2013 Indians In Review: The Starting Rotation

Corey Kluber

The Indians wild ride has come to an end. The 2013 season was one that nobody expected. A 96 loss team turned into a 92 win club that advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. GM Chris Antonetti and Manager Terry Francona helped changed the culture of the organization and has our baseball team on the rise. There is a buzz in the city about the Indians again. It was a season to remember with so many great moments and the arrival of some new fan favorites.  

Each day this week, we will look back at a different portion of the club and see where we are today, a plan for 2014, and so on. We will begin with the starting rotation, a group that was a huge surprise in 2013. 

Justin Masterson – 29 starts/32 games/ 193 IP/14-10/3.45 ERA/1.20 WHIP/195 K/76 BB/9.09 K per 9/.248 vs. righties/.182 vs. lefties

Ubaldo Jimenez – 32 starts/32 games/182.2 IP/13-9/3.30 ERA/1.33 WHIP/194 K/80 BB/9.56 K per 9/.258 vs. righties/.223 vs. lefties

Corey Kluber – 24 starts/26 games/147.1 IP/11-5/3.85 ERA/1.26 WHIP/136 K/33 BB/8.31 K per 9/.266 vs. righties/.277 vs. lefties

Zach McAllister – 24 starts/24 games/134.1 IP/9-9/3.75 ERA/1.36 WHIP/101 K/49 BB/6.77 K per 9/.267 vs. righties/.249 vs. lefties

Scott Kazmir – 29 starts/29 games/158 IP/10-9/4.04 ERA/1.32 WHIP/162 K/47 BB/9.23 K per 9/.226 vs. lefties/.275 vs. righties

Danny Salazar – 10 starts/10 games/52 IP/2-3/3.12 ERA/1.13 WHIP/65 K/15 BB/11.25 K per 9/.237 vs. righties/.216 vs. lefties

Carlos Carrasco – 7 starts/15 games/46.2 IP/1-4/6.75 ERA/1.76 WHIP/30 K/18 BB/5.79 K per 9/.309 vs. righties/.351 vs. lefties

Trevor Bauer – 4 starts/4 games/17.0 IP/1-2/5.29 ERA/1.82 WHIP/11 K/16 BB/5.82 K per 9/.265 vs. righties/.207 vs. lefties/COLUMBUS – 22 starts/121. 1 IP/6-7/4.15 ERA/1.58 WHIP/106 K/73 BB/

What was considered the unquestioned weakness of the team heading into 2013, the starting rotation not only turned out to be the team’s biggest surprise, but also its top strength. At times this past season, the rotation carried the team through month long hitting slumps, keeping the Indians in game after game.

It all started with Justin Masterson. From opening day to his oblique injury in early September, Masterson pitched like a top of the rotation starter.  I hesitate to call him an ace, because the true aces out there are on a different level than Justin. I’m talking about the Clayton Kershaw’s, the Justin Verlander’s (though he had an off year), the Felix Hernandez’s of the world. But that doesn’t make Masterson a bad pitcher. What keeps him under these aces are the times he had come up small and big starts, coupled with inconsistent mechanical periods.

With all of that said, Masterson enjoyed his best season as an Indian. Other than a poor month of June, Justin was pretty much good for seven innings or more and three or fewer runs every time out. He had three different complete game shutouts and three other scoreless starts where he looked like a world beater. But then there were the forgettable three starts against division rival Detroit where he allowed 15 earned runs in 18.2 innings of work.

The oblique injury derailed his September where we really could have seen the All Star make clutch starts. Instead, he pitched three times out of the bullpen, recording the final out of the regular season which clinched the Tribe’s first playoff berth since 2007. Masterson will be back as the Tribe’s opening day starter in 2014 and the hope is that the free agent to be will sign a contract extension that will keep him here beyond 2014. It is believed to be atop the list of Tribe priorities.

