The Diff: Reviewing Indians pitching moves this offseason

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. On Friday, I wrote about the Cavs’ terrible offense (except for when they play the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, apparently). Today, I’m writing about the many offseason transactions involving pitchers for the the Cleveland Indians.

The Diff

Entering this offseason, it appeared the Indians were in a lot of trouble with their pitching. In 2012, they were terrible, abysmal and among the worst in baseball. In 2013, everything seemingly went well. Players were healthy and reclamation projects turned into stars. Yet, the Tribe only ranked slightly better than average among AL teams with a 3.82 ERA. But then, they were set to lose players to free agency responsible for 38% of their starts and 45% of their relief appearances. Everyone knew the Indians would be busy and would need to spend money. But would they make a splash to replace the lost production? Thus far, they haven’t.

The baseball offseason, of course, is not over just yet. There remain several high-priced free agents on the board. In fact, if you recall from just one year ago, the Indians didn’t sign Michael Bourn until Feb. 11. Plenty more moves could still happen for many teams, including the future of one Cleveland starter. But as we march through into 2014 and move closer to spring training, this post will review all of the pitching staff losses and additions to date.

The losses

LHP Scott Kazmir – He was the seminal Indians story of 2013. Kazmir signed a seemingly innocuous minor league deal with a spring training invite a year ago December. He swindled that into a surprise 4.04 ERA in 29 starts and then, a two-year $22 million deal with the Oakland Athletics. That’s a lot of guaranteed money for a 29-year-old with just one solid MLB season in the last four years. It’s a bold move the Indians just weren’t willing to take. It could end up hurting them. Even FanGraphs liked the move for Oakland.

RHP Chris Perez – His Cleveland era ended with a whimper when the team non-tendered him as expected back in late October. He then signed an unknown one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers to pitch middle relief in their scraggly bullpen. Last year, the controversial displaced closer’s 4.33 ERA in 54 games was well below average for any pitcher. At 28, he still could improve, but he had to depart.

RHP Joe Smith – This one could hurt. The 29-year-old Cincinnati native averaged 71 games and a 2.42 ERA over the past three seasons. But he signed a monster three-year $15 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. The Indians were not ready to commit money to a true free agent, even one with organizational familiarity. He was a good pitcher but the Indians probably feel comfortable with their current middle relief options.

RHP Matt Albers – This one was a bit odd too. After a largely fine season with a 3.14 ERA in 56 games, the soon-to-be-31-year-old Albers walked away and signed a cheap one-year $2.25 million agreement with a team option with the Houston Astros. He was a low-leverage reliever, but an effective one. The Indians hope to replace him with other cheaper options.

Those three are confirmed to be gone. No one knows what might happen with RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, who went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 32 starts last year. For four months, he was a star. But in his previous nearly two years in Cleveland, he was one of MLB’s worst starters. After declining Cleveland’s qualifying offer worth $14.1 million for one year, he now reportedly seeks that dollar amount for multiple years. It’s possible he could return. More likely, he’ll find that money elsewhere, even though he turns 30 shortly. His future is the biggest question mark going forward in evaluating this offseason.

Yet unsigned as well is lefty reliever LHP Rich Hill. Since he turns 34 in March and had a bad 6.28 ERA in his 63 games, he’s not expected at all to return. The Indians should actually be easily able to replace his southpaw bullpen production with the players they’ve added recently.

The additions

RHP John Axford – signed as FA; $4.5M for 2014; control through 2016 – TD called this move a “calculated risk.” The signing of the new closer has been the team’s biggest pitching acquisition thus far. His deal is pretty interesting with his two additional years of team control. As an inconsistent 30-year-old, he’s a fiscally safe choice as the new ninth inning guy. The Indians are banking on a regression to his 2011 production.

LHP Josh Outman – trade from Colorado; est. $1.8M for 2014; control through 2015 — A 29-year-old reliever, he was acquired for Drew Stubbs last month. Outman’s major league stats are very platoon-heavy. Because of his MLB experience, he’s expected to be a near-lock for the 25-man roster. He’ll team up with Marc Rzepczynski as the bullpen lefties. TD liked the move as it showed the final signs of the Indians bullpen.

