We are all excited about the performance of the Indians’ rotation over the last month or so, and rightly so. This has been one of the best sustained performances in years, with all five members of the rotation contributing excellent outings.
It is easy to look at what has happened and convince oneself that the rotation is set for next year, or at least that the first four spots can be ceded to Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar, with T.J. House, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin competing for the fifth spot. With this kind of depth, one would be excused for feeling that free agent dollars and trade assets can be concentrated on improving the offense.
This would be a mistake. One need only go back to July to find a time when the state of the rotation was so wretched that it was impossible to project the starting pitcher more than a game or two ahead. Justin Masterson had imploded and was about to be traded, McAllister was hurt and ineffective when he could pitch, Salazar was in the minors, Carrasco in the bullpen, seemingly for good. Nobody even knew who House was. All we could think about was how nice it would have been to hang on to Aaron Harang.
The point is that the Indians would be foolish to base their plans for next year totally on the results of one month. After all, it would take about one rough week and we would all be complaining again. Keep in mind that if we had had this conversation in May, we would have assumed that Tomlin would be in the rotation forever. In April McAllister was the best pitcher on the staff. Now both seem likely to open next season in Columbus or the bullpen.
Fans are allowed to have kneejerk reaction (witness the calls this week to fire Urban Meyer), but front offices cannot. Salazar and Carrasco have a total of ten quality starts between them this year. Both have had Tommy John surgery. Bauer’s WHIP is .13 above the American League average, so anointing him as an ace is a little premature.
This is not to say that the Indians are not in a good position. They have seven guys with the potential to be solid major league pitchers, and as many as four who could be at the top of the rotation someday. Furthermore, none of the seven is currently making more than a million dollars, so next year’s entire rotation could be staffed for less than Justin Verlander will make in April. With Verlander looking human and Max Scherzer probably leaving, we could go into the first home series with the Tigers next year with pitching matchups that favor the Indians, which hasn’t been the case since C.C. Sabathia left.
Still, none of the seven pitchers we are talking about has enough of a track record that we would bet the farm on them having a great year next year, and when you have seven guys who range from very likely to be good (Kluber) to probably good (Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer) to hopefully good (everyone else) the math does not favor coming up with five guys who are solid for the entire season. Imagine, however, if the Indians had made the trade for David Price instead of the Tigers. It isn’t that silly – Price is making about what Justin Master and John Axford together were making, so he was affordable; and the worries that Tampa wouldn’t make a deal with Francisco Lindor turned out to be overbown.
Price may be out of reach now, but there will be other pitchers available this winter, either through free agency or trade, who will fit in at or near the top of the rotation, and the Indians should go after them. Between Masterson, Axford, and Asdrubel Cabrera there will be about 25 million in savings, and at least half of that will still be available after arbitration and contract extensions for current players. That would net a solid pitcher – maybe not Max Scherzer or Jon Lester, but possibly someone along the lines of Ervin Santana or (this is reaching a bit) James Shields. Santana and Shields are both in their early thirties, so there will probably be some hesitancy about a long-term deal, but if the market forces them into a two or three year deal, the Indians should take a shot. What they should not do is spend serious money on an “innings eater” like Edwin Jackson who is barely a replacement level pitcher. If the right deal is not there, try to find another Scott Kazmir on the trash heap and hold onto your money until a better opportunity arises.
One more starter will serve as insurance if one of the youngsters currently in the rotation cannot repeat the success of the past month or so, and it will enable the Indians to use the likes of House, Tomlin, and McAllister as insurance, rather than being forced to hope one of them comes through for the fifth spot. Let’s face it, the Indians’ offense has to be a little better next year, if they get anything from Swisher and Kipnis and if Carlos Santana gets above the Mendoza line before July. If you can picture a combination of the 2013 offense and the pitching we have seen for the past month, it is not outrageous to get a little giddy about the prospects for next year. Getting the right guy for the rotation would be a huge step toward making that hope a reality.