A guy who most likely won’t be back next season is Ubaldo Jimenez. Not since Cliff Lee went from fifth starter to Cy Young winner in 2008 have we seen a transformation like this here in Cleveland. He was so bad in April that I called for his ouster from the rotation after back to back starts where he allowed seven earned runs. Not my finest hour, I fully admit. But at the time, Ubaldo was a colossal disappointment since coming over from Colorado at the trade deadline in 2011. Manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Mickey Calloway gave him a few extra days of rest to clear his head and the time off did Jimenez well. From that point on, the rebirth of Ubaldo was on.

As the season went on, Jimenez went from an afterthought, to a five and fly guy, to a dependable middle of the rotation pitcher who kept his team in games, to a top of the rotation starter who carried the Indians on his back every fifth day. He made six September starts and the Indians won all of them. Only once did he allow more than a run in a September start – two runs in six and a third against the White Sox on September 24th. He struck out 51, walked seven, and posted a 1.09 ERA in 41.1 innings in a month where every single game felt like life or death. Ubaldo’s second half was incredible where he led the AL in ERA at 1.82 ERA. Once a walk machine, Jimenez found his command and struck out 100 while walking just 27 in 13 starts. By comparison, his K/BB ratio in six more first half starts was 94/53.

Ubaldo’s likely final start as an Indian came on the season’s final day where he pitched six and two thirds of one run ball with 13 strikeouts and just one walk. His contract calls for a mutual option at $8 million. There is a better chance of me starting at shortstop for the Tribe next year than Ubaldo picking up his portion of the option. My man is going to get PAID by someone. If Edwin Jackson got four years and $52 million from the Cubs last winter, what do you think Jimenez is going to get? Whatever he gets, he should kick some sort of tip to his pitching coach. Calloway and Ubaldo worked so hard together and it certainly paid off.

Without Jimenez around next year, it will be up to a few others to step up their games. The guy who will be looked on to take over is the Danny Salazar. It is a lot to ask of a 23-year old with just 10 starts under his belt, but anyone who watched Salazar can see that he has the demeanor and the stuff to handle the burden.  As I wrote the day before Salazar’s Wild Card start, the kid came a long way this season. Most people had no idea who he was when the season started, but without him, the Indians would not have made the playoffs. From Akron in April to Cleveland in October, Salazar showed a mean high-90s fastball along with off-speed stuff that came from the same motion.

In his Major League debut, Salazar carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning with seven strikeouts and one walk. Whether it was in Akron, Columbus, or Cleveland, Danny was on a strict pitch count and innings limit, but the Tribe lifted that for his final two starts. You won’t see the five inning pitcher in 2014. Expect more for Salazar who will be a mainstay in the Indians rotation for years to come. This may be the best young power arm we have seen coming through Cleveland since CC Sabathia.

Another guy who will be asked to take the next step forward in 2014 will be Corey Kluber. Like Salazar, nobody could have seen this kind of emergence coming this season. While Danny had the pedigree and was a true prospect, Kluber was essentially looked at as rotation filler. Once an afterthought, Kluber was given a chance to pitch every fifth day when free agent bust Brett Myers went on the DL in April, never to be heard from again.  All Corey did was turn himself into the most trusted starter in the rotation after Masterson until a finger injury derailed his breakout season.

Kluber is a strike-thrower who pounded the zone with his fastball and cutter. He gave the Indians essentially what they hoped Myers would; an middle of the rotation, innings eater. But with Kluber, there is a future and some upside. Until the finger injury cost him the entire month of August and turned him into a five inning, 80-85 pitch guy in September, Corey would have been in line behind Masterson and Jimenez if the playoff rotation order could have been set. Kluber will be 28 next year and set in the middle of the rotation as essentially the new Jake Westbrook – steady and solid. Best of all, he will be under Indians control until 2019 and isn’t arbitration eligible until 2016.

