Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber anchors staff with few questions

1With the gray haze of February weighing down the North Coast, and six more weeks of Winter looming thanks to that dumb ground hog in Punxsatawny, it’s hard to believe that this is the last Sunday Drive that will end without professional baseball players reporting for duty in Goodyear, Arizona.

That’s right, real Major League baseball players are about to make real news, and the Indians appear to have a team that could be newsworthy in 2015.

The offseason has been…slow.

In the past, I’ve absolutely destroyed the front office for their lack of hot stove movement when the team seemed perched to make noise with a little tinkering.

My bluster of big free agent signings and trade potential is usually met by the Biffs and Bonnies and their button down approach, (in my best I know more than you voice), “Well Jim, the Indians don’t have the money and careless spending and nobody goes to games and fantasy baseball approach and…blah…blah…blah.”

Being a fan has always been about bravado. There’s nothing about being a fan that should involve sense, especially if you are a Cleveland Indians’ fan. So let me state the following.

I’m a fairly smart guy, and I do realize the Indians have a certain amount of money to spend. I equally understand that in the metrics of baseball, players are worth a certain amount, and that the Indians’ management team are innately good at managing that number. I can also talk like Biff (or Bonnie if you’d like), and make sense.

I’m also a fan of Cleveland Indians’ baseball. I want a World Series title before I die, and I’d like to revisit history, and allow the Indians the opportunity to acquire Bobby Bonilla and Al Lieter and Kevin Brown and Moises Alou and Cliff Floyd. I’d like to win $390 million in the lottery, and spend $100 million of that aforementioned money on one player the Indians can’t afford.

I also wouldn’t mind saying all of that out loud without someone saying, “You’re an idiot, they can’t do that.”

I know.

It doesn’t mean I can’t still hope for something strange that I didn’t see coming.

Being a fan is being an idiot, and I’m pretty okay with idiocy.

That’s why this should surprise you: I’m okay with the Indians making one major move this offseason. Brandon Moss was a huge get, and while there’s only one other major-ish free agent signing to mention (in a second), I’m okay with the inactivity.

Why?

The Cleveland Indians are a good baseball team right now. Like any team, they have issues that need to be addressed, but for the first time in many, many years, this is a team that has pieces for the future, and that future starts in 2015.

There are several questions in front of the Indians that they’ll use spring training to answer, with the most critical being the starting rotation.

I know, I know, I’m about to get “Biff’ed.”

“Jim, you idiot, Corey Kluber won the Cy Young last year. Carlos Carrasco was as good as Kluber down the stretch. Trevor Bauer began to look like the prospect many thought he’d be when they traded for him. Gavin Floyd was signed. T.J. House was way better than we thought, and Danny Salazar, the most talented of the bunch, is the sixth guy I mentioned in this diatribe! I STILL HAVEN’T MENTIONED MCALLISTER OR TOMLIN!!!”

You’d be right. So am I.

If there’s one thing 2013 and 2014 taught me, what’s down on paper in February is rarely what we end up with.

So let’s get driving, because this rotation is a lot of fun to ponder…

Gavin Floyd vs. Zach McAllister vs. Danny Salazar vs. T.J. House vs. Josh Tomlin

This is a battle that could define the entire 2015 season for your Cleveland Indians, but it’s not likely a battle that will end on April 6th when the Indians break camp against the Houston Astros in Texas.

One of the biggest misconceptions regarding THIS Cleveland Indians’ team is that there is an actual “battle” of sorts to win and hold a spot in Terry Francona‘s rotation. Yes, the #Indians will likely head to Minute Maid Park with a five-man rotation “in place.” There are always multiple variables that are at play past that opening day roster. Take into account that the Indians have an off day on April 7th and April 13th, and there’s play there should an injury occur, or should Francona want to play around with the rotation early, as he tends to do in the initial part of the season.

Take a look at what happened in the 2013 season, as the Indians turned a group of rag-tag starters into one of the better rotations in baseball by year’s end. No, the 2015 rotation is nothing like the 2013 rotation on paper, but the same principles will likely apply to the #4 and $5 slots as the season progresses.

When asked about the competition between his starters in 2013, Terry Francona said, “These things often take care of themselves,” referring to the unknown sometimes opening up spots for players that have earned it. The only guarantees in that 2013 rotation were Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and believe it or not, Brett Myers. Fighting for the final two spots were a rag-tag group of minor league invites (Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka), untested prospects (Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber) and some minor league hands who had yet to firmly grasp the brass ring (Zach McAllister, David Huff and Carlos Carrasco).

