seems to be misunderstood in Cleveland and elsewhere: He projects to be a possible No. 2 starter with good strikeout ability but continued possible control issues. That’s the storyline reflected in his 24 career AAA starts: 3.26 ERA, 10.1 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9. He is by far the best pitching prospect in the system. His three Cleveland spot starts gave us a tantalizing taste of what he could be in the big leagues, but he’s still a work-in-progress. Ideally, this possible 2019 free agent remains in Columbus in ’13 followed by an opportunity to secure a long-term rotation spot in 2014.

The question mark: Ubaldo Jimenez

More likely than not, I’d assume the end of Ubaldo Jimenez’s Cleveland career is approaching soon. After yet another ugly outing, TD wrote on April 17 that the team needed to cut the cord. Jimenez is now 29 years old and has an $8 million team option for 2014. In his 55 Cleveland starts, he has posted a near-worst-in-baseball 5.20 ERA. Yes, he has been better of late — to the tune of a 3.02 ERA in his last 9 starts before Tuesday — but is he worth $8 million? Potentially, in the Indians eyes, just as Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) was initially worth $7 million for 2012. But even still, my guess is that pending continued elite play, his NE Ohio tenure is on its final leg soon-ish.

The field: [Free Agent], Scott Kazmir, Brett Myers, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, et al

Rarely, if ever, do teams use just five starting pitchers in an entire season. The most significant example in recent history was 2012 Cincinnati, who had 161 out of 162 starts by just five players. For reference, 16 players have started a game for Cleveland since 2011, including 12 different players with at least 11 outings (link to both charts). Thus, as much as the list above could certainly be the five-man rotation in April 2014, a lot could still change between now and then, while certainly potentially during that season as well.

That leads us to a possible free agent acquisition. The 2014 class has a lot of intriguing starters, as highlighted by Matt Garza, A.J. Burnett, Hiroki Kuroda, Paul Maholm, Phil Hughes, Josh Johnson and Ervin Santana. Perhaps, the Indians also could be attracted to a reclamation project or two. It’s simply worth noting that this is a fairly likely option. The team would have to feel comfortable enough with their existing young options and/or feel constricted enough financially to not reach for a new signing.

This year’s two free agent starter additions were 29-year-old Scott Kazmir and 32-year-old Brett Myers. Kazmir won the No. 5 job out of spring training, yet has been fairly poor so far to the tune of a 5.89 ERA in 11 starts. He has had a few solid outings, reminiscent of his electric stuff pre-2010, but might be out of a job potentially soon when McAllister returns. Myers’ Cleveland future is even more hazy, as he posted a 8.02 ERA in 21.1 innings before going down with an injury on April 20th. He’s eligible to return off the 60-day DL this week, but his rehab was recently put on hold too.

Two other starting prospects are on the team’s 40-man roster in 23-year-old Danny Salazar and 23-year-old T.J. House. Both are recent additions to the AAA Columbus roster, so likely aren’t too serious of options even in the 2014 discussion. Salazar was dynamite for AA Akron and now has a 4.81 ERA in 6 outings thus far for the Clippers. He sat for nearly three weeks recently, yet has as much upside as any Indians pitching prospect after Bauer. House, the team’s 16th-rounder in 2008 out of high school, also was posting solid numbers for the Aeros before his promotion in late April. He has a 5.46 ERA in 10 AAA outings, so the jury also is still out on his future prospect standing.

Final thoughts

Overall, I like where the Indians are in terms of their MLB starting rotation situation. I think it’s a solid and still improving cohort. They’re all relatively young and many have been excellent of late. While the organization may lack a starter with the potential to be a top-20 pitcher in baseball, they make up for it with three-to-four players who could be solid No. 2′s or No. 3′s on most teams.

An odd stat that I only realized in full on Monday: The Indians are by far last in baseball in the category of starts made by lefties since 2011. On this list, only Kazmir and House are left-handed. Perhaps, that could be an emphasis point for the organization in free agency this offseason. No immediate southpaw help appears to be on the horizon when looking at the top prospects in the system, as well.

Including Jimenez’s performance on Tuesday, the Indians starting rotation has a 3.81 ERA since Kluber’s season debut in the second game of a doubleheader on April 28th. That ERA is supplemented with marks of 8.2 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and 2.48 K/BB. That’s darn impressive, especially considering the long losing streak, the continued struggles of Kazmir, being without McAllister for two weeks and, again, how awful the team’s starters were in 2012. It shows the long-term potential of this unit and the depth showcased thus far in 2013.

