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Indians look to protect a young rotation still establishing itself

Indians look to protect a young rotation still establishing itself
Carlos Carrasco (Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
December 19, 2014
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The Indians made a surprising decision with starting rotation this week.

First, the Indians out of nowhere signed right-handed starting pitcher Gavin Floyd to a one-year $4 million that guarantees him money and a rotation spot for the 2015 season. Then, the Indians announced that Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin will have to duke it out in spring training for the fifth and final roster spot. Finally, we also found out that the Indians secured a special fourth option year for Salazar.

I am sure Salazar was just as surprised as the rest of us when he heard the news that he not only was no longer a guarantee for a rotation spot, but that he had an option left so there is no guarantee he has any spot on the opening day roster. My how things can change in the blink of an eye in baseball, something we have seen throughout baseball this offseason with the frenetic pace that players have switched teams.

Barring an injury or two to another starter, one of Salazar or House is bound for Triple-A Columbus at the start of the 2015 season. A week ago that didn’t seem possible, not even if either one of them were knocked around in the desert this spring. Now, it certainly is possible.

What the Indians effectively did in signing Floyd was not only get themselves a potential rebound candidate who has some upside, has a good history and is not that old, but also open a legit competition for the final spot in the rotation where no one is going to be handed a job. All four candidates should get a fair shot, though it is no secret that McAllister, Salazar and House have a decided advantage to Tomlin going in.

The way I see it, the trio of McAllister, Salazar and House are on equal footing going into spring training. McAllister is in the same spot that Carlos Carrasco was in last year as a guy who is out of options and is guaranteed a roster spot on opening day; we just don’t yet know if it will be in the rotation or bullpen. Like Carrasco in 2013, McAllister showed promise in limited opportunities out of the bullpen last year. And like Carrasco last season, McAllister will go into spring training viewed as a starter first and a reliever second so he has just as good a chance to earn a rotation spot.

It is entirely possible that McAllister wins the final rotation spot which would send both Salazar and House to Columbus to start the season. Who had such a scenario in their office pool at the end of the season?

The Floyd signing is the Indians way of adding depth. It wasn’t a depth starter at the backend, but one on the front end where they have pushed some of their better starters into a depth role. This is an interesting move because if Floyd bombs it would be two or three months of wasted starts like the Indians had with the likes of Derek Lowe in 2012 and Brett Myers in 2013. But it could also end up as a Carl Pavano kind of move that worked out well in 2009.

The addition of Floyd will also create completion this spring as several arms slug it out for the fifth and final spot in the rotation, though that competition won’t end at the conclusion of spring training as it will carry into the regular season. Competition can often bring out the best in a player, so perhaps the Indians want to put a little pressure on their opening day starting staff to perform. Outside of Kluber, the Indians could have a short leash with any of their starters and replace them – Floyd included – if they are not pitching well and someone like Salazar or House is chomping at the bit in Columbus.

I’m a firm believer in the upside of the quintet of Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Salazar and House in the short and long term. I’d even include McAllister in there as I think he still has mid-to-back of the rotation potential. That’s a nice group of starters that the Indians control for at least the next three seasons and have upside to be one of the best groups in the league.

But aside from Kluber, none of them have pitched a full season in the big leagues. We do not yet know how they will respond to a full season and how they will hold up from a health and performance standpoint. I’m bullish on the potential of this rotation, but there is a big difference between having potential and being proven. Sure, all of them have shown flashes of brilliance over a two or three month span, but until you have done it over a full season you are not believed to have arrived. A lot more credence is put into a starter who pitches a full season at 170-200 innings than one who pitches half a season and 80-100 innings.

For as good as Carrasco and the rest of the staff was at the end of last season, it is fresh in the Indians’ minds what Salazar did at the start of last season after an exciting showing the final three months of 2013. The same can be said for Ubaldo Jimenez who used a two or three month stretch to cover up years of inconsistency and used it for a big pay day only to follow it up with one of the worst starting pitching performances in baseball last season.

