Indians Rotation Battle To Highlight Spring Training
Cleveland Indians Pitchers and Catchers are less than two weeks away from reporting to Goodyear Arizona for spring training. One of the more intriguing battles will be for the fifth rotation spot as manager Tito Francona has already stated that Corey Kluber, Gavin Floyd, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco are in the rotation. There are five viable arms in competition for the fifth spot and the staff at Wahoo’s On First discussed how each of us saw the competition ending.
This weeks Wroundtable question:
Out of those five, the one most likely to win the job would be T.J. House. He pitched better down the stretch last year than Salazar, who has the highest upside of the group, and is the only lefty. McAllister seems pegged for the pen, where his stuff ticked up in velocity and would help bolster an already good relief corps. Tomlin is a possibility, but seems unlikely at this point just in a numbers game and it’s too hard to predict Marcum for anything given his injury history.
I’m no betting man, but I think Salazar, even with the dark cloud of allegations brought on him earlier in the week, would have to have a spectacularly bad spring to not break camp as the fifth starter. Sure he was a train wreck at the beginning of 2014, but after a bus ticket to Columbus, a pat on the ass and a couple months, he settled down nicely when he returned to the big club in late July. In his last 12 starts he posted a 2.83 FIP, a 9.48 K/9 and got through about 6 innings a start. He also just turned 25 a month ago.
I do love me some T.J. House, and I think he’s probably Salazar’s biggest competition for the spot. He was even better than Danny down the stretch, but his stuff certainly isn’t as electric, which makes it harder to believe he would be able to repeat that success over a full season. Tomlin is about as average as you get, just here for organizational depth and a spot start or four. The fact that the front office brought in Gavin Floyd, a pitcher who has been just about as valuable as McAllister the past three or four years and is coming off an injury, and guaranteed him a rotation spot (maybe even as high as 2nd) means ZMac is all but destined for the pen. You can’t expect anything out of Marcum, who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since 2013.
1) Danny Salazar was excellent in his 52 IP in 2013, posting a remarkable 70 xFIP- and an extremely promising 14.6% swinging strike rate. He had a slow start to begin 2014, as all of his pitches were significantly less effective. His slider went from slightly above average to almost unusable and his split-change went from elite to bad. When he returned to the rotation in July, his slider was serviceable again and his split-change was back to the elite levels of 2013 – getting whiffs an astonishing 44% of the time that he threw the pitch (up from 27% in his first rotation stint). A lot has been said about Salazar’s need to improve his slider in order to become a full pitcher, but I’m in the camp of people that think a third pitch isn’t as big a deal when you have a very good fastball and splitter, since the splitter is usually very effective against opposite handed hitters. Salazar is easily the most exciting pitcher in the bunch, will benefit a lot from Jose Ramirez replacing Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop, and has shown an ability to get major league hitters to swing and miss when his mechanics are tight. The one thing that could keep Salazar in the minors if things are close after Spring Training is his service time – if the Indians can keep him in AAA until late June they can avoid him becoming a Super Two. That shouldn’t have a huge influence but in a tight race it could be the deciding factor.
2) T.J. House came out of nowhere in 2014, quickly becoming a reliable cog in the Tribe’s dominant second half rotation. He doesn’t get a lot of swings and misses, but his 60% ground ball rate was very promising for a team that sent Justin Masterson away at the trade deadline. It will be tough for him to replicate his 5.1% walk rate, which was easily better than any of his full seasons in the minors. Steamer projects him to regress to the league average (7.6%), which would make it difficult for him to match his 2014 overall numbers but will keep him as a valuable pitcher moving forward. House may never get to the strikeout totals Masterson reached in 2013, but he already posted a season with a lower walk rate than Masterson ever managed, so he could provide similar value overall. He may not be as exciting as Salazar, but I would be happy to have him in the rotation on opening day. To really get your imagination going, take a look at House’s 3.10 xFIP in 2014 – that’s the exact same as Corey Kluber had in 2013.
