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Starters shaping up at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

Starters shaping up at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario
February 27, 2013
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The plaza is crowded here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

It appears as though the Cleveland Indians have sold out their home opener in only six minutes. I have to admit that it brings back memories of the 90’s Indians that sold out entire seasons in what seemed like minutes.

The Indians have sold out 21 straight home openers, so it’s not like this is anything new, but there was something different about this one. Over the past five seasons, the earliest any previous opening day sell out was announced was March 15th, so it’s clear that interest and demand for Indians’ tickets has increased this season.

The Tribe has clearly won the early PR battle with the fans by committing money to improving the team this offseason for the first time in several years. A case could be made the Indians did more this offseason to improve their team than at any other time in recent or distant memory.

The Dolans, Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti made the key move in bringing on board Terry Francona, and from there, this new and aggressive approach really began to take shape, on paper at least.

The fans have bought in early on, and it’s showing through ticket sales. I’ve bought in as well, but the reality is that the Indians have to show a consistency in movement now that they’ve made their big splash. Teams have spent money before, but those moves rarely guarantee anything. What’s done over the long haul of  an 162 game season, and truly, beyond, will ultimately decide the fate of this team.

It’s all on paper right now. Sure, the Indians started off 5-0 during the early part of spring training, but this team needs to show it when the games really start to count starting in Toronto on April 2nd, and most especially back in Cleveland against the vaunted New York Yankees on April 8th.

With Terry Francona at the helm, it’s hard to believe that this team can’t win, but early signs are that Indians’ fans are buying into team that’s been rebuilt over the past several months.

Have faith in Francona, who seems to have this “Zen-ness” about him with the team and its fans right now. Have faith in the staff, who truly might be one of the best, if not THE best in the league. Have faith in the players that were brought in, who all have a solid track record.

The long-term questions lie with the front office an ownership.

Did the Indians go “all-in” this offseason, but leave themselves without the ability to tinker and fix, should they need to? Remember, this team has needed tinkered and fixed before, and there seemed to be moderate to severe issues with this with essentially the same front office intact.

There are also questions about the consistency of ownership as well.

The Indians very ably manipulated the market placed in front of them during the hot stove seasons. To continue this trend in ticket sales, they’ll have to continue to win ballgames, and continue to make moves to ensure that happens.

Justin Masterson has been named the opening day starter by Terry Francona, and this really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, since he’s the best starter this team has right now. Sure, there are a lot of questions regarding Masterson this season. In the grand scheme of things, he’s a guy that’s only had one season as a starter, and prior to that season, there were questions about whether or not he was even a starter to begin with.

With Masterson, it’s all about consistency. Can he maintain his delivery. Can he maintain his release point. Can he finish what he started? The big righty had several good starts go bad thanks to a big inning in which he had a breakdown in mechanics or mentally.

It should help having a new/old manager in town that can get into his head a bit. Mickey Callaway is also having early success with the Indians “ace.”

In Masterson’s first spring training appearance, he clearly had that consistency, just hammering the strike zone with his sinker. In two innings, he gave up five groundball outs to go along with a strikeout. That’s exactly what they need to see.

It’s distinctly possible that Masterson was pressing too much last year to replicate his previous season. It’s easy to feel like you have to be perfect with an offense that could barely score runs when he needed them. That shouldn’t be an issue this season, and a much more loose mentality may provide just the fix he needs.

This brings me to a topic I hope I don’t have to revisit all that much in 2013, and that’s Ubaldo Jimenez. Just to get it out of the way here, I don’t count on him doing all that much in the future for the Indians, or for anyone for that matter. His likely path will be as a project for whatever team signs him after the Indians.

He’s certainly turned into a project this season already.

Callaway has already been to the Dominican twice to work with the enigmatic righty. You have to wonder why he didn’t just spend the entire winter there.

Sure, you can make excuses about how many pitching coaches that Jimenez has had perhaps messing with his delivery too much, or altering his mindset. I just don’t buy it.

Callaway and Francona haven’t brought on board a mentality to “change Jimenez.” Instead, it appears as though they have asked their starter to be a bit more “aggressive in his rhythm” with regards to his approach to the plate.

His delivery is longer than it has ever been, and far less smooth than when he was throwing in the mid-90’s with regularity.

I truthfully don’t know what to make out of all of this because it almost sounds like a staff that’s saying, “Well, there’s nothing we can do here, so let’s get in his head a bit.”

