“Tell me how do we get this thing started?”
The Indians announced their starting rotation Friday, and, well, it’s a start.
Fausto Carmona is the de facto ace of what many will label a defective starting five. The rotation is rounded out by Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot and Josh Tomlin, in no particular order and receiving no particular ovation from a skeptical fan base.
Even Tomlin sounded skeptical when told he had nailed down the fifth slot.
“I won’t believe it until I’m on that mound in Cleveland,” he said.
Tomlin’s emergence at the Major League level last year was a credit to his ability to throw strikes when so many other ailing arms could not. It was also telling of the state of the upper-level starting pitching situation in the Indians’ system, as Tomlin was completely off the radar one year ago but worked his way up when the usual suspects — injuries, ineffectiveness and the Trade Deadline — left the Tribe scrambling for help.
While the current crop of five starters is not going to do much to inspire immediate optimism in the Tribe’s chances this season, the Indians’ hope is that the scramble can be avoided and a reliable rotation can be formed by year’s end, so that a more earnest effort to contend can be launched in 2012.
For that to happen, these are five keys for the starting five, entering 2011:
1. Carmona’s command: Fausto turned in a 5.22 walks per nine innings rate in 2008 and a 5.03 mark in ’09. Last year, he got that number down to 3.08 (not quite his 2.55 total from ’07, but getting there) and that was, by and large the key to his All-Star season. (Well, the other key is that Shin-Soo Choo got hurt and the Indians didn’t really have any other All-Star candidates, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The tradeoff to get that improved command is that Carmona has had to reinvent himself, sacrificing some velocity on his sinking fastball and using his breaking ball more frequently, thereby getting less groundball outs than he did back in the day. So whereas Carmona was throwing 75 percent fastballs in ’07 (according to FanGraphs.com) and averaging them out at 93.5 mph, he threw the pitch 67.8 percent of the time and at an average velocity of 92.6 mph last year.
Back in ’07, Carmona looked like an ace-in-waiting. Now he looks more like a middle-of-the-rotation guy who, if kept mechanically correct and getting good action on the sinker and slider, can eat up innings and frequently give you a quality start. Of course, on this particular staff, he’s an ace, even if his personality isn’t necessarily a natural fit for the role.
2. Masterson’s modifications: Just when it appeared the time was ripe to give up on the Masterson-as-starter experiment, he went at least six innings and allowed two earned runs or less in five of his last six “starts” (one of which was not really a start but a seven-inning relief outing when Talbot got hurt in the first). So this brings the Indians back to square one in this process of wondering whether Masterson, a successful Red Sox reliever in another life, really can stick as a starter.
Masterson’s big body suggests durability. His heavy fastball suggests groundballs. His .324 batting average on balls in play in 2010 suggests he was the victim of some bad luck. His improvement down the stretch — brought on, he said, by the application of “checkpoints” in his delivery — suggests things are looking up.
Still, all the old warnings still apply to Masterson. The arm angle on his delivery makes him a nightmare for right-handers but a boon to lefties, who hit .290 off him last year. The Indians are right to give Masterson a long leash in this role at this stage in the contention cycle, but if the splits don’t get fixed this year, it might be time to rethink the situation.
3. Talbot’s teammates: Talbot’s pitches never met a bat they didn’t like. Even as he put together a respectable rookie season in 2010, he got swinging strikes on just 5.9 percent of his pitches, well below the league average of 8.5 percent (thanks again, FanGraphs.com). Those swinging at his pitches inside the strike zone made contact 91.6 percent of the time.
With numbers like those, it’s little wonder Talbot came back down to earth after a sizzling start to the season last year. He also battled some back issues in the second half, which didn’t help matters.
Talbot has a four-pitch mix, which allows him to maintain a certain level of unpredictability. Ultimately, though, he might be a pitch-to-contact guy who is only as good as his teammates — those picking him up at the plate and those fetching the ball in the field. The Indians undoubtedly need to be better in the latter category this year.
And now that we’ve said all that, let’s pull back the sheet and look at the gruesome scene in front of us: Carrasco has allowed six homers in 16 2/3 innings this spring.
Potentially meaningless but intriguing all the same, those numbers bring to mind the number one concern about Carrasco, which is his ability (or, rather, inability) to keep the ball within the confines of the park on a consistent basis. If he can locate his pitches well enough to prevent the long ball, then what you have here is a 24-year-old kid with special stuff who could emerge as a viable front-end rotation option. In a solid September callup last year, he went 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA and, most impressively, a 2.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
He just can’t get hurt by the homer. Maybe he got it all out of his system in Arizona.
5. Alex’s arrival: As long as he keeps pounding the strike zone, Tomlin is a serviceable placeholder in the rotation, though his stuff doesn’t translate into him being a likely long-term answer. More likely, we’ll see former top Draft pick Alex White in this or one of the other starting slots by year’s end and perhaps by the All-Star break.
Because he arrived as the 15th overall selection in the ’09 Draft, there might be an expectation among some fans that White is an ace-type talent in the making. A more applicable expectation would be for him to emerge as a Jake Westbrook type who can give you a ton of quick innings and routinely deliver double-digit wins. While it’s a little less sexy, there is, obviously, a lot of value in that type of talent.
White proved at the Class A and Double-A levels last year that he’s capable of starting, after some confusion as to whether or not he would be groomed as a reliever. This year, he’ll try to tackle Triple-A, and there is every reason to expect him to make an impact in Cleveland sooner rather than later. And a year from now, the Indians hope to be on a similar timetable with left-hander Drew Pomeranz, the top pick from 2010 who does have more of an ace-type pedigree and made a strong impression in spring camp.
The bad news about all of the above is that the Tribe rotation is, clearly, still very much in the developmental stage, which is why the battle royale with the Royals for fourth place in the AL Central is counted on to continue this season.
But the good news is that some important strides were made last year and more could be on the horizon, particularly if guys like Nick Hagadone and Jason Knapp pan out as starters in the Minor League levels this year.
Perhaps most important, if the Indians get it right, all of the above are under contractual control through at least 2014 and, in most cases, beyond.
So, again, it’s a start.