The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. On Friday, I wrote about the Cavs’ terrible offense (except for when they play the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, apparently). Today, I’m writing about the many offseason transactions involving pitchers for the the Cleveland Indians.
Entering this offseason, it appeared the Indians were in a lot of trouble with their pitching. In 2012, they were terrible, abysmal and among the worst in baseball. In 2013, everything seemingly went well. Players were healthy and reclamation projects turned into stars. Yet, the Tribe only ranked slightly better than average among AL teams with a 3.82 ERA. But then, they were set to lose players to free agency responsible for 38% of their starts and 45% of their relief appearances. Everyone knew the Indians would be busy and would need to spend money. But would they make a splash to replace the lost production? Thus far, they haven’t.
The baseball offseason, of course, is not over just yet. There remain several high-priced free agents on the board. In fact, if you recall from just one year ago, the Indians didn’t sign Michael Bourn until Feb. 11. Plenty more moves could still happen for many teams, including the future of one Cleveland starter. But as we march through into 2014 and move closer to spring training, this post will review all of the pitching staff losses and additions to date.
LHP Scott Kazmir – He was the seminal Indians story of 2013. Kazmir signed a seemingly innocuous minor league deal with a spring training invite a year ago December. He swindled that into a surprise 4.04 ERA in 29 starts and then, a two-year $22 million deal with the Oakland Athletics. That’s a lot of guaranteed money for a 29-year-old with just one solid MLB season in the last four years. It’s a bold move the Indians just weren’t willing to take. It could end up hurting them. Even FanGraphs liked the move for Oakland.
RHP Chris Perez – His Cleveland era ended with a whimper when the team non-tendered him as expected back in late October. He then signed an unknown one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers to pitch middle relief in their scraggly bullpen. Last year, the controversial displaced closer’s 4.33 ERA in 54 games was well below average for any pitcher. At 28, he still could improve, but he had to depart.
RHP Joe Smith – This one could hurt. The 29-year-old Cincinnati native averaged 71 games and a 2.42 ERA over the past three seasons. But he signed a monster three-year $15 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. The Indians were not ready to commit money to a true free agent, even one with organizational familiarity. He was a good pitcher but the Indians probably feel comfortable with their current middle relief options.
RHP Matt Albers – This one was a bit odd too. After a largely fine season with a 3.14 ERA in 56 games, the soon-to-be-31-year-old Albers walked away and signed a cheap one-year $2.25 million agreement with a team option with the Houston Astros. He was a low-leverage reliever, but an effective one. The Indians hope to replace him with other cheaper options.
Those three are confirmed to be gone. No one knows what might happen with RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, who went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 32 starts last year. For four months, he was a star. But in his previous nearly two years in Cleveland, he was one of MLB’s worst starters. After declining Cleveland’s qualifying offer worth $14.1 million for one year, he now reportedly seeks that dollar amount for multiple years. It’s possible he could return. More likely, he’ll find that money elsewhere, even though he turns 30 shortly. His future is the biggest question mark going forward in evaluating this offseason.
Yet unsigned as well is lefty reliever LHP Rich Hill. Since he turns 34 in March and had a bad 6.28 ERA in his 63 games, he’s not expected at all to return. The Indians should actually be easily able to replace his southpaw bullpen production with the players they’ve added recently.
RHP John Axford – signed as FA; $4.5M for 2014; control through 2016 – TD called this move a “calculated risk.” The signing of the new closer has been the team’s biggest pitching acquisition thus far. His deal is pretty interesting with his two additional years of team control. As an inconsistent 30-year-old, he’s a fiscally safe choice as the new ninth inning guy. The Indians are banking on a regression to his 2011 production.
LHP Josh Outman – trade from Colorado; est. $1.8M for 2014; control through 2015 — A 29-year-old reliever, he was acquired for Drew Stubbs last month. Outman’s major league stats are very platoon-heavy. Because of his MLB experience, he’s expected to be a near-lock for the 25-man roster. He’ll team up with Marc Rzepczynski as the bullpen lefties. TD liked the move as it showed the final signs of the Indians bullpen.
LHP Colt Hynes – trade from San Diego; control through 2019 – This 28-year-old still has options left, so it’s likely he’ll begin in Triple-A Columbus. He was quietly acquired for cash in late October. He posted a great 1.52 ERA in 41 combined Double-A and Triple-A games with an 11.0 K/9 last year after bad 2011 and 2012 seasons. He’s another guy and the backup for Outman/Rzepczynski.