LHP Colt Hynes – trade from San Diego; control through 2019 – This 28-year-old still has options left, so it’s likely he’ll begin in Triple-A Columbus. He was quietly acquired for cash in late October. He posted a great 1.52 ERA in 41 combined Double-A and Triple-A games with an 11.0 K/9 last year after bad 2011 and 2012 seasons. He’s another guy and the backup for Outman/Rzepczynski.

RHP Shaun Marcum – minor league deal; ST invite – The Indians took a flier on this injury-prone former ace. This is the biggest dark horse of the lot. He’s 32 and missed the second half of last season with the Mets. In the first half, he posted a 1-10 record and 5.29 ERA. So yeah, he hasn’t been good recently. At best, he’s a Scott Kazmir-lite candidate. More likely, he’ll struggle as he has over the past few years and miss the squad.

RHP Matt Capps – minor league deal; ST invite – The Indians took a gamble on Capps in 2013, but his season was limited to six Triple-A games because of right shoulder surgery. They then quickly signed him to the same deal again for 2014. He’s a MLB veteran with a 3.52 ERA in 444 relief appearances. At only 30, he’s a great bounceback candidate.

RHP Scott Atchison – minor league deal; ST invite – This year’s Rich Hill in older, right-handed form. Atchison is a pitch-to-contact 37-year-old that has familiarity with Terry Francona. He has a 3.47 ERA in 152 MLB games over the last four years. He’s a sleeper to watch for a final big league relief role if the youngsters don’t step up.

LHP Mike Zagurski – minor league deal; ST invite – A soon-to-be 31-year-old, he pitched for the Yankees, Diamondbacks and A’s in 2013. He has struggled mightly in the majors with a 7.05 ERA in 89 games, but has a 2.88 ERA and 11.9 K/9 mark in 156 Triple-A contests. I really like his potential upside. At worst, he’s Triple-A depth.

RHP Tyler Cloyd – minor league deal; ST invite – The Indians oddly claimed Cloyd off waivers from Philadelphia on Wild Card day, DFA’d him and then signed him back to a minor league deal. He has a 5.38 ERA in 93.1 MLB innings. But he’s got a 3.39 ERA in 41 Triple-A starts. At 26, he’ll likely fight for a starting role in Columbus.

RHP Travis Banwart – minor league deal; ST invite – Signed as a free agent after Rule 5 cuts in December. An Oakland A’s farmhand, he has 488.1 career innings in Triple-A with a 4.52 ERA. He’s just a guy and turns 28 next month. His 8.6 K/9 last year is intriguing at least.

RHP J.C. Ramirez – minor league deal; ST invite – This 25-year-old struggled with a 7.50 ERA in 18 relief outings for the Phillies last year. But he’s young and has upside; he was a mere casualty of roster cuts and the Indians swooped him up. He’s likely to return to Triple-A, where he has a 4.50 ERA in just 59 career games.

Final review

Axford is the closer. Outman is nearly guaranteed for an MLB role. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Rzepczynski will all be Indians relievers. Other internal options are Vinnie Pestano, Chen-Chang Lee, Nick Hagadone, Blake Wood, Preston Guilmet, Frank Herrmann, Scott Barnes, Bryan Price and Austin Adams. Two usual starters, Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin, also could potentially have bullpen roles.

With five likely spots taken, that leaves three roles up for grabs. I’d give Pestano, Lee, Capps, Hagadone, Wood, Atchison and Zagurski the highest odds of making the club, in that order. Hynes and Adams are fun sleepers. All of these players will be competing against each other, but will have very little pressure to immediately be great. If they can merely replace the lost production of Albers and Hill, that alone could be good enough. The depth is impressive.

Which means the biggest question remains the rotation. The four locked-in starters are Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar. Carrasco, Marcum and eccentric youngster Trevor Bauer likely will get the first shots at the No. 5 role. Tomlin, Cloyd and Banwart also could theoretically compete. That’s alarmingly weak for a team hoping for another 90-win season.

The Indians rotation just doesn’t look good right now. Masterson is merely a de facto ace with mostly average production over the last four years. Kluber and McAllister have just 86 combined career MLB starts. Salazar is an exciting almost 24-year-old, but he lacks the long-term high-end pedigree for me to be completely comfortable with the seemingly lofty 2014 expectations.

