How Rare Is The Cleveland Indians Pitching Rotation?


There’s certainly been a lot of praise lavished on the Cleveland Indians pitching rotation since it was one of the best in baseball in the second half in 2014.

Their Cy Young month, as noted by Fangraph’s Carson Cistulli last September, Corey Kluber‘s Cy Young award, Carlos Carrasco‘s brilliant six-week stretch to end the season and second half performances by Danny Salazar and T.J. House have a lot of experts believing the Indians rotation can not only win them the AL Central, but also might be one of baseball’s best.

Not bad for a patchwork rotation.

Yes – patchwork. That’s exactly how the Indians rotation has come together. It might be one of the most uniquely crafted rotations on how it was put together, its success and the cost as well.

Consider the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. They lost in the World Series to the Phillies who were still only paying Cole Hamels pre-arbitration, but Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers and Adam Eaton all made six million and up. (Side note – how did that rotation win a title?)

Scott Kazmir, who was about ready to hit the skids as a starter, was the only pitcher on the Rays in 2008 that made over one million. James Shields, their best pitcher that year, made exactly one million. Matt Garza, Andy Sonnastine and the last time Edwin Jackson was consistent, all made under one million. Kazmir, Garza and Jackson were all brought in on trades of opportunity. Shields and Sonnastine were draft picks. Not completely crazy. But at a total cost of just south of six million and a bWAR of 14.5 is a pretty savvy rotation.

The 2015 Indians have a chance to be extremely similar.

Kluber, as we all know, was traded for Jake Westbrook and never appeared on anybody’s top prospects list. He wasn’t even a big league regular until the age of 27. The Indians traded a pitcher who was in his mid-30s, had Tommy John surgery for a Cy Young winner. Admittedly, the Indians didn’t think they were getting a guy who could contend for a Cy Young when they traded for him. But they had to have seen something in his makeup about working to get better. Mickey Callaway sure played a big role in that as well. Barring an extension, Kluber will still make just north of $500,000.

Carlos Carrasco came over in the mostly ill-fated Cliff Lee deal. After failing as a starter numerous times, was banished to the bullpen. Suddenly he figured it out and Kevin Cash convinced Terry Francona got give him another shot as a starter. He was almost better than Kluber in the final two months of the season, going 5-3 with a 1.72 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 74 innings of work. He was out of options, forced into the rotation in April and the Indians had given him several chances. It probably helped his case that after Jason Knapp and Lou Marson didn’t work out as the other parts of the trade, the front office was desperate to get something out of the trade. People still want Carrasco to prove his second half was no fluke, but he’s gone from nearly lost cause to a potential number two started. He’ll make just $2.37 mil this year.

Everybody is expecting Trevor Bauer to breakout this year. Peter Gammons is high on the entire rotation and has said numerous times he think’s Bauer will have a big 2015. Consider also that Bauer was traded for essentially Did Gregorious, a “Derek Jeter” type player according to now (surprisingly) ex-Dbacks GM Kevin Towers. Gregorious is now property of the Yankees and Arizona also shipped out setup man Bryan Shaw and one solid season of Matt Albers to Cleveland. Bauer was a first round pick with first round talent and a all-time headache to the Diamondbacks. They wanted rid of him and all his “eccentricities” and odd work routine.

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They’re loss is the Indians gain. He finally found his windup, he’s healthy, has a routine he and Callaway both like. He’s made 34 major league starts before the age of 24 and will make just $1.94 million this year. He was the third overall pick in 2011 (also the year the Indians drafted Francisco Lindor eighth overall. Not a bad draft.) How often do you have the chance to trade for the third overall pick in a draft who already made his big league debut less than a year after being drafted?

Danny Salazar may be the most “traditional” potential member of the Indians rotation. An undrafted free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2006, the Indians rostered him in 2010 when he was undergoing injuries and even Tommy John. It sure paid off  as he started the 2013 Wild Card game and even though he had to go back the minors in 2014, there are reasons to believe his performance after coming back are something we can expect to see going forward, according to Fangraphs August Fagerstrom. The 24-year-old made just the league minimum last year.

You could argue Gavin Floyd, who will be the Indians “number two starter” is a very traditional member of the Indians rotation as well. Many teams supplement their rotation with free agent signings. He’s the only member that will have never spent time in the Indians minor league system, even though the Indians didn’t draft all their rotation members. In the last 10 years when the Indians were a playoff team or competitive, they’ve had one free-agent signee member of the rotation. Kevin Millwood worked out well in 2005. Paul Byrd in 2007. Scott Kazmir in 2013. Last year they didn’t have one, so maybe the Indians track record with this sort of thing means good things for 2015.

Zach McAllister was acquired for Austin Kearns. He probably won’t be a member of the Indians rotation in 2015, at least at the outset. He could be a valuable member of the bullpen. But he’s shown enough flashes to make that a pretty good trade. The Indians have had good success picking off “average” arms from the Yankees for bats. Westbrook came to the Indians for David Justice.

Josh Tomlin was never on anybody’s radar in the minors despite being a consistent winner and will probably be depth for the Indians this year. They’ve squeezed 447.2 innings out of their 19th round pick in roughly four seasons for $2.213 million.  At the least, getting reliable depth from a 6-foot-1 right hander who barely touches 90 on every fastball is pretty nice development.

TJ House, the last member of the five-spot competition, is a 16th round pick and a 6-foot-1 soft tossing lefty. He’s not as soft tossing as Jeremy Sowers (who is?) but the word fringe appeared more on House’s scouting reports as a minor leaguer than a golf broadcast. His 3-0 1.54 ERA his 22 to one strikeout-to-walk ratio in September was extremely surprising. His 3.69 FIP suggests his rookie season might be something to look for in the future. He’ll be largely effected by the Indians defense this year as he is a ground ball pitcher. His slider generated a nice amount of swing an misses last year.

I probably rambled more than I wanted to, so to digress, the Indians rotation pieces are pretty remarkable considering their backgrounds.

1. Kluber – a 27-year-old rookie who turned into a Cy Young winner.
2. Floyd – coming off of a fractured funny bone, will be the highest paid member of the starting staff, for better or for worse.
3. Carrasco – Was a step from the Indians praying they could squeak him through waivers. Now a huge part of the 2015 rotation.
4. Bauer – A first round talent that Arizona couldn’t wait to get rid of less than a year after being picker.
5. Salazar/House/McAllister/Tomlin – Three guys who are slight of build, two Tommy John arms, three mid-round picks. A soft tossing lefty and righty. An undrafted foreign arm. Things that have to come together perfectly to fit.

In 2014 – average cost of $644,385 and a bWAR of 14.4. Not very different from the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.

Not bad for what could be considered a patchwork rotation.