Where to start?
“I think we have a solid starting staff. We have four guys who are locked in, in my opinion. And then you have three, four or five guys who have been in that fifth starting role and who will fight and be prepared. We’re definitely in a good spot.”
— Justin Masterson, in February
A lot has changed since Masterson made those comments about the Indians’ rotation battle at the onset of Spring Training. There is no denying that Cleveland entered this season with plenty of questions surrounding its starting staff, but the organization — from the front office to the clubhouse — was optimistic and confident about the group at the time.
Much, if not all, of that confidence has since been shaken and shattered.
Where does the Tribe go from here?
The Indians thought they had the makings of a group that could help the ballclub contend this season: a veteran (Derek Lowe) mixed in with a couple of up-and-comers (Masterson and Josh Tomlin), a past star (Ubaldo Jimenez) and a prospect (Jeanmar Gomez). Instead, that group faltered greatly and has been the catalyst behind this collapse.
Every team enters a season with a rotation depth chart that is eight to 10 arms deep. Sure enough, Cleveland has cycles through nine starters this season. Here is that list, and their overall showing out of the rotation, through Tuesday:
Justin Masterson: 11-13, 4.96
Ubaldo Jimenez: 9-16, 5.52
Derek Lowe: 8-10, 5.52
Jeanmar Gomez: 5-7, 5.54
Zach McAllister: 5-7, 4.31
Josh Tomlin: 5-8, 5.72
Corey Kluber: 1-3, 5.26
Roberto Hernandez: 0-3, 7.53
Chris Seddon: 0-1, 5.23
Masterson, Jimenez, Gomez, McAllister and Kluber currently make up the rotation with roughly three weeks to play. Lowe was released. Tomlin is done for the year (and likely all of next season) after Tommy John surgery. Hernandez is sidelined with a right ankle sprain and his status is up in the air. Seddon is in the bullpen, where he is a better fit.
Given Cleveland’s slide in the standings — from first place through 70 games to tied for last in the American League Central — the question is simply: Where do the Indians go from here? After this season’s collapse, it is hard to fathom the club trying to sell 2013 as a season of expected contention. It is more likely a year that will help sort through the building blocks of the future. Again.
The 2013 rotation could include Masterson (arbitration eligible), though Cleveland will probably entertain any trade offers for the sinkerballer this winter. McAllister, Kluber and Gomez are all pre-arb. Don’t forget, pitchers such as Carlos Carrasco (returning from Tommy John) and Kevin Slowey (arb eligible after injury-marred Triple-A season this year) will likely be in the fold next spring. Lefty David Huff is still around, too.
Lowe is in the past. Tomlin is part of the distant (2014) future. Cleveland has club options on Hernandez ($6 million) and Jimenez ($5.75 million). In the Minors, upper-level arms include guys like T.J. McFarland, T.J. House (Double-A), Giovanny Soto (Double-A) and Paolo Espino (Double-A). Austin Adams? He’ll be coming back from shoulder surgery.
The Indians lack upper-level impact arms — the type that would be clearly ready to slide into the 2013 rotation for a chance to see what the Tribe has waiting in the wings. That is why it would not be surprising to see Cleveland float players like Masterson, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera or Chris Perez in trade talks this winter.
Cleveland had two top-tier pitching prospects poised for the big-league stage, but — thanks to the trade for Jimenez — they are now with the Rockies (Drew Pomeranz and Alex White).
Some free-agent pitching options this offseason include the likes of Kevin Correia, Ryan Dempster, Jeremy Guthrie, Edwin Jackson, Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, Jason Marquis, Kevin Millwood and Anibal Sanchez, among others. But, under the circumstanes, I wouldn’t expect the Tribe to be big spenders.
Shocker, you say? Come on. What team should spend big after a 90-plus loss season? The time has come again to shift the focus back to building a better foundation. The current core is not breeding confidence, especially on the mound. There is no quick fix to what has transpired here over the past two months.
It begins and ends on the mound. One or two hitters — not Josh Willingham, not Prince Fielder — could have overcome Cleveland’s rotation woes this year.
On the year, among AL teams, the Indians’ rotation ranks 11th in innings (807.2), 12th in wins (44), 13th in ERA (5.28), hits allowed (903), walks issued (313), strikeouts (546) and average (.283), and last in losses (68), runs allowed (529), earned runs allowed (474), stolen bases allowed (93), stolen base percentage (83%) and WHIP (1.51).
Dating back to July 27, when the Indians were just 3 1/2 games out of first place, the rotation has gone 8-26 (14th in both) in 43 games with a 6.88 ERA (14th) and .305 average against (14th). Over that period, the group has allowed 194 runs (14th), 169 earned runs (14th), 277 hits (12th), 82 walks (10th) in 221 innings (14th).
Dating back to July 27, here is the individual starters’ performances:
Masterson: 4-5, 7.14, 51.2 IP
Jimenez: 1-7, 6.79, 50.1 IP
McAllister: 1-5, 6.08, 40 IP
Kluber: 1-3, 5.26, 39.1 IP
Hernandez: 0-3, 7.53, 14.1 IP
Seddon: 0-1, 5.23, 10.1 IP
Gomez: 1-0, 7.27, 8.2 IP
Tomlin: 0-1, 18.00, 4 IP
Lowe: 0-1, 27.00, 2.1 IP
Masterson and Ubaldo combined have gone 20-29 with a 5.23 ERA and 1.51 WHIP on the season and 5-12 with a 6.97 ERA and 1.60 WHIP dating back to July 27.
The rotation currently has the third-highest single-season ERA in team history, trailing the 1987 (5.37) and 2009 (5.30) clubs. The starting staff is also on pace for 77 losses. In team history, only five rotations (1971, 83; 1928, 81; 1991, 79; 1924, 75; 1987, 75) have lost at least 75 games in a single season.
Something has to give, and soon. But where should the Indians start?