There’s been a lot of talk of “building trust” and of “getting to know each other,” with regards to the pitching coach and the starter. There’s been a lot of talk about being pleased with where he is right now with regards to his approach on the mound. There’s been a lot of talk that, quite frankly, we’ve all heard before.

There is one difference though, and that’s who is saying it.

I don’t think that everything Francona says is gospel, not by any stretch. What Jimenez thinks may be a different story. Remember, Francona’s voice is one that carries with it a lot of clout. While I’m not sure perceptually what Jimenez thinks about with regards to Francona, I have to believe that when he hears THIS manager making statements about improvements in his approach, it may carry more weight than what he’s heard in the past.

Yes, there are more issues to Jimenez than just the mental part of his game, but if they can get him thinking right, perhaps everything else will fall into place.

Whatever the case, Jimenez looked decent in his first outing in the spring, ironically enough, in the same game as Masterson. If he can build some confidence and some momentum over the next month, it would be nice to see just a little of the old Jimenez in this pitching staff.

I won’t count on this, but if you squint your eyes a little and look at Masterson and Jimenez, you can see how good this team could be if they can replicate their best seasons. Truth be told, if Masterson reverts to his 2011 self, and if Jimenez reverses direction and just heads down the path back to 2010, the Indians improvement could be dramatic.

Imagine Masterson rolling out a 3.21 ERA in 33 starts, with 158 strikeouts and 65 walks on this team. He only went 12-10 that year because of shoddy run support. He won’t have that issue this year.

As far as Jimenez goes, I’m ready to let bygones-be-bygones. Expecting the 2010 Jimenez to suddenly reappear is just not in the cards, and not a realistic expectation. I just want him to be an effective starter. If he could just be a true middle-of-the rotation starter in 2013, I’d be ecstatic.

That, to me, is his ceiling at this point.

No, that’s nothing to hire a marching band over, but it does put the right kind of perspective and spin on what he is at this point.

Over the past two seasons, his WAR has been -1.4. Last year alone, it was -1.0. Fortunately for Jimenez, there weren’t any pitchers in Columbus that represented a better value than that. I’m sure Kluber’s WAR is in the neighborhood of Jimenez as well, and guys like Seddon and Huff really didn’t seem to offer up much hope of anything better than that either.

The Indians had no options.

This year could be different. I’m not sure that would be a good thing with regards to what’s happening in-season if Jimenez is relegated to a bullpen role, but I do believe that this coaching staff won’t hesitate to do something with him if he’s struggling. There will be other pretty good options at their fingertips.

I have no feel whatsoever for what Brett Myers will ultimately bring to this club on the mound. I know the metrics suggest that he won’t revert to his former starter-self with his diminishing velocity, and I also know that he’s a historical workhorse in the role of starter.

So, what are the Indians going to get?

Some suggest Derek Lowe. I don’t buy it.

I’m also not necessarily on board the 200 inning train either.

Here’s what I do know: Brett Myers wants to be a starter. He came into camp last season with the Astros as a reliever, and says he did it to help out the team, but isn’t sure why they asked him to do it. Of course, if he really wanted to know why, he wouldn’t have to go far to do it. He can just head on over to third base and ask the Indians new third base coach, Brad Mills.

Mills, of course, was Myers manager in Houston, and is the guy that moved him to the pen in the first place.

It always cracks me up listening to pro athletes talk about their past experiences, since it rarely jibes.

Mills clearly thought highly of Myers, because the Indians signed him. There’s no way that happens if they didn’t get along, and if they didn’t respect each other. Mills and former Astros catcher Kevin Cash also contacted Myers a few times during the offseason to see if he wanted to start, and to see if he was willing to come to Cleveland.

I suppose none of that matters at this point, but it’s always interesting to watch the dynamics of a team start to take shape.

Many have their opinions on Myers with regards to many things, but what shouldn’t be questioned is his competitive nature. Myers will bring some fire that perhaps Jimenez and Masterson need. He also knows how to pitch, and how to pound a strike zone, which are two things that the #1 and #2 starters need some help with.

Perhaps there’s more to this move than meets the eye.

I’ve liked Zach McAllister since the Indians acquired him in the Austin Kearns deal a few years back. I love it when a potential major league starter is picked up in a throw-away deal, and this one could turn into something bigger than initially thought.

There’s a lot about McAllister to like, and I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations about McAllister from perhaps his biggest supporter here at IBI, good friend and fellow editor Steve Orbanek.