3) We may have seen the best of Josh Tomlin in 2014. While his ERA was higher than in his 165 IP in 2012 (4.76 to 4.25), he struck out 57% more batters while keeping his walk rate steady. It was great to see him able to keep his walk rate the same despite throwing fewer pitches in the zone overall, especially because it’s very dangerous for someone with Tomlin’s stuff to live in the middle of the plate. Tomlin’s 15.3% HR/FB ratio is something that you would hope would regress, but with a pitcher like him it’s easy to see him putting up a rate of 13% or more again in 2015. Unlike House, Tomlin relies heavily on fly balls, so he won’t get the same bump in fielding support from having Ramirez in the infield. He’ll instead have to hope that Bourn’s legs are feeling better and that Brantley’s fielding numbers start matching his reputation. With both House and Salazar ahead of him, he’s got a very uphill battle to get in the rotation on opening day. However, there are a lot of teams that would be pretty happy with Tomlin as a #6 or #7 starter, in particular a couple AL Central rivals who are starting the season with guys like Alfredo Simon and Hector Noesi being key members of the rotation.
4) I think at this point we’ve seen enough of Zach McAllister to know that his potential as a starter is limited. Pretty much any pitcher will become more effective when moving from the rotation to the bullpen, but McAllister may get a bigger boost than average. Last year he went from averaging about 93 mph on his fastball as a starter to throwing 96-97 as a reliever, touching 98-99 in nearly all of his relief appearances in September. Since his slider is substantially better than his changeup, he also benefits from being able to have the platoon split more often than he did as a starter. Francona’s preferred bullpen strategy (use more pitchers than anyone ever has) makes bullpen depth a key asset, so I have no problem pushing McAllister to the pen. If there are a couple concurrent injuries he may have to do some spot starts, but with the three guys above him on that list that is not a huge concern.
In terms of raw stuff, the advantage has to go to Salazar. Nobody else on that list has the velocity on the fastball, the bite on the breaking ball or the vast difference between the fastball and offspeed. If he can capture all that and put it into 200+ innings, he’d be just fantastic. Nigh unhittable even. He showed that in several great outings in the second half of the season and he obviously regained the trust of the coaching staff. That last part is the issue. He came into spring training and April not ready for the season. His pitching coach said so himself.
Meanwhile a seemingly middling lefty from nowhere showed up when the Tribe was in a pinch and showed out time and again. House busted his ass to get to the bigs and his hard work was rewarded by becoming a key piece in the rotation down the stretch. He plainly has the mental attitude to stick, it’s just whether that wake up call to Salazar will make Danny bust his ass. If he does, TJ is the odd man out. I do like having the lefty in the rotation for balance, but I’ll accept more talent most days of the week. I still think both will be fixtures in the rotation by the All-Star break though since Gavin Floyd might be the Riddler with all the question marks he’s got. McAllister is a known quantity, and that quantity is “meh”. He’s better than Tomlin too, though the Little Cowboy did find his strikeout pitch. Both could be interesting experiments in the bullpen. I thought Shaun Marcum had died in a tragic lasagna accident.
If Manny Acta was still the manager, this job hands down would have gone to Josh Tomlin. Acta loved the ‘Little Cowboy.’
I don’t think anything will be handed to Shawn Marcum, given his health uncertainty. If I had to pick now, I’d guess McAllister ends up in the bullpen as the long man and if Tomlin pitches well enough, he might earn the fifth spot, at least early on.
I don’t think Salazar or House really have anything to gain from AAA at this point, other than to serve as depth at the moment. I still think that Salazar might still be better served in the bullpen, but the Indians might have the luxury of starting him because McAllister pitched well out of the bullpen last year. Personally, I’d like to see House win the job, falling back on the left handed starter argument, and that he improved as the season wore on. The only drawback on House is that he doesn’t miss a lot of bats and relies on defense. The Indians can’t afford more bad defense this season, especially with House (or Tomlin) on the mound.
I’d like to think with all the talent shown in his time at them major league level that barring an injury the job of the fifth starter is Danny Salazar’s to lose.Both T.J. House and Josh Tomlin will report to the Indians Triple-A affiliate Columbus Clippers to anchor the staff and be the emergency starters. Zach McAllister will work out of the bullpen. If Shaun Marcum has an impressive spring training he may break camp out of the bullpen as the 8th reliever rather than letting him opt out like Aaron Harang in 2014.