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Identity ambiguity for Tribe starters?

Identity ambiguity for Tribe starters?
May 26, 2012
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With a bullpen that already has a slick, intimidating nickname, the Bullpen Mafia, the identity of the Tribe’s starting rotation contrasts with the fortuitous bullpen. The duo atop the rotation of Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez has, for the most part, underwhelmed through their first nine to ten starts of the season. Meanwhile, the elder arm in the rotation, 38 year old Derek Lowe, with six wins and a 2.15 ERA, has pitched the best of Tribe starters. The other three pitchers who have made starts, Gomez, Tomlin, and McAllister, have pitched mostly well, especially considering they’re the 4th/ 5th starters.

The bottom line, the Tribe’s starting rotation is battling some identity issues through the season’s first two months. The arms expected to lead the way have faltered and the ones expected to serve as complementary, back-end pieces have pitched better than expected, thus far at least. This is not to say that the Indians’ starters have been a weakness on the team, as they sit 7th in the American League with a 3.96 ERA. The big picture issue is that if the starters continue to walk as many batters as they have (120, 2nd in the AL) then it will surely start to hurt a starting staff with a lot of potential.

If Masterson (4.62 ERA, 34 walks) and Jimenez (5.02 ERA, 38 walks) can straighten out their control issues and pitch like a true one-two combo, and the bottom three in the rotation continue to hold their own, then the team pitching, as a whole, will be quite impressive. The problem is, right now, the Tribe possesses two of the top three spots in most walks allowed in the AL, Jimenez at 1st and Masterson, who’s tied for 3rd.

Luckily, the other members of the rotation, led by the aforementioned Lowe, have balanced out the dismal numbers coming from the top of the rotation. If you believe in the law of averages, you’d have to figure that Lowe’s peripheral numbers (.286 Opp BA, 1.41 WHIP) will catch up with him sooner, rather than later, which will likely cause a steady rise in his ERA. Even with the expected swing back to averages, Lowe should still make for a very solid number three starter.

Of course, if you extrapolate the argument of averages, you’d also expect to see the 27 year old Masterson return closer to, and even build off, his 2011 numbers (3.21 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 2.71 walks per 9 IP, 6.58 strikeouts per 9 IP). He’s already walked over half the amount of batters this year (34) as he did all of last season (65). If he continues to struggle with his control all year long, many will likely question his ability to be a legitimate top of the rotation starter. Yet, if Masterson can straighten it out and best fellow aces, like he did in most recent start against Verlander, albeit with five walks, then Tribe fans will continue to enjoy the riches of the savvy Victor Martinez trade to Boston (which also netted the Tribe Nick Hagadone). 

Jimenez is a different ball of wax and a thorough examination of his status in the rotation merits a full article. For the sake of brevity, it seems apparent that Baldy will struggle to recapture his red-letter year of 2010, likely settling as a middle of the rotation starter. This chaps Tribe fans, especially when one considers the breadth and quality of talent that Cleveland shipped to Colorado for him, but that’s the reality of trades. Certainly, if he can quash his mechanical issues, then Jimenez could very well end up being a decent to good starting pitcher.

I don’t know exactly how much this has been explored, but I am curious as to if Jimenez might be tipping his pitches off. With his unorthodox delivery, he exposes the ball behind his back leg, before whipping the ball homeward. Potentially adding a little more deception to his release, while simplifying his pitching motion, could yield better results. Again, Ubaldo is an enigma, so it’s hard to say what his ceiling and floor are.

Aside from getting knocked around at the end of his start against the White Sox on Friday, Jeanmar Gomez has pitched quite impressively, to the tune of a 3.94 ERA, .223 Opp BA, 1.17 WHIP. Those are solid enough numbers for a 4th/5th starter. Josh Tomlin has battled recent forearm tightness, which landed him on the DL. Before hitting the shelf, Tomlin had plenty of his own solid starts, best of all being his eight inning, one earned run outing against Seattle on April 19th.

The most recent development in the Indians starting rotation is the emergence of 24 year old Zach McAllister. ZachMac did a very admirable job filling in for Tomlin over the last four starts, garnering a 3.96 ERA, .255 Opp BA, 1.24 WHIP. Not bad for a guy who was only expected to make a couple of spot starts. With six legitimate arms available, not to mention Aubrey Huff and the pitcher-formerly-known-as Fausto Carmona in the wings, the Tribe appears to have plenty of capable arms.

What this means is that in the event of injury or prolonged underachieving from one of the current five in the rotation, Cleveland has another starter ready to step-in, without much of an expected drop off. Conversely, if you’d like to speculate regarding potential trades, one or more of these arms could be packaged up to land the a much-needed right-handed bat for the lineup. Regardless, it’s surely a good thing to have this many legitimate starters.

The only issue is that one would hope Masterson/ Jimenez start to limit the walks and string together consecutive outings, in top of the rotation fashion, as Lowe’s ERA stands to go up by at least one to one and a half runs, dropping him more into a middle of the rotation spot. With any luck, the starters will settle into the typical one through five roles, develop a cool nickname, and lead the Tribe to a postseason berth. If not, a full blown identity crisis could muddle players’ roles and lead to disarray. Either way, regardless of who is in what role, the positive point is that the Tribe has more than enough starting arms capable of getting hitters out, and that can only be a good thing.

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