As of right now, I give the Indians a C+/B- for their offseason pitching changes. With the addition of one more legitimate major league starter, they have the potential to move up to a B+. The multitude of low-risk moves have been very wise. But now, it’s time to step to the plate if the team is indeed serious about contending. Simply, they’re stuck in an unfortunate position where they have to quickly make up for their organizational development deficiencies. It’s troubling.

  • Steve

    It pretty much comes down to how many innings those first four can eat. 180 IP from all four, and this team is golden, but only Masterson can really be counted on for that. An injury bug or a string of short starts due to high pitch counts or ineffectiveness will snowball into bigger problems.

    I think Salazar-Masterson-Kluber-McAllister-Tomlin is a functional rotation for a playoff team, not great, but good enough to get you there. I even think Carrasco and Bauer still have the upside that should excite us and are the kind of depth options you want. Getting by on those 7 should produce another 90 win team with such a talented offense. But most teams use 10 SP, and if the Tribe doesn’t get some breaks in the health category, they could really struggle.

  • WFNYJacob

    Starter ERA for the five AL playoff teams in 2013:
    Detroit — 3.44
    Oakland — 3.72
    Tampa Bay — 3.81
    Boston — 3.84
    Cleveland — 3.92
    Average AL Starter ERA — 4.15

    Starter ERA for the five AL playoff teams in 2012:
    Detroit — 3.76
    Oakland — 3.80
    Yankees — 4.05
    Texas — 4.30
    Average AL Starter ERA — 4.37
    Baltimore — 4.42

    For context, Indians starters had a 5.25 ERA in 2012.

    So it’s possible to have a below league-average starter ERA and make the playoffs. The flukey lucky ’12 Orioles did that. I’m sure it’s happened many times before. But yeah, who knows.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Jake the Snake Rosen was in my head I agree with practically everything. I learned from last year that you can’t judge the Indians pitching on paper you have to see what magic Callaway can work. I like the trio of Masterson, Kluber and McAllister I just wish they had a true stud #1. If they did I’d feel better because you would then have less pressure on Salazar. You would then have Salazar, Tomlin and Bauer as your #5 which would be outstanding.

    The bullpen will have a completely different look as most bullpens do these days unless they belong to one of the top teams like St. Louis, Boston or the Dodgers. I don’t believe in Axford but I’m willing to wait and see. After that you have Allen, Shaw and Scrabble. The biggest question mark is Vinnie Pestano. Clearly the Indians need him to rediscover his former ways. The rest of the guys are just names to throw against the wall to see who sticks IMO.

  • mgbode

    More likely, he’ll struggle as he has over the past few years and miss the squad.

    Marcum as injured last offseason, pitched terribly for the Mets. If he is still hurt (likely to some degree given his accepting just a ST invite), then I agree he will likely miss the squad and start with some rehab in AAA (ala Dice-K last year).

    However, I take some offense to your dismissiveness that he has struggled over the past few years. Before 2013, he was a good pitcher. WAR ’07-’12: 1.9, 2.9,3.9,3.0,1.3. Even his lesser WAR in 2012 would have him ranked 6th in pitchers on last year’s squad (and about even with the guys ranked 4th and 5th). And, only Masterson’s season can touch what he was doing in the 3 years before that one.

  • Steve

    Right. I feel pretty good about rolling the dice on Salazar and Kluber, and that we’ll get good Masterson. I’m just worried that we might not get an average of 150 IP out of the other 4 currently-penciled-in-starters. It would have been nice to add a durable workhorse, but pitching looks to be crazy expensive this winter, so you make due where you can.

  • mgbode

    As for the rest, I am in near complete agreement. I really like how they reloaded the bullpen (though will miss Joe). But, I am very concerned with the rotation. We are pretty much relying on all the faith and good thoughts about Mickey being completely warranted at this point. I truly hope they are.

  • mgbode

    If 150IP is the threshold we need, then we might be okay. Here are the ’13 IP for the main guys (including minors):

    Masterson 193 IP
    Kluber 159 IP
    Salazar 145 IP
    McAllister 143 IP

  • Steve

    Didn’t write that well, I meant an average 150 out of the 4 non-Mastersons. And I think 450 IP is the bare minimum we will need out of those other three, I think we really need closer to that 180 mark I mentioned above.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You are a regular WAR horse ain’t ya? (See what I did there, see, see, see?)

