We have arrived at baseball’s All-Star break. The Cleveland Indians sit at 51-44, a game and a half out of first place in the AL Central. It has been quite a ride since GM Chris Antonetti hired Terry Francona to manage this club. The shot had been fired – a change in culture was about to arrive in Cleveland. We expected some changes, but nobody could have expected that this team would be as good as it has been. Yes, they have been up and down and have the nickname “Team Streak,” but this start has a completely different feel than the last two years. This seems real.
With that said, each of the next three days we will take a look at the three aspects of the club, beginning today with the starting rotation.
Justin Masterson – 20 starts – 135.1 IP, 10-7, 3.72 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 137 K, 54 BB, 9.11 K/9
Ubaldo Jimenez – 19 starts – 98.2 IP, 7-4, 4.56 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 94 K, 53 BB, 8.57 K/9
Scott Kazmir – 16 starts – 86.0 IP, 5-4, 4.60 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 80 K, 30 BB, 8.37 K/9
Corey Kluber – 15 starts (17 appearances) -95 IP, 7-5, 3.88 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 94 K, 22 BB, 8.91 K/9
Zach McAllister – 11 starts – 65.2 IP, 4-5, 3.43 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 45 K, 22 BB, 6.17 K/9
Carlos Carrasco – 6 starts – 28.2 IP, 0-4, 9.10 ERA, 2.09 WHIP, 15 K, 13 BB, 4.71 K/9
Trevor Bauer – 4 starts – 17.0 IP, 1-2, 5.29 ERA, 1.82 WHIP, 11 K, 16 BB, 5.82 K/9
Brett Myers – 3 starts (4 appearances) – 21.1 IP, 0-3, 8.02 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 12 K, 5 BB, 5.06 K/9
Danny Salazar – 1 start – 6.2 IP, 1-0, 1.50 ERA, 0.50 WHIP, 7 K, 1 BB, 10.50 K/9
When the season started, the team’s single biggest question mark was how this rotation would fair. Whether it was the local or the national media, everyone knew the Indians Achilles heel. With the offensive additions, the thought was that this team would only go as far as the rotation would take them. After top dog Justin Masterson, nobody knew how things would go.
Ubaldo Jimenez returned as the number two guy after a 9-17 season. Veteran Brett Myers was given a one-year, $7 million deal to be the middle of the rotation innings eater. Zach McAllister, a pleasant surprise in 2012, would be the fourth starter, and the final spot was going to be a battle between minor league deal signees Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka, kid sensation Trevor Bauer, and holdover Corey Kluber, who was thought to be rotation filler.
Now we sit at the All-Star break with Myers a complete non-factor thanks to injury and ineffectiveness, Bauer working out his mechanics in AAA, Matsuzaka floundering in the minors, and Kazmir and Kluber becoming indispensable members of the big league rotation.
Right at the top, Masterson has been solid. He has thrown three complete game shutouts, which lead the league, and has looked absolutely dominant at times. The righty leads the Tribe starters in wins, strikeouts, WHIP, and Ks per nine innings. However, there are times when he can look rather pedestrian and left-handed hitters eat him up. In the biggest start of the season in front of a sellout crowd on July 5th against the Tigers, he couldn’t get out of the fifth inning. Detroit is the team the Indians are chasing, and Masterson has allowed 10 earned runs in 11 and two-thirds. Still, Justin made his first All-Star team and has gone at least six innings in 18 of his 20 starts.
The enigma that is Ubaldo Jimenez continues to make us all shake our heads. We all need to come to grips with the fact that the guy who the Indians thought they were getting in 2011 does not exist anymore. Jimenez is not a top of the rotation starter. At this point he is a fourth or fifth guy who you hope can pitch six solid innings. The numbers tell a different story. He strikes out nearly a batter per inning, but he still walks too many for anyone’s liking (53 in 98.2 IP). For some reason, he is a much better pitcher on the road than he is at home. In nine starts he has an ERA over six and averages less than five innings per start. On the road, he is 4-1 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts.
Another oddity – while Ubaldo seems to be a five-and-fly guy every time out, he has allowed three runs or less in nine of his last 10 starts. He still puts a strain on the bullpen, but Jimenez has learned how to be more of a complete pitcher. I still wouldn’t start him in a playoff game ahead of Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, or a healthy Zach McAllister.