Just like Kluber, Zach McAllister had a nice season take a turn because of a finger injury. He allowed three runs or less in each of his first ten starts and once again seemed like a perfect fit in the four slot. He leads with his fastball, but his secondary stuff worked as well. McAllister would get into trouble at times with putting runners on base, but he has a knack for getting out of jams. Then the finger injury hit and Zach missed the month of June and most of July. While he wasn’t spectacular by any means the rest of the way and was probably the most shaky of the five starters heading into the postseason, McAllister allowed just two earned runs in his last three starts of the season. Had the Tribe defeated Tampa Bay in the Wild Card game, I doubt Z Mac would have gotten a postseason start, but you can bet he will be back in the rotation next season and is also under team control until 2019 and isn’t arbitration eligible until 2016.

Why it is so important for Salazar, Kluber, and McAllister to continue to ascend is because of Ubaldo’s expected departure, plus the expected walk of free agent Scott Kazmir. While GM Chris Antonetti gets killed for a bust like Myers, he doesn’t get enough credit for unearthing Kazmir, who was pitching in the independent league last year and was looked at as a major league washout at the age of 28. The Tribe gave him a shot on a minor league deal and he pitched his way into the rotation with a fabulous Spring.

By the middle of the season, Kazmir was back to pitching like he did in his prime. The velocity that was all but lost when he crashed and burned in Anaheim in 2010 re-appeared. The lefty was hitting 95-96 with his fastball and once again was a strikeout pitcher. Kazmir’s seven start run in June and July which coincided with Yan Gomes becoming his personal catcher was a thing of beauty.  He allowed just eight earned runs in 44 innings of work. The Indians had to be careful with his workload because he hadn’t pitched more than 150 innings since 2010. The expected dead-arm period for Kazmir arrived in late July and early August but when his team needed him down the stretch, Scott showed out.

On September 6th against the Mets, Kazmir pitched six scoreless with 12 K’s and in his last two starts, he allowed just one run in 13.1 innings of work, striking out 21.

I would love to see Kazmir back in Cleveland next year and he may have a twinge of loyalty considering how the Indians brought him in and handled him this past season, but he is going to get a nice payday this winter. My guess is for the Tribe to keep him, they may need to give him two years and at $16 million. Are they willing to go that high? Keep in mind that Kazmir will still only be 30 on Opening Day next season.

Should both Ubaldo and Kazmir walk, you are looking at at least one spot open in the rotation (with Salazar taking over the other spot with Masterson, Kluber, and McAllister). In-house candidates for the final spot will include Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco. The long range plan was to have Bauer ready for 2014, but the former #3 overall pick took a step backwards in his development. The Indians gave him four spot starts. In the first three, Bauer showed some promise, but walks were a serious problem. Walking 15 in 16.1 innings is not going to get it done. As we know, the kid from UCLA is a bit of a mad genius and is constantly tinkering with his mechanics. It hasn’t served him well at all in his quest to be a part of the Indians rotation. On June 28th as part of a traditional doubleheader, Antonetti and Francona called on Bauer for game one. He showed up and told the coaching staff he was going to pitch strictly out of the stretch, which did not sit well with many. Worst of all, he was rocked for five runs on six hits, including two home runs in two-thirds of an inning. That was the last we would see of Bauer.

It would be one thing if he was dominating AAA like he did a year before for Arizona. But Bauer’s Columbus numbers were far from impressive. In a perfect world, Trevor would be ready to assume the fifth spot in Cleveland in 2014, but unless he turns things around this winter and has a strong Spring, than he could start the season in Columbus again. If anyone can get him figured out, it is Mickey Calloway.

The way the Indians brass makes it sound, Carlos Carrasco will once again get a chance to make the team as a starter. In his third attempt at becoming a regular member of the Tribe rotation, Carrasco again failed with his control and just could not be counted on. He still has that tantalizing arm and throws so hard that you think he can right the ship. But after his July 6th debacle where the Tigers torched him for seven runs on 10 hits in three and a third, the Indians shipped him back to Columbus. He would return in August as a reliever, a spot that suited him well. In 13.2 relief innings in he allowed just two earned run. I know the Indians see his arm as better for the rotation, but how many failed starters have turned into great late inning relievers? I think Carrasco, who is out of options next year, would be perfect in the pen in 2014, especially considering they could lose Joe Smith and Matt Albers to free agency, plus the expected departure of closer Chris Perez.

