Profiling the Columbus Clippers’ Major League ready rotation
Due to the offseason acquisitions of Derek Lowe and Kevin Slowey, the Cleveland Indians figure to have an insane amount of major-league ready pitching filling the AAA Columbus Clippers’ rotation.
While the Tribe’s rotation is not getting much love nationally, I think that a staff consisting of Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, Lowe and Slowey should be average to above-average. Jimenez and Masterson are great top of the rotation guys and the other three starters, while not spectacular, are solid.
Unfortunately for Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Zach McAllister, Scott Barnes and Corey Kluber, having the big league rotation all but set will leave them all stuck starting the year in AAA Columbus. All five of these pitchers could conceivably be in a big league rotation right now, but in 2012 will be depth options for the Indians.
Considering the rate at which injuries affect pitchers, it is quite likely that the Indians will use all five of these pitchers in Cleveland through the course of the 2012 season. As such, let’s take some time to profile each pitcher’s strengths, weaknesses and general outlook for 2012.
Jeanmar Gomez, RHP
Gomez may be the pitcher most deserving of a big league spot out of this group. In his age-23 season, Gomez posted a dominant 2.54 ERA, 3.58 FIP and 1.249 WHIP in Columbus and a serviceable 4.47 ERA, 4.12 FIP, 4.03 xFIP, 1.509 WHIP and 0.7 fWAR in 10 starts (11 appearances) in Cleveland. If not for the Slowey trade, Gomez would likely have been the favorite to replace Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez in the big-league rotation.
The biggest problem Gomez has is that he is simply average. According to the 2010 IPI book, Gomez has no plus pitches and doesn’t stand out when he pitches. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, it means Gomez will probably never be anything more than a back of the rotation starter.
Gomez may be a jack of all trades and the master of none, but so far in his major league career, he’s racked up a 1.1 fWAR in 22 starts. Averaged over a full season, that’s good for about 1.6 fWAR, a very solid number for a fifth starter. Assuming Gomez continues to improve and adjust to the majors, it is easy to see him as a pitcher capable of posting 2-3 WAR seasons on a regular basis. While that’s nowhere near a Hall of Fame level, it is definitely a valuable skill.
David Huff, LHP
Along with Gomez, David Huff is the most ready of these five starters to nail down a spot in the big league rotation. This is mostly since Huff’s been around for a while (he made his big league debut in 2009), but also because he pitched very well after being called up to Cleveland in 2011. His disastrous 2010 campaign was fresh in everyone’s mind, but Huff did a lot to improve his standing, posting a 4.09 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 4.67 xFIP and 0.6 fWAR in 10 starts (11 appearances) in Cleveland. Combine that with his strong 3.42 ERA, 4.08 FIP and 1.211 WHIP in Columbus last year and you can see why Huff may finally be ready to establish himself in the major league rotation.
The biggest issue with Huff is that he’s starting to get really old prospect-wise. This year will be his age-27 season and Huff still hasn’t secured a major league rotation spot. He has obviously fallen quite a ways from his lofty number five rating in IPI’s 2009 book. Then, Huff was seen as the second best pitcher in the entire system (only behind Adam Miller), the best left-handed pitcher, and a guy with three plus pitches (fastball, changeup and slider) and a veteran attack plan. Then Huff was seen as a middle of the rotation pitcher; now he’s likely to be in AAA for the fifth straight season.
This very well could be the make-or-break season for Huff. He showed improvement in 2011, but if Huff wants to ever be a legitimate big league pitcher, he will have to improve even more in 2012. He did a good job of improving his peripherals in the big leagues last year, raising his strikeout rate to 6.39 SO/9 (4.80 SO/9 career) while still limiting his walks (3.02 BB/9 in 2011, 3.20 BB/9 career). Since Huff is one of the top two left-handed starters currently in the Tribe’s system, he will probably get a call-up sooner rather than later. When he gets it, he needs to seize it and not let it go.
Zach McAllister, RHP
McAllister is definitely a step below Gomez and Huff at this point, but he has many factors working in his favor. After a terrible 2010 campaign that saw his prospect stock plummet and the Yankees trade him to Cleveland for two months of Austin Kearns, McAllister rebounded well in 2011. In Columbus, he posted a strong 3.32 ERA, 3.19 FIP and 1.203 WHIP and made his major league debut in his age-23 season. In his four major league starts, McAllister had a shiny 3.37 FIP, 3.98 xFIP and 0.4 fWAR despite a 6.11 ERA and 1.864 WHIP.