While each pitcher’s claim to the 25-man roster had merit as March came to a close, McAllister and Kazmir were named official members of the Indians rotation. That’s when Francona’s quote began to feel prophetic.

Kazmir didn’t break camp with the Indians because of a strained abdominal muscle. Enter Trevor Bauer.

Carrasco opened the season serving a suspension from the 2011 season, stunk against the Yankees, beaned Kevin Youkilis, was sent down to Columbus after the game, and was ultimately suspended again. Enter Corey Kluber.

Brett Myers sucked, and long-term injuries to Zach McAllister (most of June and July), Corey Kluber (most of August) and Justin Masterson (most of September), combined that with the ups-and-downs of Jimenez (enter Danny Salazar), left the Indians with hole-after-hole that needed filled through the entire season.

April was a mess of injury and struggle, but the rotation slowly began to grow and take shape out of that Spring carnage,

In hindsight, it was clear that Francona wasn’t really looking at a five-man rotation coming out of spring training. While the dominoes continued to fall on a weekly basis, but replacements, including a rising Danny Salazar, lifted the Indians all season long. Nine starters made an appearance that year, with six of those starters making at least ten starts.

While the 2014 season looked different with regards to the top three arms, the end result was much the same as the 2013 season, as the Indians had eight pitchers who started a game, with all eight of those starters making at least 14 starts on the season. 

Francona and pitching coach-extraordinaire Mickey Callaway clearly have the mindset that they are building a rotation that goes far beyond the five guys that are sitting in the Major League dugout at any given time.

I don’t think 2015 will be any different, and for good reason. Obviously, with Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber anchoring whatever begins to takes shape starting next week, things are much more stable then they’ve been, are things every really stable?

You know what they say, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray,” and while I’d rather not ponder what could happen in 2015, I rest assured that Tito and Callaway will do just that.

Who will be the top five starters on opening day? Kluber is clearly perched as the ace in this rotation as long as his arm is sound, and Carlos Carrasco did his best Kluber impression over the final two months of the season. Trevor Bauer is out of options, and his growing consistency is tantalizing, especially considering that his upside could be as high (or higher) as anyone else’s in the entire organization.

Past the returning three, Chris Antonetti indicated that Gavin Floyd would be a “part of the starting rotation.” It’s clear that the Indians’ GM had to make some concessions to Floyd to get him to sign his incentive-laden deal here in Cleveland. Floyd’s deal is worth $4 million in base, but could be worth upwards of $10 million, should he return to the form he showcased prior to his injury issues over the past two seasons.

Take that for what it’s worth. In a piece I wrote on Christmas Eve, I noted Gavin Floyd’s potential, should he be healthy. His signing has been overlooked, but if he pans out, this rotation immediately becomes better for it, and that’s really saying a lot, considering some of the other candidates that the Indians can turn to as the year progresses.

So why is Floyd in the competition conversation?

Simple…he’s broken camp healthy over the past two years, but hasn’t finished either season. No, the injuries aren’t related in that domino-effect way that our minds always click into, but when does age create it’s own domino puzzle? At age 32, has Floyd reached that point where he just can’t stay healthy because of years-and-years of using his arm in ways the human body isn’t used to?

If he’s healthy, he’s in. If he’s not, the Tribe only spent $4 million on a pretty good gamble, and the competition will continue.

The top two candidates for the last spot are likely Danny Salazar and T.J. House, who both made pretty strong cases for themselves over the past two seasons. EHC’s Michael Hattery grabbed the site flag for Salazar earlier this offseason, and one quote from that piece really stood out to me,

“The average velocity has remained somewhere north of holy crap. This guy can chuck.”

I want to be clear on this: on the mound, Danny Salazar is special. He’s a guy that has really good control, and can touch 100 MPH.

Special.

His change-up by itself is pretty scary. Mixing it up in between god-like lasers make it a Halloween special all by itself.

The concern with Danny has always been the third pitch, that mythical slider that he’s been throwing, without much improvement, since debuting 1 1/2 years ago. Professional hitters can sit on his fastball or change, knowing they are going to get a decent dose of both, without worrying about his average or below slider.

