Can Josh Tomlin Win the Fifth Starter Spot?


Will 2015 be Josh Tomlin’s Year to Shine?

There are several names going after the fifth spot in the Indians starting rotation this season. Shaun Marcum, Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister, and T.J. House, just to name a few. However, one player has become quite adept at the yearly ritual of determining the anchor to the Opening Day starting rotation. That player is none other than The Little Cowboy, Josh Tomlin.

Thanks partly to his small stature and more to his lack of a dominant pitching arsenal, Tomlin has never been viewed as anything more than a bit part in the Tribe’s rotation. He has routinely served as a spot starter, filling out the rotation in emergency situations for small periods of time before heading back to Triple A. This has been especially true since the end of the 2011 season.

In 2011, Tomlin made a career high 26 starts for the Indians. He turned in a respectable 4.25 ERA and just over one walk per nine innings of work. Because of his arsenal, his fastball routinely topped out in the upper 80’s, Tomlin relied heavily on his command of the strike zone. When he seemingly lost that command overnight in 2012, things began to fall apart.

Tomlin struggled through a miserable first half of the 2012 season. In 21 appearances, 16 of which were starts, Tomlin recorded a bloated 6.36 ERA and 18 home runs allowed in a little over 100 innings of work. Home Runs had been a problem for Tomlin in 2011, he allowed 24 in 165 innings, but it had become even worse. Perhaps most alarming of all was his loss of command for the strike zone. His walk rate doubled, putting him into situations he was unable to work his way out of. When things got bad for Josh Tomlin, they would always get worse.

Tomlin hit the disabled list on May 8th of that year with inflammation of soft tissue in his throwing elbow. Three months later he was undergoing Tommy John surgery, effectively ending his 2012 campaign and wiping out all of 2013, with the exception of one late season appearance.

Aug 5, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Josh Tomlin (43) reacts after giving up a three-run home run in the second inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 saw Tomlin return partially, but not entirely, to the form he had displayed in 2011. In 104 innings of work both as a starter and reliever, he produced a 4.76 ERA, a decreased walk rate of 1.2 per nine innings of work, and perhaps most impressive of all, a strike out rate of 8 per nine innings of work. Many even argued that he deserved the fifth and final starting spot out of Spring Training, but his flexibility in terms of minor league options essentially eliminated him from the beginning.

Now in 2015 Tomlin once again finds himself fighting for a spot on the Opening Day roster in the fifth spot of the rotation. The question is, can he actually win it?

Yes, he can. But, will he?

If Wednesday’s first outing of the spring is any indication, then the answer is most likely no. In two innings of work Tomlin allowed two runs to cross the plate and was once again victimized by the long ball. That’s not good for someone who is trying to prove he has overcome a certain set of issues. When those issues present themselves in the very first go around, it’s a bit of a red flag.

That said, Tomlin has plenty of time to rectify the situation and put together a strong enough showing this spring to get the attention of Terry Francona and the rest of the Indians’ coaching staff. Unfortunately, no matter how well Tomlin may once again be the victim of his own flexibility.

According to an earlier story by Indians beat writer Jordan Bastian, Tomlin still has one option remaining, as does Danny Salazar and T.J. House. Zach McAllister does not. Because of that and the financial constraints facing the Indians, McAllister probably has the inside edge to make the rotation when camp breaks, barring a disastrous spring performance.

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It’s a situation similar to the one seen last season with Carlos Carrasco. While Tomlin clearly outperformed Carrasco for the entirety of the spring, the Indians did not want to risk losing Carrasco. He made the team, Tomlin went to Triple A, and the rest was history. Because of the historical precedent, it would seem as though Tomlin is fighting a losing battle.

That said, no matter what happens this spring Josh Tomlin will get an opportunity to contribute to the Indians. Whether it is in the rotation, out of the pen, or both, Tomlin will make his way to Cleveland. What he does when he ultimately gets that opportunity will be up to him.