Speaking of which, if you had to name a player who has been the biggest surprise of 2013, no doubt it would be Kluber. The right-hander from Arlington, Texas was nothing more than organizational rotation filler when the season began, but something clicked for him when he made a four inning relief stint in Houston in late April. He was inserted into the rotation in place of the injured Brett Myers for the infamous doubleheader in KC that turned the season. Kluber went seven innings allowing two runs, striking out six without a walk. This became a trend for Kluber, who has become a guy who pounds the zone ans doesn’t walk hitters. He has gotten stronger each month. In May, his ERA was 5.17, In June 3.90, and in July 2.79. In addition, Kluber has become the innings-eater that Myers was supposed to be. He’s gone six or more innings in eight of his last 10 starts. To me, he is the Tribe’s second best starter and it may not even be in question.
As good as Kluber has been, Kazmir has been right on his tail of late. Everyone knows his story by now. He was once a phenom All-Star who was destined to have a long successful career. Then the bottom dropped out. He spent 2012 pitching in the independent league and the Indians gave him a shot on a minor league free agent deal in the Spring after seeing him throw this winter. In Goodyear, Kazmir was arguably Francona’s best starter and won the fifth starter job going away. Unfortunately just before Opening Day, the injury bug caught him and he started the season on the DL. He came off the DL to make his first start in his hometown of Houston and failed to make it out of the fourth inning. But since that initial start, Kazmir has done exactly what a fifth starter should do. He has consistently kept his team in games.
What we didn’t expect to see was the velocity and control. Kazmir’s fastball is regularly 94-96 MPH and has returned to being a strikeout pitcher (80 in 86 innings). After an early June hiccup, the left-hander has been as hot as any Tribe pitcher. Over his last five starts, Kazmir has an ERA of 2.32 and a WHIP of 0.87 with 25 Ks and seven walks. At one point in the season, I thought moving Kazmir to the late-inning lefty role was going to be the move. Instead, he has made himself a key cog in the rotation. It should be interesting to see how the Indians brass handles Kazmir down the stretch. He has pitched 86 innings thus far. Its been since 2010 since he has gone over 100.
The hope is that McAllister is ready to rejoin the rotation after the All-Star break. The Zach Attack looked like a perfect complement to Masterson until a finger injury derailed his season. His ERA of 3.43 still is the best of any Tribe starter and other than his last start against Tampa, which the finger was an issue, McAllister hadn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his 10 starts. He made a rehab start this past week in Akron and the key is finding his curve ball. A healthy Z Mac down the stretch will be a big boost to the rotation. If he isn’t able to come back, then the Indians will have to count more on Ubaldo than they would like while having to dip back into the AAA pool for an arm. Myers is not an option. While rehabbing his shoulder issue, the decision was made to bring him back as a reliever. But Myers suffered a setback and it is not known when or if we will see him again.
The hope was that either Trevor Bauer or Carlos Carrasco would emerge and pitch their way onto the club. It hasn’t happened for either. Bauer made four spot starts, each with differing results. We saw a guy who could pitch his way out of jams with a multitude of pitches, but we also saw a stubborn kid with control issues. His delivery mechanics are currently a mess and being worked out in Columbus. The last impression he made with the big club was not a good one as he pitched entirely out of the stretch and couldn’t get out of the first inning in a doubleheader with the Chicago White Sox. He is still the future of the Tribe’s rotation, but not the present.
Carrasco may have been worse.
The last remaining hope from the Cliff Lee trade has been given every opportunity to be a part of this club, but he keeps getting in his own way. In six starts, he has an ERA over nine and again was suspended for throwing at the head of New York’s Kevin Youkilis. He is so tantalizing with his power stuff, but he can’t seem to get it together between the ears. All of this has led up to the unexpected debut of Danny Salazar. The 23-year old Dominican got the call for a spot start last Thursday and showed the stuff that had the Indians front office drooling. 100 Ks in 76 minor league innings will do that to you. He touched 97 with his fastball most of the game, hitting all the way up to 99. His splitter was impressive and kept the Blue Jays completely off balance. Entering the sixth inning of his first start, Salazar was pitching a no hitter and had walked just one. After his first win of the season, Tribe fans want to see more.
However, Salazar is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and the Tribe has him on a pitch and innings limit. The 89 pitches he threw Thursday tied for the most he had thrown all season. If McAllister isn’t ready to come off the DL after the break, expect Salazar to get another start.
This team will only go as far as the rotation will take them in the second half. The key is pitching deeper into games than they have up until now. They rank 12th out of 15 teams in the AL in starter innings. The bullpen is completely overworked and it is not helping their cause. There are so many question marks. Can Kluber and Kazmir keep this up? Can Masterson continue to be a workhorse at the top? What will they get from Ubaldo? Will McAllister come back healthy and effective? If he can’t, can Salazar give the team a “Jaret Wright 1997” bump out of nowhere?
Only time will tell.