Free agency is that annual time of year when the Indians shop the bargain aisle instead of looking for name-brand products. This tends to irk fans, who constantly want to see the Indians be big players in the free agent market rather than letting their own players walk or seeing players that used to be in Cleveland get signed to deals that seem like “we could have afforded that”. Last season’s two biggest examples, Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez, had very mixed seasons. This season, the Indians did not lose anybody of consequence to free agency and retained their only notable free agent to be, Mike Aviles, by exercising his team option for 2015.
One of the unfortunate things about free agency is that the rumor mill is rapidly turning and the hot stove is white-hot with sports takes that are enough to singe the hairs clean off your face. It’s unfortunate because the vast majority of what gets put out is nothing more than clickbait or pure, unadulterated BS fed by agents, “sources”, or whomever else to generate buzz about a player or turn a one-horse race into a trumped-up bidding war.
It didn’t take long for one of those fantastic suggestions from an out-of-touch national MLB writer to pop up about our beloved Cleveland Indians. Jon Heyman took it upon himself to say that the Cleveland Indians, who are reportedly looking for starting pitching depth (like 29 other teams), would make sense for Ubaldo Jimenez. Yes, that same Ubaldo Jimenez that got a four-year, $50MM contract from the Baltimore Orioles to post the league’s worst BB/9 among pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched. Jimenez walked 13.9 percent of the batters he faced, posted the ninth-worst ERA, 12th-worst FIP, and eighth-worst SIERA of 128 pitchers with at least 120 innings worked. A lot of Indians fans want a mulligan for expressing their opinions on the Indians allowing Jimenez to leave.
To put into perspective how downright absurd Heyman’s assertion is, let’s cite the outstanding August Fagerstrom of Fangraphs. In two tweets last week, Fagerstrom discussed the value of the projected Indians starting rotation for next season. First, Fagerstrom noted that the projected combined salary for the rotation – Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and TJ House – is $4.1M, using arbitration projections from MLBTradeRumors. That group of five starters is projected by Fangraphs to be worth 11 wins above replacement player. Using the widely-regarded estimate of $/WAR, the Indians are projected to get $60MM in surplus value from their starting rotation. Ubaldo Jimenez will make $12.25M in year two of his four-year contract, that pays him $13M in 2014 and $13.5M in 2015.
The Indians also have replacement-level, or at least close to it, depth in Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin, though Tomlin could be a non-tender candidate after failing to hold down a rotation spot last season. McAllister could even be better than replacement-level if he can harness his fastball and command it better in the zone.
It’s clear that Heyman didn’t think through his suggestion that the Indians would be a fit for Jimenez. Either that or he was fed some misinformation by somebody. But, this should stand as an example that any starting pitcher that would require a guaranteed Major League deal for money of any kind of significance will not be a Cleveland Indian next season. The Indians will do what they always do in seeking out starting pitching depth via minor league deals.
No-risk, varying reward minor league deals have been status quo for the Indians for quite some time. Scott Kazmir was signed via that route. So was Jason Giambi. So was Ryan Raburn. The Indians turned Austin Kearns into Zach McAllister from signing him to a minor league deal. The same was done with Nyjer Morgan, who provided some value prior to a sprained knee and another setback. More often than not, these don’t work out, like Johnny Damon, David Aardsma, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the like. Aaron Harang was a minor league signing prior to the 2014 season. He didn’t make the rotation out of Spring Training and wound up being an integral part of the Atlanta Braves rotation.
The Indians could use depth, just like every other team in the Major Leagues. However, finding affordable depth in the free agent market that is an upgrade over the current projected rotation seems incredibly difficult. Beginning with a look at TJ House, who pitched a lot better than most people realize, the back-end of the Indians rotation is in very capable hands. Did you know that among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched last season House ranked 48th out of 149 in ERA, 68th in FIP, 31st in BB/9, second in inducing ground balls, and 35th in K/BB ratio, ahead of guys like Adam Wainwright, Anibal Sanchez, Scott Kazmir, Alex Cobb, and National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom. Depending on how Terry Francona and Mickey Callaway want to break up the righties, House is currently projected to be the team’s fifth starter. Understand that most fifth starters, and most fourth starters even, are generally below replacement-level. Steamer projections aren’t all that high on House, but an improved infield defense will make a difference.