RHP Shaun Marcum – minor league deal; ST invite – The Indians took a flier on this injury-prone former ace. This is the biggest dark horse of the lot. He’s 32 and missed the second half of last season with the Mets. In the first half, he posted a 1-10 record and 5.29 ERA. So yeah, he hasn’t been good recently. At best, he’s a Scott Kazmir-lite candidate. More likely, he’ll struggle as he has over the past few years and miss the squad.
RHP Matt Capps – minor league deal; ST invite – The Indians took a gamble on Capps in 2013, but his season was limited to six Triple-A games because of right shoulder surgery. They then quickly signed him to the same deal again for 2014. He’s a MLB veteran with a 3.52 ERA in 444 relief appearances. At only 30, he’s a great bounceback candidate.
RHP Scott Atchison – minor league deal; ST invite – This year’s Rich Hill in older, right-handed form. Atchison is a pitch-to-contact 37-year-old that has familiarity with Terry Francona. He has a 3.47 ERA in 152 MLB games over the last four years. He’s a sleeper to watch for a final big league relief role if the youngsters don’t step up.
LHP Mike Zagurski – minor league deal; ST invite – A soon-to-be 31-year-old, he pitched for the Yankees, Diamondbacks and A’s in 2013. He has struggled mightly in the majors with a 7.05 ERA in 89 games, but has a 2.88 ERA and 11.9 K/9 mark in 156 Triple-A contests. I really like his potential upside. At worst, he’s Triple-A depth.
RHP Tyler Cloyd – minor league deal; ST invite – The Indians oddly claimed Cloyd off waivers from Philadelphia on Wild Card day, DFA’d him and then signed him back to a minor league deal. He has a 5.38 ERA in 93.1 MLB innings. But he’s got a 3.39 ERA in 41 Triple-A starts. At 26, he’ll likely fight for a starting role in Columbus.
RHP Travis Banwart – minor league deal; ST invite – Signed as a free agent after Rule 5 cuts in December. An Oakland A’s farmhand, he has 488.1 career innings in Triple-A with a 4.52 ERA. He’s just a guy and turns 28 next month. His 8.6 K/9 last year is intriguing at least.
RHP J.C. Ramirez – minor league deal; ST invite – This 25-year-old struggled with a 7.50 ERA in 18 relief outings for the Phillies last year. But he’s young and has upside; he was a mere casualty of roster cuts and the Indians swooped him up. He’s likely to return to Triple-A, where he has a 4.50 ERA in just 59 career games.
Axford is the closer. Outman is nearly guaranteed for an MLB role. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Rzepczynski will all be Indians relievers. Other internal options are Vinnie Pestano, Chen-Chang Lee, Nick Hagadone, Blake Wood, Preston Guilmet, Frank Herrmann, Scott Barnes, Bryan Price and Austin Adams. Two usual starters, Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin, also could potentially have bullpen roles.
With five likely spots taken, that leaves three roles up for grabs. I’d give Pestano, Lee, Capps, Hagadone, Wood, Atchison and Zagurski the highest odds of making the club, in that order. Hynes and Adams are fun sleepers. All of these players will be competing against each other, but will have very little pressure to immediately be great. If they can merely replace the lost production of Albers and Hill, that alone could be good enough. The depth is impressive.
Which means the biggest question remains the rotation. The four locked-in starters are Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar. Carrasco, Marcum and eccentric youngster Trevor Bauer likely will get the first shots at the No. 5 role. Tomlin, Cloyd and Banwart also could theoretically compete. That’s alarmingly weak for a team hoping for another 90-win season.
The Indians rotation just doesn’t look good right now. Masterson is merely a de facto ace with mostly average production over the last four years. Kluber and McAllister have just 86 combined career MLB starts. Salazar is an exciting almost 24-year-old, but he lacks the long-term high-end pedigree for me to be completely comfortable with the seemingly lofty 2014 expectations.
As of right now, I give the Indians a C+/B- for their offseason pitching changes. With the addition of one more legitimate major league starter, they have the potential to move up to a B+. The multitude of low-risk moves have been very wise. But now, it’s time to step to the plate if the team is indeed serious about contending. Simply, they’re stuck in an unfortunate position where they have to quickly make up for their organizational development deficiencies. It’s troubling.