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Tribe Happenings: Potential roster crunch in rotation looms

Tribe Happenings: Potential roster crunch in rotation looms
Danny Salazar (Photo: AP)
November 24, 2014
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Rotation crunch

The Indians have a potential rotation crunch brewing.

At the moment the Indians opening day five-man rotation is set to be Corey KluberCarlos CarrascoDanny SalazarTrevor Bauer and T.J. House. Barring an injury this spring or a very surprising trade of one of them this offseason, the rotation is about as set as it can be at this point in the offseason.

As long as all five of those pitchers pitch up to their capabilities then everything will be fine; however, what if one or two of them struggle with injuries or performance next season?

Inevitably, injuries and performance issues will crop up for any five-man rotation. Few teams survive a season using just five starting pitchers in over 90% of their games. Pitchers get hurt and they underperform. If that does happen then the Indians will be in for some very interesting roster decisions next season.

Typically, with as young a rotation as the Indians have it affords roster control. That is not necessarily the case for the Indians as while the pitchers are indeed under team control and very affordable for at least the next three years, few of them offer the Indians any roster flexibility to send them to the minors if they struggle. Here is a quick rundown of each of the remaining options for each of the five starting pitchers along with their two depth starters Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin:

T.J. House: 1
Corey Kluber: 1
Josh Tomlin: 1
Trevor Bauer: 0
Carlos Carrasco: 0
Zach McAllister: 0
Danny Salazar: 0

That’s not a lot of roster flexibility with the Indians starting pitchers. What if Bauer struggles early in the season? What if Salazar has early season struggles like he had last season? What if Carrasco reverts back to his old inconsistent form? What if McAllister can’t find consistency in the bullpen and no spot is open in the rotation?

It is these questions and possible scenarios which could put the Indians at risk of having to designate for assignment any of these pitchers later in the season. Now, that is an extreme scenario as I don’t see any of them being DFAed, even if they struggle. The Indians will find a way to keep them around in the bullpen or perhaps an injury crops up where they can keep them on the disabled list.

But it does beg the question of what they do in the event both Carrasco and Salazar struggle deep into May and are healthy. They can’t send either of them to Triple-A and they can’t put both in the bullpen. Yes, one of them could swap out with McAllister with McAllister moving to the rotation (if he is ready and pitching well) and the other moving into a long man role in the bullpen, but what about the other?

It should be noted that Bauer’s situation could change. While he is out of options, he technically should be eligible for a fourth option year based on Major League Baseball’s roster rules. The rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement state that players with five or fewer professional seasons who have used all three options are eligible to receive a fourth option. Bauer has just three professional seasons under his belt (2012-2014) which qualify as a season. His short season stint in 2011 after being selected out of the draft that year is not considered a season because they have to spend 90 days on an active roster and short season leagues don’t last that long. So it is likely that he will get that fourth option year.

Even so, the hope is that Carrasco, Salazar and McAllister pitch well and fill much needed roles next season. But if two of those three struggle, the Indians are in for some interesting midseason roster decisions.

Murphy vs. Stubbs

Last offseason the Indians changed the look of their outfield and lineup when they traded Drew Stubbs and signed David Murphy. At the time I was not exactly thrilled to part with Stubbs to sign Murphy, though understand why the Indians made the change.

Ryan Raburn was coming off a big showing in 2013 and they just signed him to a two-year contract extension. The Indians wanted to give him more time in the outfield and felt a platoon situation with another veteran lefty outfielder would make sense, so they added Murphy to form what they hoped would be a formidable platoon in right field. But injuries and poor performance from both players led to a very disappointing showing in right field for the Indians last season in all facets of the game.

Raburn struggled with health and performance last season. He hit just .200 with a .547 OPS and -1.1 WAR. The performance was a complete turnaround from the previous season when he hit .272 with a .900 OPS and 2.4 WAR. The absence of any power limited him as he dropped from a .272 isolated power in 2013 to .097 ISO last season.

Murphy was brought in as a complementary piece and someone with a big track record as a good teammate and leader. He filled that role well, but on the field he did not live up to expectations. The Indians were hopeful that a change of scenery and relocation to the confines of Progressive Field would help him as he has always had success there as an opposing player and the field does favor lefties much more than righties. But he hit just .262 with .704 OPS and –0.5 WAR for the Indians last season.