Trevor Bauer showed flashes of brilliance last season. As bad as it seemed at times for Bauer, the big picture is not indicative of the strides that he made. Sure, he had a below average ERA, FIP, and walk rate. He also regained velocity, had an above average chase rate, and showed an impressive display of maturity on the mound. It’s reasonable and justified to have concerns about Bauer, but the areas he needs to improve on are fairly evident. For one thing, Bauer threw a well below average percentage of first-pitch strikes at 56.4 percent. After 1-0 counts, batters posted a slash line of .299/.399/.473. After 0-1 counts, batters posted a slash line of .198/.262/.286. Hitters also hammered Bauer’s first pitch to the tune of a .390/.413/.661 slash line. Learning hitters and their tendencies and throwing better first pitches comes with age and experience. That’s not a stuff issue. It’s a consistency with command issue and Bauer, who works tirelessly every offseason, will be able to work on that.
The curious case of Danny Salazar is one of those that divides sabermetrician from old school observer. Salazar threw too many pitches down the heart of the plate and fought with his command. Neither side will dispute that. However, there are bound to be some differences of opinion about the young right-hander. For one thing, people that considered Salazar a bust or a disappointment this season are being a bit harsh about a 24-year-old that had exactly 11 Major League starts under his belt entering the season.
The velocity loss is a concern, as Salazar’s margin for error pitching up in the zone with his fastball dropped considerably from 2013 to 2014. Perhaps more than anybody, Salazar was victimized by the bad defense. High strikeout pitchers tend to have higher batting averages on balls in play (BABIP) than their more neutral, pitch-to-contact counterparts, because of sample size and various other factors. Among 29 starting pitchers with a strikeout rate of 21.5 percent or higher, one pitcher, CC Sabathia, had a higher BABIP against than Salazar. Sabathia was at .350. Salazar was at .343. The next closest was Yu Darvish at .334. As a result, Salazar wound up with a 4.25 ERA. That’s bad. But, his FIP of 3.52, xFIP of 3.45, and SIERA of 3.33 are all very good. There’s reason to hope that Salazar will be much improved in the traditional metrics if the Indians address their defensive issues this winter.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot to worry about with Corey Kluber (besides health, knock on wood), so the focus will be on Carlos Carrasco. It’s impossible to expect Carrasco to keep up the ridiculous pace he posted over his final 10 starts. Carrasco had a 1.30 ERA with a 78/11 K/BB mark. He threw 71 percent of his pitches for strikes. That’s not sustainable. However, there’s reason to believe that Carrasco’s overall improvements are for real. Among pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched, only Collin McHugh had a more valuable slider than Carrasco. Carrasco also wound up with the sixth-most valuable change-up among that same group. The velocity that he gained from pitching in the bullpen stayed with him in the starting rotation.
Pitching from the stretch out of the bullpen fixed Carrasco’s mechanics and the maturity he developed from working in medium and high-leverage situations better prepared him to face runners on base. In 2014, Carrasco held opposing batters to a .213/.254/.301 slash line. Over his entire career, batters have hit .283/.336/.407 with men on base, and that includes the excellent 2014 season, so that’s an indication of just how bad he was prior to 2014. Will Carrasco emerge as a Cy Young candidate next season? It’s a bit too early to say, but there is plenty of compelling evidence to suggest that his resurgence was not a mirage.
Any discussion about the Indians starting pitching situation would be lacking without a mention of “Magic Man” Mickey Callaway. Between Justin Masterson, at least for the 2013 season, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Carlos Carrasco, there’s a lot of evidence that Callaway can take talent and develop it. The Indians starting rotation has a lot of talent. Guys like Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and TJ House may just need a little bit of polish and a finishing touch to succeed.
The Indians don’t need to spend on pitching this offseason and they certainly don’t need to allocate money to guys like Ubaldo Jimenez, no matter what national beat writers like Jon Heyman say. There are some concerns and question marks, but it’s very refreshing to enter an offseason, and subsequently the regular season, without worrying a whole lot about the starting rotation.