While I’ve always believed that McAllister would make a reliable starter on this team, Orbanek believes there’s perhaps a bit more to him that we’ve seen to this point. He’s getting me to agree.

Whenever I see a starter, I like to think ceiling, taking into account both the stat-side of things, as well as the eye-ball/old-school approach. With McAllister, there are a lot of questions, but he answered a lot of that with his approach on the mound last season.

He didn’t waste any time doing it this season either.

McAllister pitched two-innings of no-hit baseball this past week, while striking out two.

Some question whether or not he’s a lock at the #4 slot in this rotation, while I say he’s not only a lock, but could possibly be more of a lock than Brett Myers. No, I don’t think that Myers is going to get released, or even moved to the bullpen. I do, however, think that McAllister could certainly be the #3 guy when it’s all said and done.

While I don’t care about rotation slots, and actually agree with the folks that say those numbers really don’t mean a thing, where they do hold merit is with regards to decisions altering the rotation, if they need to be made. McAllister could make himself into a guy that can’t be moved anywhere.

Honestly, raise your hand if you think he might be the best starter on this team right now?

So what is his ceiling?

Could you see McAllister pitch 215 innings? Could you see him win 14 games? Could you see him with an upper-3.00 or lower 4.00 ERA?

I sure could.

Hello Jake Westbrook. Hello Paul Byrd.

Certainly, he’s not those guys with regards to what he delivers on the mound, but his numbers certainly could fall in line with those guys when they were here.

If he’s the next Jake Westbrook, I’m more than satisfied.

The battle for the #5 starter should really be an intriguing one throughout spring training. Should everything shake out at the top of the rotation, Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers and Zack McAllister will be the top four in the rotation. They have their questions, but we already know what they are.

This #5 battle is what’s really interesting to me.

There are some interesting names involved at so many different spectrums of their careers, and all have the root-ability factor going for them.

None more so than Scott Kazmir, who seems to have dived into that underdog role with fervor this offseason. Kazmir hasn’t started since the beginning of 2011, and has missed, essentially, two full seasons. When he was health, he was very, very good. Then it all just went away.

Now he’s back and the gun has been looking very familiar. The velocity is returning, and with it could be an intriguing pitcher for the Indians in the #5 role. As a left-hander, Kazmir holds a ton of value, and if he’s right, he gives the Indians a boost.

He could also find himself in a relief role if the Indians can’t find room for him in the rotation. I hope they don’t, since he could provide the Indians with the starting depth they need in Columbus, should they go a different route.

I’ve never really been a Daisuke Matsuzaka fan, and I don’t buy much into his signing at all. I’m not pooh-poohing the Indians for doing it, but I do think his signing will turn out to be much ado about nothing.

I take that back.

He’ll end up in Columbus, and if he has an opt-out clause, he’ll likely take it.

Over the past three or four years, there really hasn’t been much to his career other than injuries. He pitched a lot in Japan, and while he’s only 32, his arm seems to be a bit older than that.

Then there is Carlos Carrasco.

I’m extremely bullish on Carrasco, and I could care a less about pitch-count.

I’ll let all the mouthy writers squabble about Strasburg and pitch-counts. I honestly don’t care. The Indians baseball minds will come to their own conclusions, right or wrong, and the blowhards of the bunch will hammer them for whatever they decide.

I just want him right, and I want him pitching.

He’s really, really good, and is the one guy that could be a game-changer on this rotation if he’s really back and ready to go. He’s also on the 40-man roster, so that should give him a leg up on the non-roster invitees such as Kazmir and Dice K.

Then there is Trevor Bauer, who is also on the 40-man, and who most with baseball knowledge think is a sure-fire bet to hang out in Columbus for a bit.

I happen to agree, but don’t think it’s as set in stone as some.

The Indians have been playing the dance between “not rushing him,” and “giving him a chance to win the #5 slot.” I think they are right, on both counts.

They don’t want to rush him, and they won’t, unless he rushes them, and he just might. There’s something about this kid that has me really taking note, and the irony to all of this is that it’s likely the same thing that had the Diamondbacks worried.

This kid seems to have an attitude.

You know what? Most aces do.

The best part about this battle is that it could ultimately put two or more into the rotation, depending on performance, injuries and even trades. Who is my money on?

I haven’t got a clue, but really believe the Indians want it to be Carrasco, innings-count or not.