Floyd is no guarantee. He’s coming off a unique injury to his funny bone in his right arm. The Indians believe he will make a full recovery from it. He is also returning from Tommy John surgery; however, fears with that were pretty much put to rest with his strong showing with the Braves last year (9 GS, 2.65 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 7.5 K/9) prior to suffering the funny bone injury.

But Floyd offers up some protection from the inconsistency that youth and inexperience presents in a starting rotation for a team expected to contend next season. Young pitchers get hurt. They show flashes of brilliance only to follow it up with stretches of struggle. And, yes, some meet their upside and become everything they are hoped to be. The Indians are looking to manage the inexperience and youth in the rotation early in the season and then let the cards fall as they may after that. It is hard to argue with that line of thinking.

In a lot of ways, the foursome of Carrasco, Bauer, Salazar and House are in the same position Kluber was going into last season. Kluber looked like the real deal after his impressive breakout showing in 2013, but he did not have a track record or had yet pitched a full season. A year later, Kluber has since proven himself (and then some) and is a guy that the Indians can rely on going forward.

Now, Kluber is an extreme in this case since he went on to win a Cy Young award in his second season. There are plenty of examples of young pitchers who have shown flashes of brilliance one season only to fall on their faces the next.

This is a big year for at least three of those arms to establish themselves. The Indians are playing the odds here as the likelihood of all four of them pitching as well as they did down the stretch last year is very remote as one is bound to tail off or even struggle with injuries or performance. But chances are at least two or three of them meet the expectations that they have set after their good showing last year.

Who are those two or three arms? We just don’t know yet. That’s what the 2015 season will hopefully answer for us.

But it is a big year for all of them to establish themselves in the rotation because after this coming season the Indians will no longer get to enjoy the roster flexibility they currently enjoy with them. Already Carrasco and McAllister are out of options. House, Salazar and Bauer all have one option remaining, so one of them is pretty much guaranteed to use their last option and the other two could end up using them depending how they perform this season. As a result, a situation exists where going into the 2016 season all of them are out of options and have to be on the Major League roster.

If all of them are pitching well, that’s a great problem to have. If they struggle next season, then the Indians have some decisions to make. In the meantime, you can see where an arm like Floyd fits in as a linchpin that not only adds depth but protects the Indians from the volatility that presents itself with injuries and performance issues that could result from a young rotation that has yet to firmly establish itself.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Homer
December 19, 2014 - 10:13 PM EST
Clay, they'd be lucky to win 80 games, that's not even a playoff rotation. Look at the Tigers, the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Dodgers they all have better rotations...

Just kidding, I went cleveland.com for a moment. :)

No matter what somebody WILL complain, just how it is.

Id like to see them pickup a prospect or two (depth). I really like Matt Barnes, (Red Sox) I think he's a big strong durable MOR arm in a yr / two. Would love to get Matt Wisler or Noah Syndergaard, but neither is going anywhere without Lindor going back.
Clay
December 19, 2014 - 5:08 PM EST
If I had to guess right now, the rotation will be...

Corey Kluber
Clayton Kershaw
Max Scherzer
Chris Sale
and Josh Tomlin.

And there would still be Indians fans complaining that the #5 spot is too weak to compete ;)
Pathofkindness
December 19, 2014 - 4:42 PM EST
I agree with most of the comments here. The Floyd signing is an excellent move IMO. Cudos to CA. The prices for both starters and relievers in this year's FA market are simply too much. Salazar or McAlister in the pen, and one of the three as the 5th starter. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Myself, I would have no problem with both McAlister and Salazar in the pen, but could see why they wouldn't want to do that. Can't wait for spring training to start!
BrianM
December 19, 2014 - 3:26 PM EST
I still admit the most realistic expectation as of now (at least to me it is) is to have Salazar the #5, McAllister the long man, House to AAA with Tomlin.
BrianM
December 19, 2014 - 3:25 PM EST
I agree with you Mark about wanting more than Tomlin as AAA depth, but I also don't think it takes that long to stretch guys out. If more than one guy goes down, McAllister could probably transition back into the rotation pretty quickly. Carrasco did it pretty quickly last year. I guess not having that immediate 7th option just doesn't bother me as much as having Salazar waste bullets in AAA when he could be a major contributor in the pen.
Tony
December 19, 2014 - 3:10 PM EST
Service time for Salazar and House is really not much of a consideration here. To get any advantage they would have to keep House in Columbus until mid-June or early July and would have to keep Salazar in Columbus until September. That's not happening. They each have too many service days toward their first year to really manage it.