By the end of 2013, it’s a reasonable expectation for the Indians to finish in the 16-22 range in ERA. They’re getting better and will continue to have more health. Yes, regression can and likely will occur, but that range seems about right for now. It’s a humongous improvement over 2012′s 28th place finish. Where will that lead them in 2014? I’d still lean toward a middle-of-the-pack starting unit, as there is no true ace to anchor the staff.

My prediction is that Masterson-McAllister-Kluber-Carrasco-Bauer are the five who break camp in ’14. That includes a maybe unrealistic desire that the Indians do not pick up Jimenez’s $8 million option. It also opens up the door for consideration of a left-handed acquisition in free agency, if the team has any money available after this past winter’s spending spree. Salazar will be the next-man up in Columbus, while Kazmir and Myers will be off in other pastures.

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Footnotes:

  1. no pun intended, like seriously []

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Let us get through 2013 first Jacob have some mercy!

  • JeBron_Lames

    Is it just me or do McAllister and Kluber look very similar to each other with beards?

  • Jaker

    Yeah I almost want Masty to grow his beard back so that we have something going with the Bearded Trio

  • Jaker

    For 2014 I like Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Ubaldo and Carrasco. I think Bauer will be up sometime in the early goings if the 4 or 5 struggle, and eventually be here to stay. I also think that we may decline the Ubaldo option but sign him afterwards for something around 4-5 mil. Salazar and House still have much to prove.

  • JacobWFNY

    That’s an interesting point about Bauer perhaps not being given a MLB job to begin 2014. He’s only 21 with just 24 AAA and 12 AA starts in his career. But I’ve been under the impression that 2013 is his opportunity to fix things in the minors. Then, he should be in the majors. Interesting, interesting.

  • waitingaswell

    Aren’t all your articles supposed to be about next year ??

  • mgbode

    I think he should go handlebar mustache

  • mgbode

    Masterson-McAllister-Kluber-Carrasco-Bauer

    That’s the exact starting5 that I had pondered just yesterday.

  • Jason Hurley

    I think if we decline Ubaldo’s option, he can get more than $4-5 million elsewhere.

  • mgbode

    yeah, some team last offseason was dumb enough to give $7mil to Myers

  • steve-o

    I’d like to think it’s possible to make a trade or two and have a magical run at the post-season this year, but the cost to make that happen is probably too great. So, yeah, 2014…

    For some reason, this organization feels comfortable wasting vast sums of limited monetary resources on many marginal pitchers (Jimenez/Myers/Kazmir) in the hopes that one is really good when for just about the same money we could buy a pitcher who actually is really good. If we are serious about becoming a team that contends, we have to pay a legitimate ace.

    Ace (to be named later), Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Carrasco with Bauer waiting in the wings. That staff with our existing club (and some bull pen help) could reach the post-season in 2014. Sadly, our future staff is more likely to include Jimenez than an ace to be named later.

  • JacobWFNY

    Your final sentence hit the point. Especially because the team spent so much in the past offseason, I’d be really surprised to see them spend much at all this coming offseason. That’d even be the case if Jimenez’s option is declined.

  • mgbode

    Myers + Ubaldo contracts = $14mil of potential spending money for a frontline starter

  • JacobWFNY

    Welcome back to the fold, @mgbode:disqus. I was worried that @The_Real_Shamrock:disqus was taking over your “commenting on Jacob’s articles” award. Phew.

    But, your comment is voodoo math, my friend.

    Jimenez’s 2013 salary is $5.75 million. His team option for 2014 is then a jump to $8 million.

    Then, when you account for the fact that both Michael Bourn’s ($7 to $13.5) and Nick Swisher’s ($11 to $15) salaries go way up next season, the Indians are likely going to be in a cash crunch.

    2013 Myers/Jimenez/Bourn/Swisher = $30.75 mil
    2014 Bourn/Swisher = $28.5 mil

    So there’s not $15 million miraculously laying around at all. When you consider everything and the team’s usual frugal nature, I very much wouldn’t expect the team to sign any major free agent this offeseason.