I’ll have my A.L. Central pitching comparisons coming out this weekend, for those of you that are waiting for it. Yeah…all three of you…;)

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

Tony
February 28, 2013 - 11:11 AM EST
Unless the Indians are very desperate, I don't see Salazar being an option this season for the Indians until MAYBE as a September callup....though even that might be unlikely. He will have a monitored inning workload this season since he only throw 100 innings last season, so something around 130-150 at most.
Mike
February 28, 2013 - 10:54 AM EST
Spring optimism is great! I'm not a believer in Ubaldo either, but you never know, and while I do wish we had one pitcher who could be a reliable top of the rotation guy I am glad to see so much in the way of options as a substitute. Our projected rotation has lots of possibilities (and those could be great or stink) and, if the season starters don't perform, we have plenty of MLB ready talent eager for a shot. This is different than past years.

My pick for the seven pitchers we will mostly see this season goes Masterson, Myers, McAllister, Kasmir, Jimenez, Carrasco and Bauer. Salazar is waiting in the wings. I'm hoping for something like 675 RA from the pitching this year.
Chip
February 28, 2013 - 10:05 AM EST
I'm on the boat of McCallister being underrated. Hell, I'm as impressed with him as I am with Carrasco, and I'm a huge fan of Carrasco's. Their velocity is relatively the same, their demeanor on the bump is similar also. I think that McCallister's size and the "ease" to his game are advantages. Carrasco's change up is more advanced but McCallister's fastball has better sink. I'm excited that both are going to be pitching in Cleveland for a few years. If Kazmir can even somewhat return to form then we could be in for an exciting season. If he does pitch well, I look for them to sign him not trade him. On another note, Kluber has been dissapointing to this point. I know it's early, but I think he has the potential to be a good major league pitcher and a better 5 man than most teams have.
Tony
February 28, 2013 - 8:52 AM EST
I'm no sure the intent is to eventually trade Kazmir. That's the old way of doing things. If he pitches well, and the Indians give him a legit opportunity, I would think there would be mutual interest to keep him here on a new deal for next season. Anyhow, I too am starting to believe that Kazmir may be the favorite out of the gates and now has a strong chance of making the team if he stays healthy and continues to pitch well.
Rich
February 28, 2013 - 8:17 AM EST
If Carrasco is healthy and wins the 5th spot we could have a heck of a rotation in Columbus. Bauer, Kazmir, and Kluber would be the top three. The Tribe would have some nice depth.

But if Kazmir pitches well this spring it's more likely he starts the season because they could flip him for a prospect if he has a strong first half. Then bring up Bauer or Carrasco to take his spot.

They could also move Myers if both Bauer and Carrasco were lighting it up in Columbus. Hell, if Ubaldo has a good first half he should be moved, too.

Ideally we would trade Ubaldo, Myers and Kazmir for a haul of prospects and the second half rotation would be Masterson, Carrasco, Bauer, McAllister, and Kluber or Salazar.

That won't happen because if Ubaldo, Myers, and Kazmir all pitch well enough to bring quality prospects in a trade, the Tribe will be challenging for the division lead if not already there.
Tony
February 27, 2013 - 9:57 PM EST
Nice job JP. I really liked this piece this week.....well laid out on the starting pitching issues and potential. I agree that McAllister may be under-rated some and that Myers competitive nature could be something that rubs off on Masterson and Ubaldo. As for the fifth spot, I am very intrigued to see what happens....but believe unless injuries get in the way it will be a two-horse race between Kazmir and Carrasco.
jwahoo
February 27, 2013 - 5:45 PM EST
The one thing is. Why not sign Chris Young?

I know we have alot of those kinda guys around but why not one more? His splits of ground balls VS fly balls would really work to our advantage where we have a questionable infield and spellbinding outfield defense. Why not sign him and give him a chance to win the 5th rotation spot until Carrasco is ready to go?
Joe
February 27, 2013 - 2:57 PM EST
Great article Jim. It looks like baseball is back in town. Hopefully more sell outs are on the horizon this year. With regards to your comments about their ability to tinker and fix if needed, I think almost the opposite. The free agents and players they signed to minor league contracts is the best I have seen in several years. No Cunninghams, Damons and the like. Just about every new addition this year has had some degree of success at the major league level, and, as a result, their bench should be very strong and interchangeable. Also, there could be a need for other teams on position players we would have available. Trades to upgrade pitching, or the farm system, especially in Columbus could certainly be in play.I really like the makeup of this team this year, and, I have said before, the pitching just might surprise a lot of people.

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