Cleveland Indians: Fifth Starter Questions Likely to Linger Into 2016


There’s no answer in sight for the Indians fifth starter spot

Zach Meisel had a good analysis in the Plain Dealer the other day about how badly the Cleveland Indians various fifth starters have hindered them this season. Even though it has been an obvious problem all year, it was striking how bad it has been. If the fifth starters were excluded, the Indians would have the second best rotation by ERA in the American League. The fifth starters knock them down to sixth.

Now, obviously, every team’s fifth starters hurt the team’s stats – that’s why they’re the fifth starter, after all. And the idea that the team would be in contention if they had a decent fifth starter doesn’t hold water, because the Indians actually have a better record in games started by fifth starters (9-14) than in games started by Corey Kluber (9-16). Nevertheless, it seems apparent that this is an area that needs to be upgraded.

The problem is how to go about it. There are holes in center field, right field, and at first base, and the limited free agent dollars available would seemingly be exhausted filling those. Trading a core player, let alone one of the first four starters, would simply open another hole.

A trade of Carlos Santana for a pitcher may work, assuming other teams think Santana is salvageable enough to justify trading a decent pitcher for him. Perhaps the best option is Jose Ramirez, who has possibly hit enough in August to make another team consider him as a viable starting shortstop for 2016.  There are, after all, only seven shortstops in all of MLB with OPSs above .700, so Ramirez’ offense doesn’t need to improve a whole lot for him to be considered an asset, given his strong defense.  He is still only 22, making it reasonable to assume to that he will continue to develop. With Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor seemingly entrenched at the middle infield positions, it makes more sense to trade Ramirez for a pitcher or hitter who can contribute on a regular basis than to relegate him to a utility role.

Apr 12, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher T.J. House (58) delivers in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s assume, though, that whatever trade or free agent assets the Indians have are all used to add offense.  It’s a reasonable assumption, given the number of holes. That means that next year’s fifth starter will come from the guys we know and love in 2015. The viable candidates at this point would be Zach McAllister, Josh Tomlin, Cody Anderson, and T.J. House. Given his performance at Columbus this season, you could include Toru Murata as well, but given his peripheral stats (fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings at Columbus), age (thirty), and performance prior to this year, it seems unlikely that he will go to spring training with any more than an outside shot at a roster spot.

McAllister and Tomlin are sort of in the same boat – each has shown flashes of excellence as a starter over the past few seasons, but neither seems to have the stuff to sustain a high level of performance for a prolonged period. It is possible that McAllister, who has been effective this year as a reliever, could be following the same path as Carlos Carrasco, who needed a stint in the pen to find himself as a starter.

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But it still doesn’t seem like McAllister has developed a secondary pitch that would make his fastball work more than one time through the order. Tomlin is what he is – his command needs to be spot on for him to be effective because none of his pitches will ever be dominant. If nobody is acquired from outside the organization, he may be the best choice. At his best he gets you to the eighth inning in position to win. If he can do that in half his starts, and do enough in his other starts to avoid blowing up the bullpen, that would be better than most teams get from their fifth starter.

It’s hard to know what to think about Anderson and House. House never did enough in the minors to make me believe his 2014 wasn’t a fluke and the way Anderson’s progress stalled at Akron had me down on him as well before he came to Cleveland. Both have had recent success at the major league level but then regressed, and both are currently hurt. Were their recent struggles due to their injuries or simply a matter of hitters figuring them out?

Neither has ever put up big strikeout numbers, which tells me that (like Tomlin) they need to have command of multiple pitches to be effective. At this point in their careers I would look at both of these guys as “sixth” starters, guys who can be effective starting once a month or so but get exposed if they get used more than that. Both are young enough that they can develop into something more, but I would let them prove it in spring training or at Columbus before I counted on them.

Next: Three pitchers between Kluber and the Cy Young