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Orbiting Cleveland: The rotation has a huge hole

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Josh Tomlin (AP PHOTO)

Josh Tomlin (AP PHOTO)

Where is help when you need it?

That has to be a popular question amongst the Cleveland Indians front office right now.

After going 92-70 in 2013, the Indians are winners. Now how will they find a way to stay winners in the year to come?

That’s not an easy task, and it becomes even more difficult when you realize what the team must replace. They’ve already lost left-hander Scott Kazmir to free agency, and it seems as if there’s a good chance that Ubaldo Jimenez will be gone too.

That’s not good.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Tribe cannot afford to lose Jimenez simply because of his contributions to the team last season. After all, who would want to lose a pitcher who went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA?

That issue is compounded by the fact that the Indians already lost Kazmir, who signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Oakland A’s this past offseason. Kazmir was no slouch himself in 2013 and went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA.

It’s not easy to replace performances like that, but it can be done, especially if a team has capable replacements available. Yet, that’s where things get somewhat dreary when predicting a forecast for the Indians’ 2014 season —the Tribe has nothing of the sort.
As it stands, the Tribe’s starting rotation figures to be Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. If all four of those pitchers stay healthy, that is a formidable bunch. Salazar and Masterson both have top-of-the-rotation upside while Kluber can be a competent third and McAllister is a solid four.

However, beyond those four pitchers, there is a gaping hole, and it’s a hole that could prove troublesome for the Indians in 2014.

For now, it appears as if the fifth member of the Indians’ starting rotation will be one of the following individuals: Josh Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer or Shaun Marcum.

I’ll be blunt — that’s a mistake.

There is no way that anyone can reasonably expect to replace 23 wins with the contingent of pitchers listed above. These pitchers might make good insurance policies should one of the main rotation members go down with an injury, but they should not be trusted to be in the rotation from Opening Day.

That’s another concern that needs to be addressed — injuries. Three of the four starters penciled in to be a part of the 2014 rotation spent time on the disabled list in 2013. The other one is still basically a rookie. In other words, injuries could and likely will happen.

If Tomlin, Carrasco, Bauer and Marcum were just penciled in as possible injury replacements, then that would be fine. All of the four are probably more than capable of handling a spot start here or there.

Yet, one of these four pitchers is supposed to be counted on to fill a major hole in the rotation, and that’s just not a sound strategy. All four of the pitchers have some concerns, and you just cannot count on one of them to step up and replace Jimenez’s and Kazmir’s production.

Take Josh Tomlin, for example.

Some may point to him as one of the best candidates to fill the fifth spot in the rotation. That seems to be a reasonable argument considering that Tomlin was solid in 2011 when he went 12-7 with a 4.25 ERA in 26 starts.

Yet, let’s take a closer look at that season.

In the second half, Tomlin’s numbers took a significant turn for the worse. His ERA ballooned to 5.26, and his home run to fly ball ratio rose to 14.1 percent after it was just 9.1 percent in the first half.

This has been an area where Tomlin has struggled significantly throughout his career. Overall, his HR/FB ratio is 11 percent for his career, but that number also seems somewhat distorted from his first half in 2011.

In 21 games and 16 starts in 2012, Tomlin posted a HR/FB ratio of 13.3 percent. Some will point out that he may have been injured during some of those starts, but the reality is that home runs have been a prevailing theme for Tomlin throughout his entire career.

Take a look at the graph below, which shows how Tomlin’s HR/9 compares to the rest of league:

(Courtesy of FanGraphs)

For his entire Major League career, the right-hander has been serving up home runs left and right, and it’s not a trend that should be expected to end, even if he is coming off of Tommy John surgery.

An average HR/FB ratio in the Majors is around 9.5 percent. In the best stretch of his career, Tomlin had a HR/FB ratio of 9.1 percent, so why should we expect that number to improve?

The reality is that Tomlin will always allow a great deal of home runs, which is going to affect his ERA. His average HR/FB ratio will probably hover between 12 and 13 percent and even in a good season, his ERA is not likely to be below 4.50.

That does not exactly seem like the type of arm that we should have replacing Jimenez and Kazmir, does it?

Unfortunately, there are other woes that surround the other starters as well.

