The Cleveland Indians' starting rotation is almost set for the 2014 season.
Despite having lost Scott Kazmir—and in all likelihood Ubaldo Jimenez—to free agency, the Indians will return four pitchers who had significant impacts on the 2013 ballclub. The rotation's order and fifth spot, however, are still up in the air.
Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar will likely duel it out in spring training for the team's two, three and four spots. The fifth spot will come down to the spring training results of three candidates: prospect Trevor Bauer, and free-agent additions Shaun Marcum and Tyler Cloyd.
I'll give you predictions for the makeup of the rotation in the next five slides, while also helping to familiarize you with the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate.
Let's begin with the team's No. 1 starter.
Pitch usage and velocity figures courtesy of Brooksbaseball.net unless otherwise noted.
In a year or two, when Danny Salazar matures into the front-end pitcher that he's capable of being, there may be some debate as to who the Indians' No. 1 starter is. However, as of right now, Justin Masterson undoubtedly occupies that role.
Over the past three seasons, Masterson made 100 appearances—96 starts—allowing a 3.86 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP with ratios of 7.5 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 8.5 H/9 and 0.6 HR/9.
Last season, at age 28, Masterson took a substantial step forward after suffering through a down year in 2012. Through 32 appearances—29 starts—Masterson logged 193 innings and pitched to a 3.45 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP while averaging 9.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 2.57 K/BB and 7.3 H/9.
Masterson set full-season bests in WHIP, K/9, K/BB and H/9, along with numerous other measures of pitching competence.
Masterson will need to take another step forward in 2014 if he hopes to best Salazar in this rotation next year (no knock on Masterson, Salazar's just that good). But for now, he's the best pitcher the Indians have.
Danny Salazar is set to be the next big thing amongst American League pitchers. He may not have the notoriety of Taijuan Walker, Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy, but Salazar is one of the best young talents in the American League, and possibly Major League Baseball as a whole.
Unlike the three other names mentioned above, Salazar has exhausted his rookie eligibility. No matter, though, as the 23-year-old is set to have a breakout year in 2014.
In his debut season, Salazar made 10 starts and allowed a 3.12 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP. Salazar's per-nine averages were also excellent, as he averaged 11.3 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 7.6 H/9 and 1.2 HR/9.
Moving forward, Salazar will need to limit the number of home runs he allows, as well as work on his pitch variation. The young righty has four pitches in his repertoire: a plus-fastball, a solid splitter, a good slider and a sinker. But he features his fastball slightly too often.
Salazar, according to Brooksbaseball.net, turned to his fastball 64.08 percent of the time last season, while using his splitter, slider and sinker 19.38, 12.54 and 3.99 percent of the time respectively. Although he can be successful pitching exactly the way he has been, Salazar can expand on his dominance by featuring his breaking pitches a little more frequently.
Either way, Salazar will be relied upon heavily if the Indians are expecting to make a repeat appearance in the playoffs.
After a solid rookie season in 2012, Zach McAllister took a step forward in 2013, solidifying his role as the team's No. 3 starter for 2014.
Last year, the 26-year-old allowed a 3.75 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP while setting career highs in starts and innings pitched with 24 and 134.1 respectively. McAllister's peripheral stats were decent, as he averaged 6.8 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 2.06 BB/9 and 9.0 H/9.
McAllister's numbers are good enough to lock down the No. 3 spot in this starting rotation, but don't be surprised if we see a bit of regression in 2014.
Though you'd expect McAllister to take a step forward as he enters his age-26 season, there are some significant doubts about whether those numbers can improve. Last year, McAllister's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), xFIP (Expected Fielder Independent Pitching) and SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA)—4.03, 4.53 and 4.33 respectively—are indicative of a pitcher whose numbers exceeded his actual means of production.
McAllister's steadily declining K/9, K/BB and GB/FB ratios are concerning. Because of all this, current Steamer projections have McAllister working to a stat line including a 4.40 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP and per-nine averages of 6.8 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 and a whopping 1.1 HR/9 in 2014 (per Fangraphs.com).