Despite his big frame (6’5”, 230 lbs.), McAllister has a pretty average fastball. The big things McAllister brings to the table are his slider and his control (B and B+ respectively according to the 2011 IPI book). That strong control showed itself clearly in his 1.8 BB/9 at Columbus in 2011. McAllister has never been a big strikeout guy (7.1 SO/9 in career), but when you walk such a small number of batters, you can get by just fine.
To me, it seemed like McAllister and his big frame should project more as a front or middle of the rotation guy, which makes his results to date a little disappointing. After adjusting my expectations, however, McAllister is doing just fine. He adds good depth and could probably be the Tribe’s fifth starter on Opening Day. He probably won’t get that chance, but when he called up for some starts in 2012, I definitely won’t be worried.
Scott Barnes, LHP
Barnes struggled at AA Akron in 2010, which forced him to start at that level again in 2011. Luckily for Barnes and the Indians, he came out strong in 2011, posting a 3.45 ERA, 3.80 FIP and 1.222 WHIP between Akron and Columbus. His 2010 struggles put him farther down in the major league pecking order, however, meaning Barnes did not get a chance to make his debut in 2011. Barnes should make it up to the big league club in 2012 at some point, though.
Like Huff, Barnes will get a boost because he is a rare left-handed starting pitcher in the Tribe’s upper levels. Barnes also gets a boost because he has shown the ability to strike out batters (9.7 SO/9 in 2011, 9.3 SO/9 in career). As long as he keeps striking out batters at that rate and controlling his walks as well as he has (3.3 BB/9 for his career and in 2011), Barnes will be successful.
In part because he hasn’t pitched in the majors yet (and thus hasn’t had his flaws exploited by big league hitters), Barnes seems to have the highest ceiling of these five pitchers. If he were to develop into a solid third starter, he would give the Indians tremendous value and help balance the extreme right-handedness of their rotation. He probably won’t get called up until later in 2012, but when he does, watch closely. The Indians need someone to grab that #3 spot once and for all and Barnes could potentially do it.
Corey Kluber, RHP
There is no denying that Kluber is the least exciting name on this list. Despite coming to the Indians with much fanfare due to his gaudy 10.0 SO/9 and 2.9 BB/9 at San Diego’s AA affiliate in 2010, Kluber has struggled since coming into the Cleveland organization. At Columbus in 2011, his strikeouts were down (8.5 SO/9 compared to 9.1 SO/9 for his career) and his walks were up (4.2 BB/9 compared to 3.6 BB/9 for his career). These problems showed in his results: a 5.56 ERA, 4.49 FIP and a 1.480 WHIP. Kluber did make his major league debut late last year, but it was only for 4.1 forgettable innings.
Despite his well above-average strikeout numbers, according to IPI’s 2011 book, Kluber projects more as an innings eater who doesn’t dominate or overpower hitters. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this; it just means we have to adjust our expectations. Instead of looking at Kluber and seeing a top of the rotation talent, we have to recognize that he is more of a back of the rotation guy. Kluber isn’t going to be the next Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw, but if he is the next Jake Westbrook (the guy he was essentially traded for), he will have plenty of value and a good major league career.
If Kluber finds himself pitching regularly in Cleveland this year, it will either mean he rebounded extremely well from his disappointing 2011 season or the Indians have had a major rash of injuries/ineffective pitching from the options above him. He is clearly the 10th best starting pitching option in the system right now (maybe 11th depending on Jon Garland’s status), but he still could figure it out. This is Kluber’s age-26 season, so he is starting to run out of time. If he pitches like he did in 2010, however, he could find himself pitching in the big leagues by the start of next season one way or another.
Overall, it is very clear that the Indians have plenty of starting rotation depth; not many teams can go nine-deep with legitimate big league starters like the Indians can. The Indians may not have the biggest names, but they have plenty of guys that should be at least average and are more than capable of holding down the fort. The Columbus Clippers may be a minor league team, but you can bet that at least early in the season, they’ll be running a legitimate major league pitcher out there every night.
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