Meanwhile, Stubbs thrived with the Rockies hitting .289 with an .821 OPS and 0.9 WAR. In 424 plate appearances he racked up 15 homers, 20 stolen bases and a 136-30 strikeout to walk rate. Obviously, like with a lot of players in Colorado, you have to take his offensive numbers with a grain of salt since the Colorado air tends to inflate performance. He hit .356 with a .999 OPS and 146 wRC+ at home and hit .211 with a .616 OPS and 72 wRC+ on the road. Also that 32.1% strikeout rate was rather ugly.

The strikeout issues with Stubbs and the up and down nature of his performance were other big reasons the Indians brought Murphy on board. He was much better at putting the ball in play with a 13.2% strikeout rate this past season and showed a knack for making things happen and putting the ball in play hitting .360 with just 15 strikeouts in 116 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.

The Murphy deal probably is not what led to the Stubbs trade to the Rockies. The new contract for Raburn and them wanting to get him more consistent at bats for him was the biggest reason, and they also had a need for some left-handed relief pitching and they thought a Stubbs for Josh Outman swap would help in that regard.

That having been said, the Indians lineup was already very left-handed heavy and the addition of Murphy made it even more heavily slanted to the left. For his career, Stubbs is a .283 hitters against lefties and owns a .823 OPS and 122 wRC+ against them. He offers up some power from the right side as well with a career .183 ISO against lefties. Also, Stubbs is a superior baserunner with the ability to impact games with his base-stealing and ability to motor around the bases.

Probably the area where the Indians were most impacted with the loss of Stubbs and the addition of Raburn and Murphy as the full time right field platoon was on defense. Stubbs is a reputed defender with near Gold Glove ability. He ranges to balls well and makes a lot of plays normal outfielders do not make. Murphy on the other hand was a poor defender as among qualified players he was the second worst defensive right fielder in the game last year based on Fangraphs’ defense rating (-15.5) and UZR/150 (-15.2). As for Raburn defensively in the outfield, well, that misadventure in Kansas City where he turned a double into a Little League home run says it all - though to his credit that catch he made a few weeks later against the Diamondbacks helped make up for it a little.

Another area where the Murphy-Stubbs swap hurts is the money situation. They both made about the same last season as Murphy made $5.5 million and Stubbs made $4.1 million, but the difference is that Murphy is guaranteed to make $6.0 million this season while Stubbs is merely up for arbitration. The Rockies will surely offer it to him or trade him to a team who will, and he will probably make about the same as Murphy next season, but the key is contract flexibility. Murphy’s contract is guaranteed for 2015 while Stubbs could simply be non-tendered if the Indians did not want to pay him and go another route in filling a right field need for next season.

It was not a big mistake, but in the end it was a mistake nonetheless for the Indians to sign Murphy and trade Stubbs. They kind of outsmarted themselves trying to get left-handed pen depth and determining Murphy as a good fit for the lineup as a rebound candidate. Besides the offensive production, Stubbs just provides so much more from a defensive, baserunning and contract flexibility standpoint that the Indians would have been better served to stick with Stubbs in right field last season and maybe find a lesser left-handed platoon option in the outfield.

Now they are committed to another year with a below average player in a lineup that has very little wiggle room as far as making improvements because of all the guaranteed deals throughout it.

Starting pitching depth

I mentioned this last week and will say it again. Starting pitching depth is acquired in the form of inexpensive pitchers who offer some Major League experience, some ability to handle pitching in the Major Leagues and who have some roster flexibility. Free agents who demand multi-year deals or guaranteed seven figure contracts are not starting pitching depth.

The Indians all offseason have maintained that they wanted to add some depth to the rotation. An eighth, ninth and perhaps tenth option to add to the mix and to their depth that they can keep in Triple-A on hand next season to use if injuries arise. They are not searching for a number three or number four starter, or even a number five starter. They believe they have those roles filled already. What they don’t have is depth behind them to use in the event they encounter some performance or injury issues with their set starting five man rotation.