McAllister could very well expand on his breakout 2013 campaign, but it won't come without significant improvements to his ground ball, strikeout and walk rates.
Corey Kluber is the last of the obvious choices for the Indians' starting rotation.
The 27-year-old righty made his full-season debut for the Indians last year and experienced a solid amount of success. Over 26 appearances—24 starts—Kluber allowed a 3.85 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP while averaging 8.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 9.3 H/9.
Kluber, like McAllister, is projected for a bit of regression in 2014, but, unlike McAllister, it won't be any fault of his. Despite solid career metrics including 8.2 K/9, 3.61 K/BB, 0.85 GB/FB, 5.9 BB% and a 21.3 K%, Kluber's BABIP has trended around .338 for his career.
Despite the metrics mentioned above, and his career FIP, xFIP and SIERA marks of 3.61, 3.40 and 3.51 respectively, with a BABIP that high Kluber is likely to post an ERA and WHIP significantly higher than his skill level makes him capable of.
Based on skill alone, Kluber is an above-average to great pitcher. With a little bit of luck in 2014, he could take a step forward and be the second or third best pitcher in the rotation.
Essentially, Bauer left in exchange for prospect Didi Gregorius, a weak-hitting and slick-fielding shortstop. It was evident then that concerns about Bauer's mental makeup and maturity were already present.
Now, after a year with the Indians, Bauer has only added to those concerns.
In 22 starts with Triple-A Columbus, Bauer compiled numbers that would be somewhat respectable for any 22-year-old starting pitcher. However, Bauer isn't just any 22-year-old prospect, and a pitcher with his potential and pitch arsenal should not be allowing a 4.15 ERA or a 1.58 WHIP at any minor league level.
Bauer also made four starts with the big league club in 2013, meeting with similar results. Bauer worked to a horrific stat line, including a 5.29 ERA, a 1.82 WHIP and averages of 5.8 K/9, 8.5 BB/9, 7.9 H/9 and 1.6 HR/9.
Bauer has the potential to miss bats and induce weak contact, as evidenced by his allowing 7.9 H/9 at the major league level last season. However, the young righty doesn't throw enough strikes to be an effective pitcher—his career strike percentage of 57 is far below the major league average (64 percent) over the last two seasons.
Bauer is a headstrong pitcher with a penchant for aggravating teammates and pitching coaches. It's been speculated that his pregame warm-up regiment may have something to do with his ineffectiveness during games, but the 22-year-old has shown zero willingness to change it.
According to MLB.com's Jordan Bastian, Bauer's progress this offseason has inspired some confidence in his coaching staff. In reference to videos he had seen, manager Terry Francona stated that, "He's making key adjustments. It's exciting. Hopefully, we'll see some results in Spring Training."
You may wonder, after all the issues listed above, why Bauer would be the team's fifth starter. Well, it's mostly because the Indians don't have any better options.
The team lost starter Scott Kazmir to the Oakland A's this offseason, and they haven't shown much interest in bringing back free-agent starter Ubaldo Jimenez either. In fact, the only moves the Indians have made to try and add some starting depth include signing Tyler Cloyd and Shaun Marcum.
Cloyd was solid in the latter half of his minor league career with the Phillies, but failed to post any numbers that make a convincing argument for his inclusion in a big league rotation.
Marcum, a 32-year-old veteran with an injury-laden past, is coming back from thoracic outlet syndrome, an ailment which saps away at a pitcher's velocity. Marcum had very little velocity to begin with, and it seems unlikely that he'll be able to regain his form and overtake Bauer.
The team will also work out in-house options Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin.
Carrasco struggles with a lot of the same control issues that Bauer does, and he looks to be better suited for a relief role moving forward. Tomlin, similarly to Marcum, has an injury history that has kept him from progressing into a steady contributor to the Indians' rotation.
In short, unless Bauer goes out and has a mental breakdown on the mound during spring training, he'll be the team's fifth starter for the 2014 season.