Is there hope for the Indians' starting rotation?

Trevor Bauer - David Banks

A weak defense and an almost-certain drop-off in strikeouts is going to be tough to survive.

After five years wandering in the desert, the Indians looked like they might have the start of another Central Division dynasty in 2013, winning 92 games and one of the American League's two wild cards. Though they finished a game back of the Tigers, Cleveland has Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourn wrapped up through 2017. Michael Brantley is around through 2016, Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber are years away from arbitration, and Francisco Lindor could take over for Asdrubal Cabrera as soon as next year.

The club's biggest deficiency, as it was in 2012 when they lost 94 games, is pitching. With Ubaldo Jimenez in the wind and Scott Kazmir lost to Oakland, the question for the Indians going forward was how they would replace two-fifths of their rotation. The answer, as it turned out, was that they wouldn't.

As I've argued elsewhere, the bulk of the Indians' resurgence in 2013 can be traced to a pitching staff that struck out 300 more batters than they had the year before, a 30-percent jump that took them from 14th in a 14-team American League to 2nd in a 15-team league. In 2012, the Indians pitchers punched out 17.3 percent of batters they faced, as opposed to 22.4 percent last year. About two-thirds of that increase was because of the improvement of Jimenez and Kazmir essentially replaced Derek Lowe and Josh Tomlin.

Name

2012 Starts

2012 Ks

2012 fWAR

2013 Starts

2013 Ks

2013 fWAR

U. Jimenez

31

143

0.1

32

194

3.2

D. Lowe

21

45

0.6

J. Tomlin

16

56

-0.1

S. Kazmir

29

162

2.5

Totals

68

244

0.6

61

356

5.7

Now, the comebacks of Jimenez and Kazmir were both hugely unexpected boons to the Indians' staff last year, and relying on either of them to repeat their strong performances going forward would almost certainly have been an act of misplaced faith. In fact, projection system Steamer expects Kazmir to hold his value and Jimenez to take a slight step back, while PECOTA sees the reverse playing out, with Kazmir declining. That doesn't, however, minimize the pair's accomplishments in 2013, and the amount of production that general manager Chris Antonetti has to replace.

Absent any other improvements by Michael Bourn or Lonnie Chisenhall, or employing designated hitters who can actually hit instead of a superannuated Jason Giambi, the Indians need to find some way to get those strikeouts back, because lord knows a defense that is a year older isn't likely to improve much over last year's effort. Is that even possible, especially since they seem to have been priced out of the Jimenez and Ervin Santana discussions?

More from the Indians experts at Let's go Tribe: Bronson Arroyo another option for Tribe rotation?Top 100 Indians

We can try to answer that question. First, let's stipulate that the following is all quite rough. You don't want to do a lot of math and I don't want to do a lot of math. All we're trying to do is see if the Indians, as currently constructed, can get within striking distance of the 879 batters their rotation struck out last year. If this is going to happen, it's going to take full healthy seasons from Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Zach McAllister, so let's make the unlikely assumption they all make 30 starts (that's an extra each six for Kluber and McAllister, and 20 for Salazar) and maintain their strong strikeout rates. Keep in mind we've already escaped the boundaries of reality: No team had more than three starters make 30 or more starts in 2013, and teams had all five starters hold up for at least 30 starts just twice in the last five years (the 2012 Giants and Reds).

Name

2013 Starts

2013 Ks

Proj 2014 Starts

Proj 2014 Ks

Difference

Kluber

24

136

30

170

+34

Salazar

10

65

30

195

+130

McAllister

24

101

30

126

+25

Well good. That gets us more than halfway to what the Indians have lost just by having those pitchers active and dealing for all of 2014, though it's worth noting that those numbers outperform both the more robust and scientific Steamer and PECOTA projections.

Those three and the frustratingly inconsistent Justin Masterson, however, make up four-fifths of the Indians rotation, so we have only one slot left to play with. In a best-case scenario, that leaves the Indians' rotation still roughly 175-200 strikeouts short of where they were last year. To provide some frame of reference, only 12 AL pitchers, one of whom was Jimenez, fanned 175 or more batters in 2014. It's hard to see how the Indians are going to get more than half of that out of some combination of Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Shaun Marcum, and Trevor Bauer.

While 100 strikeouts may not seem like a lot, that's actually almost four full games of extra outs their fielders don't have to make.

Justin Masterson (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Of the four current possibilities for the rotation, the best bet to take the necessary step forward is probably Bauer, the former number-three overall pick in the amateur draft, #9 overall prospect (according to Baseball America), and the prize of the three-way Shin-Soo Choo deal last offseason. Bauer has long had the physical tools to perform at a high level, but has not, according to his former clubs, been willing or able to make the physical and mental adjustments necessary to pitch in the majors. Last year was nothing short of a disaster for the 23-year old righty, as he walked more than 13 percent of the batters he faced at Triple-A (the International League average was just under nine percent), and 16 batters in 17 innings in the majors. In limited exposure, he's walked more batters than he's struck out, and batters have teed off of him.

Carrasco, too, is a former prospect with strong minor league strikeout numbers, but these haven't translated to the majors after 40 career starts. Marcum used to have the stuff to strike batters out, but his average fastball was just over 85 miles per hour last year, and he bombed out of the Mets rotation before requiring surgery on his shoulder to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome. As for Tomlin, even before he had his Tommy John Surgery, he couldn't strike anybody out.

In dealing Prince Fielder and Doug Fister, the Tigers willingly weakened themselves in the short term this offseason in spite of winning the division by the thinnest whisker last year. This gave the resurgent Indians a chance to build on their success. Instead, Cleveland seems poised to fall back to the pack again, continuing their new tradition of one good year followed by several of rebuilding. Alas, they desperately need another arm that they don't have and seemingly can't afford. It must be incredibly frustrating to be an Indians fan this offseason, and have success so close, but have the club unwilling or unable to reach out and grab it.

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