That is starting pitching depth. Few if any teams have large guaranteed deals for starting pitchers who are not in their five man rotation. And most teams are rather thin after their fifth starter – heck a lot of teams are thin after their third or fourth starter. So having some depth to the rotation is a necessity for any team that wishes to survive all the bumps and bruises and performance issues which inevitably will come up over the course of a 162-game season. Those depth options are not saviors by any means, but a few can surprise. Also the hope is that with suitable alternatives that they are prepared for a scenario that arises where they need someone to step into the rotation and fill in for a handful of starts.

This is where the Charles Brewer pickup from Sunday comes in. I have very low expectations for him and don’t think he will help much at all over the long term, but on a short term basis I could see him possibly helping a little. He’s essentially here for a year to help with the depth needs in the rotation as a guy who is inexpensive, can easily be placed in Triple-A and has some big league experience. If the Indians have to turn to him it means the rotation is in shambles because of injuries or performance issues, but they have to prepare for even the most disastrous scenarios.

This is a move that is much ado about nothing. The Indians will make other more important moves this offseason and this is just a depth pickup that every team makes several times throughout the season. The Indians will surely sign several more depth options to non-roster deals to help the rotation, bullpen, infield and outfield, and maybe even claim another player or two off waivers.

Parting shots

Indians third base prospect Giovanny Urshela had quite the scare last week when he tweaked his knee running out a triple playing winter ball in Venezuela. Initial reports out of Venezuela said that he had a torn PCL in his left knee, but after being evaluated by doctors in Cleveland on Thursday it was determined that he had a PCL sprain and no surgery would be required. It should be noted that a sprain is technically a tear, but the important aspect of all of this is that no surgery is required and that he is expected to not have his 2015 season affected by the injury. That’s a much better prognosis than knee surgery which could have sidelined him until at least midseason and taken a key prospect and depth option off the board for the Indians next season. … The Indians got another scare in Venezuela where Jesus Aguilar left the lineup with a sore foot on Thursday. Initial reports feared that he may have broken a bone in his right foot, but that is not the case and he is expected to be back in the lineup for Leones del Caracas sometime this week. … With the flip of the calendar to December a week away, some new Indians players could begin playing in the various winter ball leagues. One such player is right-handed pitching prospect Joseph Colon as his Puerto Rico team is petitioning for him to pitch for them, but there could surely be other players.

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

November 25, 2014 - 11:35 PM EST
I think a lot of this depends on whether Tito is going to break Spring Training with 13 pitchers. He carried 13 most of last season and seems to prefer it. If he does that again, I wouldn't mind seeing the Indians use a 6 man rotation or piggyback/somehow limit Kluber's innings thru April and into May. He went from 188IP in 2012 to 159IP in 2013 to 235IP in 2014. That's a huge jump, and some caution would probably be prudent.
November 25, 2014 - 10:11 AM EST
It is interesting that Boston has a surplus of goo outfielders and we need a right fielder. Cep... would make a good fit in Cleveland. Could trade Swisher and Bourn if possible for a back contract trade of another team like Chicago's Jackson and put Brantley in center and Cep.. in left field. If we got Cep... would have to sign extension with us since don't want one year and out. He had a bad year and price should not be too high.
One trade that will probably not happen, but would be great if it did: B.J. Upton with young pitcher thrown in for Bourn, Austin Adams, Bryan Price and Mike Aviles.
Just thought to management since my comments are only comments.

November 25, 2014 - 8:06 AM EST

House actually was in the majors in 2013 and spent 3 days (I believe) on the major league roster, but did not pitch. However, it doesn't matter how many years someone has been in the majors. Anyone who is on the 40-man but spends 20 days in the minors uses an option, regardless of whether they are ever with the big league club. In this case, House has been on the 40-man for 2013 and 2014, using up 2 option years.
November 25, 2014 - 2:24 AM EST
How can House only have 1 option left if he's only been in the majors for 1 year?
November 25, 2014 - 1:12 AM EST
I agree w GSon re Craig and Middlebrooks. Save your bullets Antonetti.