It will be very interesting to see which route Antonetti takes to fill out the 2014 rotation after Masterson, Salazar, Kluber, and McAllister. You can never have enough starting pitching options. I would love to see Kazmir back, but it will only take one team who is willing to over pay him to send him out of town. They would love it if Bauer could be the guy, but I have a bad feeling he won’t be ready. I would expect that a veteran will be added to compete with Bauer and Carrasco for that final spot and when I say veteran, I wouldn’t expect a big name, more along the lines of last year’s class of one-year guys like Francisco Liriano (home run for the Pirates) or Myers (swing and a miss for the Indians).

  • Harv 21

    If the Tribe FO wants to go for cutting edge success, the best move might be to make Mickey Calloway a long-time offer he cannot refuse. Obviously, Francona has to approve and they probably don’t yet know each other well, but overpaying to tether a pitching coach like this costs a fraction of what a mistake on a FA starter. There is some precedence – Lee Mazzone in Atlanta and Dave Duncan wherever LaRussa went.

  • mgbode

    agreed (and add Mike Maddux to the list for Texas as he’s been good there and in Milwaukee before he got to Texas)

  • Kildawg

    Funny that you compare Kluber to Westbrook, since the Indians received Kluber from the Westbrook trade. I think DeRosa and Perez were also involved in that trade.

  • Kildawg

    I think Francona and Callaway have meshed well this year. Wouldn’t it be something to keep Francona as manager and Callaway as his pitching coach?

  • TNB

    I dont see why the Tribe won’t keep Ubaldo around, at least on another short term deal, possibly 2-3 years.

    The thing most people forget is that when it comes to payroll, if were signing Ubaldo to something like 8-9m, that’s only a 4m increase, which we already have off the books with Meyers being off the payroll (as well as Mega Mark), which still leaves money left over. If the FO is trying to keep the payroll similar, and not slashed, then I dont see an issue in resigning him and at least see what he can give you next year. Similar thoughts to Kazmir.

  • Steve

    Because someone will give him a four or five year deal, at more than 10 million a year.

  • dieselman

    Sure hope Kluber doesn’t become a Jake Westbrook. Guy was an overpaid slug who was never consistent for 2 games in a row. Another Shapiro disaster as Bauer appears. Ubaldo did evolve into a gem this year, and the organization needs to do everything possible to keep him. Yes, that means big $$$. That’s what happens with winning teams.

    Tragically, Shapiro and the Dolans’ penchant for sending away talent is legend. As Shapiro said last year, “Winning isn’t everything.” (WTF???) For them, maximizing profits is everything. “F” the fans and the city. Keep putting out a marginal product that serves as a minor league tuneup for quality players for the real teams that go to the post-season consistently, win pennants and World Series. Tigers, Red Sox, Cardinals, Rays and others. Getting tired of hearing the same tired lyrics of this sad song in C-land.

  • Jason Hurley

    Same goes for Kazmir. The Tribe could offer 2/$16, but someone else will offter 3/$21 or 4/$25ish deals that guarantee him more security. Given his roller coaster ride, he’s going to try to wring as much from this opportunity as possible, as he should.

  • csantana41camfrommaine

    I hope masterson is resigned .. offer ubaldo qualifying offer if he declines option. (Draft comp) id like to resign kazmir for 2 years 16 million with a club option for a 3 year, at 10-12 million, maybe it would vest if he could pitch “x” amount of games or innings?

    I would prefer a big bat signed first, or traded for first. a right handed power bat b nice. I like free agent bat of carlos beltran.
    I could c a trade with reds for phillips, but they would have to eat some contract. And will bp play 3b?

    I agree dont let calloway go. I am torn, half of me thinks asdrubal has a great 2014 free agent year, or trade him to stl. For pitching? Also im sure at all star break if lindor is ready and his value is up(cabrera) trade him then at allstar break. Wouldnt exactly be sellers just capitilizing. (@2014 allstar break)

    (Beltran could b helpful in outfield, brings big bat, veteran presance, big game veteran.)