  • mgbode

    yes, I was rash in my comment. Thanks for setting it straight.

    so, we’d need to trade Perez to save another $7.3 from this year (for whatever we can get or just cut him – seriously, we cannot afford to spend $10mil on a closer, which he might get in arbitration), but then Asdrubal eats up half of that with his salary increase.

    Mark Reynold’s frees up another $6mil (but also leaves a hole in the lineup). Oh, and another $3.5mil that we are paying on Choo’s contract.

    So, with all of that considered, we have ~$15.5mil leftover, but need to account for some arbitration raises (Masterson, Stubbs, Brantley, Pestano, etc.).

    So, maybe, $8mil left after those raises? And, can probably get it to $10mil if we don’t resign Joe Smith or trade Lou Marson or do any number of other deals.

    But yeah, that money will have to be used to fill the holes left behind and they increase with every other cost-cutting move to get more budget.

  • Kildawg

    Tomlin figures into the 2014 plans as well, coming off Tommy John surgery. Or maybe Tomlin could be converted into a corner outfielder since he can swing the bat decent. Who knows? Not overall impressed with Carrasco or Jimenez, especially having them pitch back to back in the rotation.

  • Jaker

    Yeah, unless Bauer absolutely crushes late 2013 and spring training 2014, I feel like the brass will not be in any rush to bring him up. And if the Masty-Mac-Klub trio is still rolling by then, then I don’t see any reason at all for rush.

    Also, don’t be surspised if Josh Tomlin makes a resurgence after his surgery. Most people have forgotten about him, but he’s still here. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is in the discussion in spring training for #5

  • Jaker

    Agreed. I think he will end up elsewhere. But it’s just too early to tell

  • Jaker

    Yeah it’s tough, for every move we make, we must fill a hole. Reynolds, Giambi, Raburn, McDonald, Ubaldo, Smith, are all free agents. That’s a spot in the lineup, most of our bench, a starter and our best reliever. The spending will need to continue if we want to be good next year

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Hey thanks for the shout out, I think! But it’s about time someone called mgbode out for his use of voodoo. In case people didn’t know voodoo is a PED there is simply no other way he could have over 9,883 posts and be clean!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    voodoo can cause rashes!

  • woofersus

    I would argue Reynolds likely departure doesn’t leave a hole that will need to be filled. I believe we’ll see a lot more of Gomes behind the plate with Santana at DH next year. Gomes is right handed so it works out ok as far as the lineup is concerned. And how awesome is it when you’re DH is also your backup catcher? No wasted roster spot there. Other than that I believe the everyday lineup remains basically intact.

    It does leave a roster spot open, and we can assume we’ll also need to replace at least one bench position from this year since Giambi is clearly a one-and-done. I’m sure they’d like to bring Raburn back, but he may prove too expensive if he keeps performing this well. McDonald was always temporary, although his defensive prowess at almost any infield position makes him not a terrible candidate for a bench spot next year – he won’t be that expensive.

    My biggest concern is actually the Bullpen next year. Perez will be too expensive to keep, Smith is a free agent, and the lefty’s have all been terrible (although there is still hope for Hagadone) I think we’ll need to fill 2-3 spots there.

  • JacobWFNY

    Great point. Lots of folks (myself included) do forget about Tomlin.

    But will he return as a starter necessarily? Don’t know. His last four games last season came out of the bullpen.

    Also notable, Tomlin will turn 29 (!!) in October. Didn’t realize he was getting that old. He doesn’t have an high-profile pedigree, so perhaps he’s plateauing at a AAAA level.

    He’s a big question mark. It’s nice to have options, but the Indians probably can’t depend on him too much.

  • JacobWFNY

    Without Reynolds, who plays 1B in 2014?

  • JacobWFNY

    Wrote about Tomlin below in response to @Kildawg:disqus. Good point, sir.

  • woofersus

    I would assume Nick Swisher does, with some relief from Santana. Do you expect Stubbs to be gone?

  • woofersus

    True, but from the early looks of it, next offseason might prove to be a little more of a buyers market than last. There are a ton of SP’s about to be free agents. I know a lot of them will end up with their current teams, and some are older and will retire, but it still looks like a richer than usual pool and could push the price down on somebody like Jiminez. (of course if he pitches well enough that we want him back, somebody else might want him a few bucks more. He’ll only be 30 after all)