As for Stubbs, Ryan's take is closer to reality, as Stubbs doesn't even compare to Murphy. Tony, you mention Coors Field, but should have admitted that his production with the Tribe most likely would have been closer to the .211, .616 OPS he hit on the road than what he hit at Coors...also, his 32.1% strikeout rate is beyond "ugly" its gastly! Like Ryan said, we're talking Ryan Raburn v.2014 here guys. There's no way that Stubbs would have done better than Murphy, either at bat or in the field, for even though he runs like a gazelle and has a great arm, he's actually not a very good fielder...I'm sure that CA has no regrets on the Stubbs deal, even though Outman was a total bust...8--)
John M
November 24, 2014 - 9:32 PM EST
Then move Chiz to RF
John M
November 24, 2014 - 9:31 PM EST
I would be very interested in dealing for Middlebrooks. He's only 25 years old. His Minor and MLB stats mirror each other over the last three years as they trend downward. Looks like a confidence issue that a new start may help with. If he gives you .270/15/70 with good defense it's a win.

I think he has that potential.
matt underwood
November 24, 2014 - 8:52 PM EST
cleveland indians - outsmarting themselves since 2002
November 24, 2014 - 6:28 PM EST
I can't see the Indians being interested in Allen Craig. His contract is bloated and he is coming off a bad year.
November 24, 2014 - 6:27 PM EST
Yes, Marcum was resigned last week (not the newswire on the right).
November 24, 2014 - 6:23 PM EST
Is Shawmn Marcum still an Indian?
November 24, 2014 - 5:07 PM EST
@ East/@Clay Hmm..Allen and Middlebrooks.. maybe not. or maybe with cash as a throw in if Allen has any chance (call it a medical miracle happens) of wearing Chief Wahoo on his sleeve.. Allen has a fracture of a tiny bone in his foot that has a dreadful history of NEVER healing.. or almost never healing correctly. Lis Franc Fractures are a nightmare. Middlebrooks.. after his rookie campaign..hasn't been much more than what the Indians got from Ryan Raburn in 2014.. Neither guy is even close to being the straw that stirs the drink..

The Stubbs vs Wright discussion.. only a very slight preference to Stubbs due to his ability to play CF would sway that decision. nothing else he does.. or Wright does is worthy of anything other than a back up OF slot..

Happy about the Urshela News..

Don't care much about Brewer and his fringe ability.. Z-Mac is the level of SP that the Indians need to churn out as ML ready SP's...

November 24, 2014 - 4:26 PM EST
Murphy's fate could be the same as Stubbsies. If you take projections at all seriously Murphy is expected to essentially repeat 2014 next season (Steamer), even though he will probably lose AB's to Francona's other options, so he's my personal #1 trade target to dump (and maybe for a right-handed reliever). Rayburn has no trade value, I assume. If Chiz puts up the same overall numbers in 2015 as last season (and I hope that he does), he will actually become pretty valuable as a trade chip. If we trade for another RF'er, like with Boston say, I'd be happy. If only it becomes possible to make a one year rental for prospects trade economically (preserving salary room in 2016 for Kluber), like for Jay Bruce, I'd be ecstatic.
November 24, 2014 - 3:55 PM EST
I would definately be calling the BoSox to work a deal with them. Several interesting pieces there. Boston seems primed to make a big trade or two at the winter mtgs.

I think IBI writer, Jeff Ellis had the BoSox article up a week or so ago. Good call on his behalf.
November 24, 2014 - 3:12 PM EST
Stubbs is "merely up for arbitration" and we all know arbitration = raise, so the gap in salaries for this year is at worst the same.
Also, Stubbs has speed over Murphy, but he was AWFUL in RF last year, he had a -1.2 dWAR according to bref last year! Murphy has never had a defensive year this badly before and in fact in 2013 he had a +.2 dWAR. In addition, comparing Murphy versus Stubbs does not make sense because if you are not going to sign Murphy, then you are expecting Stubbs to hit against RHP as well as LHP, and although you cite Stubbs' good stats against LHP (only 30% of the pitchers in the league), that is not the only pitchers he would face without Murphy. IMO the true question is Raburn versus Stubbs, should the team have NOT extended Raburn at his cheap price, and be willing to eat the increased cost to keep Stubbs and his versatility over Raburn.
November 24, 2014 - 2:38 PM EST
Allen Craig or to a lesser extent, Will MiddleBrooks would at least be interesting for a team to look at after the BoSox little spending spree today.
East Side Motel
November 24, 2014 - 12:55 PM EST
Indians to trade for Allen Craig. Red Sox clearing payroll for Ramirez and Sandoval

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