  • CB Everett

    I feel more optimistic about our rotation, Jacob—and way more so than in any recent years. Let’s face it, going into this season, there is a lot more certainty than last. Last year, we had Masterson and McAlister as solids, then a few wildcards in Ubaldo, Carasco, and Myers (still painful to conjure that name). Kazmir was a total flyer as well. And Kluber was an afterthought (6th or 7th guy) who came to light after Myers imploded and Carrasco started throwing at people’s heads and otherwise melting down.

    The 4 of Masterson, McAlister, Kluber and Salazar are proven solids. They may lack the experience and innings under their belts–but I feel generally good about the shape of the rotation (asuming Carrasco or Bauer or Tomlin or X steps up in the 5th spot)

  • JeBron_Lames

    A-Cab to the Mets for Jonathon Niese straight up?

  • JeBron_Lames

    A-Cab to the Mets for Jonathon Niese straight up?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I think Cabrera is one of their few trade chips for the upcoming season. I don’t know enough about Niese I know he had a very good season last year but until then had he done much if anything?

  • nj0

    This is just a pet peeve of mine, but I wish it was common practice to include the league when listing ERA.

  • mgbode

    California Penal

  • Kildawg

    Still not sure why 8 bullpen slots are being assumed here since most teams go with 7 bullpen arms with 5 starters and 13 position players.

  • JeBron_Lames

    Francona likes a lot of options out of the pen. Plus, their bench players are used far more often than most teams, so instead of carrying a third-string catcher they will probably will use another bullpen arm.

    Projected bench based on last year:
    DH Giambi
    INF Aviles
    UTIL Raburn

  • The_Real_Shamrock
  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’m hoping the longer Nelson Cruz remains unsigned that maybe what happened a year ago with Bourn happens with Cruz. And yes I know the Indians signed Murphy and have Raburn but Cruz is exactly what the lineup needs.

  • markn95

    It’s worth noting that no one in the AL Central (with the exception of nowhere-to-go-but-up Minnesota) will be returning rotations stronger than what they had last year. Detroit gave up Doug Fister for a handful of magic beans, KC isn’t brining back Ervin Santana, and Chicago already lost Jake Peavy. Of course, you can argue that the Tribe losing Ubaldo AND Kazmir trumps all of that. However, we really only got good second halves from both of those pitchers, so it’s kind of like losing just “one pitcher” when you put both “halves” together. The remainder of the rotation’s output will come back in some form or another.

    There’s no doubt we have a ton of question marks behind Masty-Salazar-Kluber-McAllister. But Detroit will still be pitching Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello 2 out of every 5 days and who knows what the heck KC, Chicago, and Minnesota will be trotting out as their 3-4-5 starters?

  • nj0

    Porcello and Smyly are both pretty darn good. Tigers pitching staff is miles ahead of us imo.

  • markn95

    No question Detroit’s pitching is better than ours. I’m just saying the Tigers’ rotation isn’t what is was in 2013. They’re really going to miss Fister. Porcello always pitches well against us but that’s about it. He’s a poster child for #5 starters in MLB. Smyly had a heck of a year last year…as a relief pitcher. I’m not sure you can extrapolate his bullpen numbers across 180-200 IP. And let’s see Scherzer and Sanchez repeat their career years. And Verlander’s arm has to fall off sometime, right? 🙂

    Obviously, all of this is extreme glass half full stuff. We’ve got our issues, but we’re a lot closer in Detroit’s rear view mirror than we have been in a long, long time.

  • Ed Carroll

    Actually, last season was a dissapointment for Niese, he had some minor injuries, didn’t come close to repeating his great 2012. He’s 27, and there’s no way in HELL the Mets give up a LH SP younger than 30 for simply Asdrubal (and, the Mets already said they aren’t interested in Cabrera).

  • Ed Carroll

    The Indians should avoid Cruz. He will be a bust.

  • Ed Carroll

    Francona loves his 8-man pen.

  • Ed Carroll

    Smyly was previously a starter, only moved to the pen due to the Tiger’s SP depth.