Starting rotation an unsolved long-term mystery for Indians

ubaldo twinsWhat a season for Cleveland Indians starters. After posting the American League’s 13th best staff ERA back in 2012, the Tribe turned it around magically this year en route to the playoffs, jumping all the way to the AL’s sixth best ERA.

Not many could have predicted that success, probably not even much-applauded pitching coach Mickey Callaway. Yet, after the team’s season ended abruptly last week, it’s worth noting that the composition of the 2014 rotation is now up in the air.

There are two likely-to-be high-priced free agents, one impending free agent after next year and a collection of still-yet-unproven youngsters and inexperienced veterans. Who will step up? What will the rotation look like? What moves are necessary?

Heading into 2013, it was assumed that the Indians would pick up a starter on the free agent market. They did so in the form of $7 million for Brett Myers, but that proved to be a disaster: Myers actually managed to have a -0.6 WAR in just 21.1 innings pitched.

With the below list, I count five likely starters for the Tribe as they begin the season: Masterson, Jimenez/Kazmir, Salazar, Kluber and McAllister. That would be maintaining the same list as this season, provided they can re-sign one of the two free agents.

But Trevor Bauer has to get consistent MLB duty at some point. What will the long-term status be of Carlos Carrasco or Josh Tomlin? Is there anyone else in the minors? And is it actually plausible for the team to re-sign just one of the two free agents? Let’s go name by name.

 

Justin Masterson
Turns 29 in March
Made $5.69 mil in 2013; likely to be $8-10 mil for 2014
Free agent eligibility after 2014 season

The de facto team ace is likely to return to starting duties for 2014. He had success out of the bullpen down the stretch, but that was due to his return from injury. The biggest long-term question mark is whether the Indians will be able to afford him past next year. He’s set to make a nice raise through arbitration.

Ubaldo Jimenez
Turns 30 in January
Made $5.75 mil in 2013; likely to receive $10+ mil offer
Free agent eligibility after 2013 season

Jimenez (finally) pitched like an ace over the last few months of the season. That will only make him more difficult to keep in a Tribe uniform. Some will say Jimenez owes the Indians front office for turning his career around, but unfortunately, that’s not how the open markets operate. Assuming he wants it, he’ll get at least four years and $50 million elsewhere.

Scott Kazmir
Turns 30 in January
Made league min. in 2013; likely to receive $6-8 mil offer
Free agent eligibility after 2013 season

The more affordable free agent option for the Indians would be Kazmir. He was a reclamation project this season, signing a deal just to join for spring training before making 29 starts and striking out 162. He’s not an ace, but a guy most organizations would love to have as a strikeout-prone lefty. My guess: $15 million over two years to stay in Cleveland.

Corey Kluber
Turns 28 in April
Continues to make min. salary
Arbitration eligibility after 2015 season; free agent after 2018

As we discussed in Friday’s roundtable, the development of these next two starters are key for 2014. Kluber was a big surprise this season, jumping into the rotation and dominating for three months. But an August injury set him back to end the year. Indians have to hope he can recover that success and stay in the rotation.

Zach McAllister
Turns 26 in December
Continues to make min. salary
Arbitration eligibility after 2015 season; free agent after 2018

Two full seasons, 46 starts, ERA of 3.99. Another impressive yet relatively inexperienced starter, McAllister also wasn’t great down the stretch. He wasn’t the same pitcher after a six-week injury absence in June and July. He seems to be a fairly reliable No. 4 or No. 5 starter, but won’t be a huge difference marker.

Danny Salazar
Turns 24 in January
Continues to make min. salary
Arbitration eligibility after 2015 season; free agent after 2018

The up-and-coming Salazar supplanted the guy below as the team’s best pitching prospect. He went from Double-A prospect to playoff game starter in one season, just like 1997’s Jaret Wright. Hopefully Salazar’s next few years are brighter however, thanks to the Indians’ watchful eye throughout the season. No questions asked, just let him go full throttle now.

Trevor Bauer
Turns 23 in January
Continues to make min. salary
Arbitration eligibility after 2015 season; free agent after 2018

Remember this guy? The perhaps too-eccentric-or-maybe-ground-breaking prospect? He had a 5.29 ERA in four Cleveland starts and a disappointing 4.15 ERA in 22 starts for Columbus. The statistics are brutal: 73 walks, 106 strikeouts and 119 hits in 121.1 innings pitched. Those are Triple-A No. 5 starter stats. I’d assume he stays in Columbus to start 2014. He’s not ready yet.

Carlos Carrasco
Turns 27 in March
Made $0.5 mil in 2013; likely to be $1 mil for 2014
Free agent eligibility after 2016 season

All the evidence you need: 9.00 ERA in seven starts, 1.32 ERA in eight relief appearances. With the likely departure of Joe Smith out of the pen, Carrasco can slip into a long-term long-relief role and perhaps some sixth-inning duties. That will keep his cost low and perhaps harness his innate strikeout ability.