While it’s laughable to consider him a reliever, and I’ll get to that in a second, it’s a concern right now. With the “2 1/2” pitches that Mike outlined in his piece, Salazar is pretty damn good. With that other half?

Salazar is a Cy Young contender.

I repeat…Salazar is a Cy Young contender.

I know what you’re saying, “Jim, shut the hell up. He’s just not there yet.” I get it. We live in the land of “not looking ahead.” I just don’t live that way.

Here’s what I know. Danny Salazar’s off-season program has been a mess for years, and I want to temper the term “mess” by saying that it was a controlled mess as the Indians front office was dealing with a hard-throwing youngster coming off Tommy John surgery.

In other words, Cleveland has pampered Salazar to keep him healthy, and that continued into last season, which truly hampered his development. I talked with Scott Erickson about Salazar back in 2012 when he was his pitching coach in Carolina, and he implicitly stated that the Indians were going to “keep it simple” with Salazar to keep his arm healthy. In other words, the slider was going to take a backseat.

Francona and Antonetti have intimated that this year would be different for Salazar based on how ill-prepared he was last year. Callaway has visited with Salazar multiple times this offseason, according to reports, and it’s clear that they are working on his secondary offerings.

Remember when Callaway did that with Ubaldo? Remember when Callaway did that with Corey Kluber? Remember when Callaway did that with Carrasco? I must also include Ruben Niebla here as well, who has been a pretty important piece to the development of all three of these pitchers, and Salazar as well.

Salazar is Callaway’s pet project this offseason, and while I don’t know that we’ll see the immediate repercussions of this in April, we could see a whole new pitcher come May or June. With Ruben Niebla in place as the Minor League pitching coordinator, and former Indians pitching coordinator Carl Willis in Columbus, I have no worries about Salazar finally taking that final step.

Think about this: Ubaldo and Carrasco, two notorious head-cases, took time to find Callaway’s tinkering repetitive, but under his tutelage, they ultimately were nearly unhittable. Kluber was something different. As I noted in a recent Sunday Drive, Kluber had one session with Niebla and Callaway, and it clicked. Salazar, according to everyone I’ve talked to, is more Kluber than Ubaldo and Carrasco with regards to make-up.

That’s why I’m high on him this year, even if it isn’t in April.

It’s been noted by a few sources that it might be a good idea to move Salazar to the bullpen in the same manner that they did with Carlos Carrasco last year. I’m not opposed to it as a short-term solution, but at the same time, we are nowhere near needing to do it. Carrasco’s move was a last resort. He spent years struggling both with stuff, and make-up, and options were running out.

Salazar isn’t there yet. Does he need to mature? Yes. Does he need to improve? Yes. Are his numbers mostly good? Yes. He isn’t Carlos Carrasco yet. The organizational preference now is to keep him starting baseball games.

I ask you this: Does it make sense to have a guy they’ve pampered over the past five seasons play bullpen pinball? You only move him to the pen if it’s a full-time move. This is a guy that needs a regular season of starting. He needs a full spring training, which he’s never really had, and a full year of starts past that.

I consider T.J. House the early favorite to earn the fifth slot in the rotation. Michael Hattery has a piece coming out in the next day or two that will showcase House as not just a lefty, but a really good pitcher.

I’ve been preaching the doctrine of House since he came to Carolina after two middling seasons in Kinston literally looking like a different person.

Something clicked, and so did his pitching. He’s improved every year since.

According to Hattery, not only does House have better stuff than you think, but he’s built to win in Progressive Field.

When you mesh in his make-up, you have the makings of a rotation-anchor for years to come. He’ll never be the ace of a staff, but he’ll be that innings eater that teams take for granted.

I could spend hours talking about House, and I will at some point, but for today, I’m going to defer to Mike’s piece, which is queued up and ready for your perusal in a day or two.

Zach McAllister isn’t the best candidate for the fifth slot, nor is he the most talented, but he certainly shouldn’t be scoffed at. In December, I talked about McAllister’s potential role in 2015, and while he’ll be knocking on the door of the rotation in March, I think we’ll eventually see a shift to the bullpen as we roll into April.

The Indians’ biggest concern this offseason was their bullpen, and while they’ve addressed it with some subtle moves, there’s been nothing major to report as of yet.

It’s February 8th.

