The Cleveland Indians officially kick off the 2016 MLB season with pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training in Goodyear, Ariz. Factory of Sadness writer Joe Russo examines why the starting rotation is expected to carry the Tribe to a postseason berth.
It’s really just guys playing catch, but Feb. 17 is a holiday of sorts as Tribe pitchers and catchers formally report to Spring Training in Goodyear, Ariz. While Baseball Prospectus has tried to curse the Indians in 2016 by predicting an AL best 92 wins, we’ll hold our predictions for just little longer here at FoS. It’s fitting, though, that the 92 win estimate is fueled by an AL best 615 runs allowed. With pitchers and catchers just now arriving in Goodyear, it’s important to note that it’s those pitchers that will fuel any Indians run into the postseason.
Even the disappointing 2015 campaign couldn’t hold back arguably the best rotation in baseball and what shapes up to be the best in the American League. Once again, it will be Corey Kluber at the tope of the rotation. For Kluber, last year was an odd year. He had the most losses in the American League of any qualifying starter while sporting a 3.49 ERA and striking out 245 hitters.
A more telling stat of how well Kluber pitched was his FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, which assesses a pitcher’s effectiveness at limiting home runs and walks and how well they generate strikeouts. It’s basically a better indicator of a pitcher’s success when defense is taken out of the picture. Kluber’s FIP last year was a stellar 2.97, more than half a run better than his ERA.
Beyond Kluber, Terry Francona will manage a deep and young rotation. Carlos Carrasco, who was the subject of approximately 500 trade rumors during the offseason, was arguably the best pitcher on the Tribe roster last season, striking out 216 hitters with a 3.63 ERA. If Carrasco can avoid the short and explosively disastrous outings that skewed his numbers, Carrasco has a chance to compete with Kluber for an AL Cy Young.
Danny Salazar has entered a similar make or break year that Carrasco had a couple of seasons ago. The 25-year old righty won 14 games last year, actually leading the starters with a 3.45 ERA and 195 strikeouts of his own. With a fastball that can top out in the high 90s and another year to improve his approach, Salazar is the most important starter as the Indians enter Spring Training. If he can cement himself in the third spot in the rotation, there is not a top three anywhere in baseball that can compete with the Tribe’s.
Beyond the top three, though, the picture gets a little murky. T.J. House began the year as the fifth starter, but injuries and ineffectiveness forced the only lefty starter on the roster out of the rotation. After Bruce Chen and Shawn Marcum failed miserably, Cody Anderson was a revelation on the mound, going 7-3 with a 3.05 ERA in 91 innings worth of starts before his own injuries slowed him down. The 24 year old’s first shot in the majors was a success and should have Francona excited to see what a healthy Anderson can do in camp.
Josh Tomlin adds even more intrigue at the bottom of the rotation after his late season success. Seeing Tomlin pitch effectively was a much needed boost after injuries and a certain mercurial young starter couldn’t hold it together. With what amounts to paperclips and duct tape holding his throwing arm together, Tomlin managed to 7-2 in 10 starts with a 3.02 ERA with 0.83 WHIP and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings at the end of the season. Injury will always be a concern and might ultimately force Tomlin to join fellow ex-starter Zach McAllister in the bullpen as an inning-eating long man.
Lastly, we have Trevor Bauer. It’s hard to believe that a 25-year-old starter who struck out 170 hitters in 2015 could be in danger of kicking off 2015 at AAA Columbus. He’s perfectly healthy, but mentally, Bauer is about as lost as it gets. His ERA jumped nearly 2 full runs after the All-Star break, going from a solid 3.76 to a staggering 5.73.
His batting average against went from a great .218 to a rough .253. He gave up nearly as many home runs (11) after the break as before it (12) in 35 fewer innings. In fact, he gave up 46 runs in 70.2 innings after the break compared to 44 runs in 105.1 innings before it. It got so bad in September that Bauer was surrendering a full run per inning pitched before Francona pulled the plug. If Danny Salazar is the most important Tribe starter at camp Wednesday, Bauer is easily the second most important. Bauer can realize the promise that made him a first round pick or he can justify the naysayers that questioned his ability to learn and develop into a bona fide major leaguer.
Wednesday is officially the first day for baseball this year in Cleveland, even if it’s a couple of time zones away. So break out the Tribe gear and dust off your pennants from the 90’s. We’re now that much closer to the April 4 home opener.