Josh Tomlin
Turns 29 in October
Made $0.5 mil in 2013; likely to be $1 mil for 2014
Free agent eligibility after 2016 season

The Little Cowboy appeared in only one Cleveland game this season as he recovered from August 2012 Tommy John surgery. He’ll have the offseason to fully recover, potentially returning into a bullpen role as well. It’s also possible that he doesn’t return to Cleveland, considering the lack of available innings.

 

Conclusion: So there you go, nine possible starters and a whole lot of questions still yet unanswered. I’m sure there will be more discussions on available free agent starters over the coming months, just like we had last season. Almost all of these players have had long-ish periods of major league success. Now it’s just a matter of money and composition as 2014 preparation begins soon.

As I shared earlier in the week, my optimism isn’t high. Jimenez’s emergence was a key reason for Cleveland clinching a playoff spot; my odds are probably 75-80% that he’s elsewhere next season. Kazmir would be a nice returning candidate, but who knows how much his value is right now. Then, Masterson’s upcoming availability also casts into doubt how much the Indians are willing to break the bank.

In the end, Bauer and Salazar have to develop as future leaders of a rotation. If that can happen, which certainly is a possibility, then the Indians are in much better shape with a back-end led by Kluber and McAllister. But the young guys could need to step up soon.

AP Photo/Ann Heisenfel

  • Anthony V.

    Should’nt TJ House be included on this list… I think he is the only other starting pithcher on the 40 man roster. Being left handed also probably gives him a leg up.

  • Kildawg

    Both Ubaldo and Kazmir have expressed interest in returning to Cleveland, and it would be wise to see if Masterson would want to sign a 3-5 year deal. I would put Carrasco in the bullpen and see if the Mariano Rivera effect works for him. If Ubaldo and Kazmir sign deals to stay I would have everyone else battle it out for 2 remaining spots, the rest will still be depth.

  • woofersus

    Having future starters of McAllister, Kluber, and Salazar is a good start, and enough to make me feel pretty good about our prospects. All three are still getting better. The big question is about the last two spots.

    The Indians are going to try to sign Masterson to a 3 year deal during the offseason, but I don’t think that they’re going to offer him “ace” money. They can’t afford it and he probably isn’t worth it. I expect he’d like to stay if the money works, so odds aren’t terrible that a deal gets done – maybe 65/35 in my mind. If they CAN’T get a deal done and we’re facing the prospect of him walking at the end of 2014 he will be on the market, and will be our most valuable trade asset. Maybe the only one valuable enough to land us a real cleanup hitter.

    Masterson is really the key to the rest of the rotation. If they spend their money on him, they probably don’t spend money on Jiminez and the odds of spending some on Kazmir decrease as well. There’s a fair chance the 5th spot will be a competition between Tomlin, Carrasco, Bauer, House, and whatever minor league invites show up this year. (and I would expect that competition to boil down to Carrasco and Tomlin out of spring training) Then again, I’m sure they’ll at least put an offer out there for Kazmir even if they re-up Masty. A rotation of Masterson, Kluber, Salazar, McAllister, and Kazmir would be pretty good. Kazmir just might be affordable enough….

  • mgbode

    would love to sign Masterson to a 3yr deal, but not sure he feels the same way (it would have to be a bit under-market).

    also, would like to sign Ubaldo, but even expressing interest I think he is going to find it much more lucrative for the Angels or another high budget team seeking pitching.

    finally, I wouldn’t sign Kazmir for 2yrs as Jacob suggests. He wasn’t “that” good (though definitely good enough) and I still would worry about long-term arm issues (will he be able to just build that strength back up or will this year’s pounding affect him?). For 1 year, I’m on board.

  • mgbode

    Ok, because I like tables/lists:

    Locks: Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Salazar
    If signed: Ubaldo, Kazmir
    Others: Tomlin, Carrasco, Bauer, House?

  • gson

    The Indians will not want for options in the starting rotation for the 2014 season. Nine strong and counting..TJ House may be added as well..

    The secondary emphasis of this article is whether the Indians organization can afford to resign / retain the starting rotation. The “list” includes payroll values and or projected values.

    The Indians should see a significant bump in national and local TV revenues, so, this off season, an where the free agents may be considered weak, will become a time when teams sign their own guys.. A little stability never hurt anything..

  • woofersus

    I would give Kazmir 2yrs if the price was right. There’s always risk, but I don’t see any real reason to think he won’t be able to give a full, normal year of innings barring injury. The price difference between a one year deal and a two year deal can be substantial. (just look at all the single year deals given out this past year) If it’s the difference between one year at 8.5 million and two years at 13 million it’s a risk I’d take. (with somebody else’s money of course)

  • woofersus

    He’s on the radar, but he just got promoted to AAA this year and didn’t set the world on fire. He seems unlikely to be ready to compete for a major league job out of spring training. We could theoretically see him next year at some point though if they don’t resign anybody.

  • Steve

    I think it takes a minimum of five years to get Masterson to sign at this point. I’d prefer not to go to two (or more obviously) years on Kazmir, but I can’t make that a dealbreaker. If that’s what it takes to get him, I’m not sure you’ll find a much better bet for less than $10 mill a year.