I do believe though that McAllister will be given every chance to start. If he outpitches Salazar and House this spring, he is the 5th starter. And I also don't see both McAllister and Salazar to the pen.....but I think it is certainly possible one of them are definitely in it. More likely McAllister because he is out of options and perhaps Salazar/House out pitch him this spring, but I could see McAllister in the rotation and Salazar in the pen if the Indians really wanted to go for it this year. Wouldn't be my choice and I think it is unlikely....but I could see it.
Brandon
December 19, 2014 - 2:56 PM EST
I wonder if McAllister has an advantage due to Salazar and House's options. If no one separates themselves from the pack, it would seem beneficial to keep them in AAA to stop their service times.
Mark
December 19, 2014 - 2:50 PM EST
Brian,

The problem in that scenario is that it leaves no depth in AAA (other than Tomlin, and Lord knows, none of us want to see him make 16 starts) when one (or more likely 2+) opening day starters gets injured. We can't have both McAllister and Salazar in the pen. It wouldn't make sense. Chances are at least one of Bauer/Floyd/Carrasco/House are going to struggle, and then you have to have someone stretched out in AAA.

We can trade prospects for a good relief arm if we need it, but the cost of starting pitching is insane. Keep the starters as starters. They are much more valuable that way.
BrianM
December 19, 2014 - 2:29 PM EST
I'm very excited to see what happens with all of this. Tony, I know you have mentioned your desire to leave Salazar in the rotation. I agree that he should be given every opportunity to start, but if House has a good spring and earns that 5th spot, I would much rather have Salazar coming out of the bullpen than starting in AAA. We need another bullpen arm. Salazar is far and away better than anything available right now via FA or trade. It looks like our window of opportunity is now. Allen/Salazar/Shaw/Scrabble/Hagadone/Crockett/McAllister at the back end of the bullpen sounds pretty dirty to me. We wouldn't be far off from what the Royals fielded last year as far as talent goes, and we would have a stronger rotation as well. I also would like to see a lefty in the rotation, so House already has a leg up on Salazar. I will be okay with whatever happens regardless, but I won't be surprised at all if Salazar ends up in the BP coming out of ST. If House continues to succeed, I think this is the best option for our club.
Robert
December 19, 2014 - 1:33 PM EST
Mark's comment re the potential impact of Cash leaving has been on my mind. Look at what happened to Ubaldo in a different environment. IMO Cash's replacement will be a good test for Tito.

Bob
Mark
December 19, 2014 - 1:13 PM EST
The Indians flat out HAD to sign another arm. 4 of the 5 guys that finished in the rotation are question marks still. Carrasco may not be the same guy without Cash; Salazar may not continue to develop; House may turn into a AAAA pumpkin at any time; and Bauer, well, he may never become the FOR pitcher we all envisioned him as.

Kluber was, and still is, the ony sure thing in the rotation, despite how well they all pitched the last half of 2014. $4M on Floyd was money well spent. If he flames out, $4M wasn't going to buy us anything in FA anyway, and this rotation desparately needed the extra stability.
Tony
December 19, 2014 - 12:49 PM EST
Marcum is just an arm. He's sorts like Matt Capps from a year or so ago. They resigned Capps to a second minor league deal but he never pitched in Cleveland. Marcum came back late last season from the injury but from what I know it has been slow and he's probably not a ML option at this point. That having been said, with a long offseason, perhaps things come together and he looks a lot stronger this spring. He's going to Columbus (or extended) no matter what.....unless he really struggles and decides to retire.
C L Who
December 19, 2014 - 12:36 PM EST
What is the Tribe doing with Shaun Marcum? What is Marcum's rehab status?

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