This isn’t to say Antonetti won’t ultimately make a move in the next week, or even after the rosters of other teams start to take shape, but I do believe there are other plans in the works for the pen, and that will probably start with #ZMac.

No, I’m not saying he couldn’t start.

No, I’m not saying he isn’t talented.

Like Carrasco before him, McAllister is quite literally out of options, and like Carrasco, he’ll no doubt attract attention, should the front office designate him for assignment.

They won’t.

McAllister will “battle” for the fifth spot, and should something major happen to anyone ahead of him, he’ll have a shot at it. Who knows, with his added velocity, he really could outpitch his competition. He’s done it in small stretches in the past, and I just can’t get this “Cliff Lee” feeling out of my head.

Could McAllister take a step into the rotation, and become something greater than the sum of the parts, like Lee before him? I do think so. I really do. It’s part gut, part 2013 and 2014 glimpses, and part “where the hell did 98 come from?”

Of course, he pushed 98 while coming out of the pen late in September, and as I noted in that December piece, he was really good there. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but with ZMac running out of options, he has more of a chance to be Carrasco in 2015 than Danny Salazar.

What I like the most about McAllister is that he has great make-up. This is a guy that can move from pen-to-rotation, can pitch long-and-short, and could be really good at it.

I suspect when you talk about “glue” on a roster, ZMac will be that, but I really thing his starts will be less than 10. If it’s more, one of two things happened:

1. He continues his late September velocity spike and is so good, they can’t do a thing about it…

or…

2. Injury mayhem occurs in front of him, and I don’t want to talk abou that.

Josh Tomlin is an option, but if we’re to be honest, an option that means the season isn’t going well at all. Thee are teams that need Josh Tomlin, but they aren’t contending teams. Tomlin is a really nice placeholder. In the best of times, he can log good innings, and not be horrible at it.

There’s just so much talent on this team as we speak, that Tomlin really doesn’t fit in. My best guess is that he gets DFA’ed, and ends up in Columbus.

There are some other guys to watch this offseason, starting with Shaun Marcum, and including Cody Anderson, Ryan Merritt, Michael Roth and Charles Brewer. When I talk minors in the coming weeks, I’ll look at a few of these guys, because there really is some talent there.

Most are “down the road” guys though.

Then there’s Marcum, who really could make some noise this year. It’s not likely, but he appears to be healthy for the first time in two years, and while I wouldn’t expect Kazmir, he was a pretty good major league pitcher.

I like underdogs, and Marcum fits that bill this year. I’d love for him to earn his way into our thinking over the next six weeks.

In all likelihood, we’ll see eight starters this year, and all will have a significant impact on the Indians’ playoff implications. So look at spring training in the same manner that you look at the primary season during the presidential election. These guys will go after each other trying to earn the 2015 rotation nomination.

They’ll hate each other while shaking hands.

They’ll talk kindly about each other to the cameras, while doing everything they can to promote how good they can be, and how bad the others are.

But once that nomination is picked, this will be a group of nine or ten pitchers that collectively could take the Indians to an election day victory.

Yeah, that’s a metaphor.

You can figure out what the metaphor is…right?

10 days ’til pitchers and catchers report…roll that around a few times.

***I’m proud to write here at #EHC, and in the coming weeks, this site will have a sunrise of sorts. Two months ago, I reached out to a variety of friends to become a part of the future of this site. I hoped that two or three of the ten guys I contacted would respond with a yes. They all did, within minutes.

While there have been bumps in the road that I didn’t foresee since then, none of those bumps thwarted the resolve of any of the writers you will see here in the coming days, weeks, months and years.

My biggest desire as an editor and writer was to have a place to write relevant thoughts, and a place to talk sports with a group of friends, to hear and to value their opinions, whether I agree with them or not.

That’s EHC.

It’s a family of writers that bleed Cleveland, and Ohio to some extent. We all come from different places, and all have different ideas and beliefs, but that’s what talking sports, or TV, or movies or politics, or favorite colleges is all about.

That’s what EHC is all about.

I have NO CLUE what this site will be a year from now, but it will be here, and it will be as relevant as you, the reader, make it.

Call us the Zach McAllister of the Cleveland blogosphere…here to fill in the cracks with solid writing, solid opinions…and good friends.

I’ve always said that we aspired to be your favorite watering hole, where we all can be Cliff Clavin for a day. So come on by and have a seat, won’t you?

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