Carrasco simply has done nothing of significance in every opportunity that he has had to be a capable Major League starter.

He has a great arm, and it seems as if he should be a capable starter, but the truth is that the numbers and performances have never supported that notion.

For his career, Carrasco has struck out just 6.2 batters per nine innings, and he also owns an ERA of 5.29.

This season, it appears as if Carrasco struggled with his pitch selection and relied too much on his fastball.

In June, for example, he made four starts to the tune of a 6.65 ERA. He also threw his fastball 57.7 percent of the time during that month.

It’s hard to blame Carrasco for being so enamored with his fastball. After all, he has gained a few ticks since Tommy John surgery, and he can now touch the upper 90s with relative ease.

However, the reality is that he still needs to learn to be more of a pitcher than a thrower, and he has not yet taken that step. Part of the reason that Carrasco struggled so much in those four June starts is that he also only threw his slider just 5.1 percent of the time.

When Carrasco is at his best, the slider is a weapon for him; it’s arguably his best pitch. In June 2011, Carrasco had the best month of his career and posted a 1.90 ERA. Is it no surprise that he also threw his slider 14.6 percent of the time during that month?

The stuff is certainly there for Carrasco to succeed, and it’s hard to not like his upside. Nonetheless, it’s clear that he’s still not ready to be a rotation regular. He probably best fits into the bullpen, which is where he could find himself next season. Perhaps he one day does harness his potential and becomes a solid Major League starter, but the Indians should not be banking on that to happen at the start of the 2014 season.

This then brings us to the next candidate — Marcum.

Unlike Tomlin and Carrasco, Marcum does have a solid track level of Major League success.

From 2008 to 2012, Marcum posted an ERA of 3.70 or below for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Milwaukee Brewers.

Marcum struggled this past season with the New York Mets though and ultimately had season-ending right shoulder surgery.

Many look at the Indians’ signing of Marcum as this year’s version of Kazmir, and there are so similarities. Like Kazmir, Marcum is coming to Spring Training on a minor league deal, and there is a previous track record of success.

However, if the front office is expecting Kazmir-like results, then they’re being foolish. What happened last season with Kazmir was the exception and not the rule. There are hundreds of minor league signings across the league each season, and the majority of them do not pan out.

Also, let’s just compare Kazmir and Marcum for a moment.

In his prime, Marcum was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter in the Majors. In comparison, Kazmir was a former ace who led the American League in strikeouts. When it comes to the players’ceilings, there’s really no comparison: Kazmir is in a league of his own.

It would be nice to see Marcum return to being a capable Major League starter, but it still seems risky to believe it can happen. Remember, he’s in Spring Training on a minor league deal for a reason.

Yet, here’s the crazy thing. Of the three pitchers mentioned (Tomlin, Carrasco and Marcum), Marcum is probably the most appealing option. Sorry, but it’s never a good thing when a pitcher coming off right shoulder surgery and a 5.29 ERA suddenly starts to look good.

There’s one other pitcher who was not mentioned, and that’s because it’s hard to believe that he will really be much of an option.

That person is, of course, right-hander Trevor Bauer.

He may have the biggest upside of the bunch, but who really thinks he would be ready for a rotation spot by Opening Day?

There have been some rave reviews coming out in regard to Bauer so far, but it’s still too much of a gamble to pencil him into the team’s rotation. He was at times not even a capable minor league pitcher last season, and that’s not going to change overnight.

Ideally, Bauer will continue to work on his mechanics, and he could become an option sometime during the season.

So, what are the Indians to do?

The team is coming off a 90-plus win season, so they obviously want to do what they can to maintain the momentum. Can that really happen if one of the aforementioned players has an Opening Day spot in the rotation?

This is just further evidence as to why it is pressing that the Indians do what is necessary to bring Ubaldo Jimenez back into the fold. Even if that takes a financial commitment of $15 million per season, it’s still something the team needs to explore.

Yes, the Indians can replace Jimenez with any of the four pitchers mentioned above. Still, it’s highly doubtful that they’ll receive a performance that is anything close to similar.

Remember, you get what you pay for, and the Indians should keep that in mind as Spring Training draws near.

Steve can be reached via email at orbaneks@gmail.com.

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