Tribe Happenings: A healthy Tomlin gives the Indians options
Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…
The restoration of Tomlin
It was great to see right-hander Josh Tomlin back on the mound on Thursday night. He last appeared in a game on August 12th of last season before having his season end with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, and he looked to be in midseason form throwing two shutout innings allowing just two hits, no walks and striking out no one.
Tomlin, 28, spent most of this season rehabbing before going to the minors late in the year to pitch in games to get him back up to speed. In his 10 outings he piled up a 1.65 ERA and walked no one and racked up 21 strikeouts in 27.1 innings. He breezed through his rehab and made himself an option for the Indians down the stretch as a long reliever or spot starter – something that is of importance considering how banged up the starting rotation is and all of the workload restrictions it has endured of late.
Tomlin looked sharp and his stuff was crisp, something that was obviously lacking in his last few starts last season when he was not 100%. Most impressive has been the quick return of his command, something which generally takes two years for a pitcher when recovering from such a surgery. His fastball ranged from 87-92 MPH and he averaged 90.0 MPH on the night. But while it is nice to see the more consistent velocity out of Tomlin, what is really nice to see is that ability to command the baseball because that is his game. He specializes in pitching to both sides of the plate, changing eye levels and just being a command-control artist on the mound.
When Tomlin is healthy, he has proven to be a solid back of the rotation starter. A guy that competes and gives a team five to six strong innings almost every time out. Because of that past success and his health now fully restored, he is a possible rotation option the Indians could turn to for next season to fill a vacant rotation spot left by the possible free agent departure of both Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir this offseason. With Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister all but sure-fire locks for the rotation to start next season, the Indians have one open spot and it could go to Tomlin.
That said, I still think the Indians would prefer to keep one of Kazmir or Jimenez and then have Tomlin in the hole as their sixth starter. He has options and could open next season in Triple-A Columbus along with other rotation depth arms like Trevor Bauer and even T.J. House. Carlos Carrasco is out of options and his starting days appear to be over for now, so he is probably a favorite to open next season in the Indians bullpen as a long man or in a more high leverage role in the backend of the bullpen to take advantage of his nasty stuff.
Of course, resigning Kazmir or Jimenez could be difficult. Jimenez is adding several million to his contract with every good start down the stretch; although the Indians could make things interesting and offer him the qualifying offer (provided he declines the mutual option while the Indians chose to pick it up). By doing that they would be on the hook for him for one more year at about $14 million if he accepts it, or they would get a first round draft pick as compensation if he declines it and signs elsewhere. Kazmir might be the easier sign on a two year deal for under $10 million per season.
But with the Indians in search of significant upgrades to the offense, perhaps they just let both Kazmir and Jimenez walk and just go with Salazar and Tomlin as their rotation replacements. If they do that they would certainly throw some depth options against the wall to see what sticks by bringing in a few starters on minor league deals and stash them away in Columbus. That way they can use all available funds on a much needed bat or two.
In any case, Tomlin’s sensational rehab and strong finish has him in the mix as a rotation option for next year. He will be a first time arbitration eligible player this offseason, but should not cost much at all and will maybe get a little over $1 million next year. He might not excite people with a blazing fastball like Salazar or a wicked slider like Kluber, but he has the stuff and moxie to compete and give this team innings in the backend of the rotation.
Time to shut Vinnie down?
The fall of right-handed reliever Vinnie Pestano has been tough to watch this season. As someone who has watched him since the day he was drafted in 2006, had Tommy John surgery and then made his pro debut with Mahoning Valley in 2007, he’s always been a personal favorite of mine.
But Pestano, 28, has not looked like himself for most of this season. After three dominant years from 2010-2012 where he was more or less healthy for the first time in his career, he saw significant spikes in his velocity and stuff which corresponded to a lot of strikeouts and very effective pitching as a setup man in Cleveland in 2011 (2.32 ERA) and 2012 (2.57 ERA).
But this year his career has derailed considerably as he is 1-2 with a 4.36 ERA in 36 appearances. The strikeouts are still there, but the velocity is not and he is walking too many batters (5.2 BB/9) and allowing too many home runs (1.6 HR/9). Both that walk rate and home run rate have seen over a 60% increase, and a lot of it is due to his lost confidence in his fastball that lacks the velocity and late life it used to feature. In 2011 his averaged 92.6 MPH with his fastball and in 2012 he averaged 91.7 MPH with it, but this season it is down to an average of 91.1 MPH.
Perhaps last season’s 1 MPH drop in his average fastball velocity should have been an early warning sign for the Indians of the troubled waters that lie ahead with Pestano. That said, the bigger problem is it appears to be getting worse as in his last outing on Thursday night he never got above 90 MPH and averaged 89.3 MPH.
It is important to note that Pestano was pitching very well and effectively at the outset of the season. His velocity was consistently averaging out at 91.5 to 93.0 MPH per game until he came down with right elbow tendonitis that forced him onto the disabled list. He missed two weeks with it and ever since he came back he has just not been the same pitcher and the fastball has been missing.
At this point the Indians are just using Pestano in limited spots, mostly when the game is out of reach because they want to put him in a situation to have success and rebuild his confidence – though also because they also don’t trust him right now in tight situations. If the Indians make the postseason he has no shot to be on the playoff roster, which truly is a shame considering how much of a key cog to the bullpen he has been for most of the last three years.
But right now the focus is on getting Pestano right and as an option again for next season. Whether or not rest is all he needs this offseason to get him right, or if surgery looms in the near future, it will be an interesting offseason for him. He is heading for arbitration for the first time, which depending on his salary number might put him in jeopardy as a non-tender candidate. With two very good seasons in 2011 and 2012 and then a so-so season this year by statistical measures, he will still get a nice bump in salary for 2014 which may not be to the Indians liking and they non-tender him; however, I don’t see that happening.
Pestano’s situation is eerily similar to that of Jensen Lewis. A pitcher who was pretty good for the Indians in the early going, but over each season his effectiveness wore off and his velocity decreased. He eventually was up for arbitration after the 2010 season and the Indians settled and agreed to a deal to avoid it, but before the 2011 season ever got underway the Indians designated him for assignment in spring training and he pitched half the season at Triple-A Columbus before being released. He pitched in the minors the last two seasons before retiring earlier this season at 29 years old.
Hopefully Pestano’s career does not follow that same path as Lewis, but with the volatility that relievers bring with performance from year to year and with injuries, you just never know. But one thing is for certain and that is Pestano and the Indians have to find a way to get him right and get him back to the dominating setup man he was in 2011 and 2012 because he can really help them next season. They will need him with the potential loss of Joe Smith to free agency and Chris Perez as a non-tender candidate.
The Indians are doing what they have to do and that is beat teams they should beat down the stretch. They have won the first three games against Chicago in this four game set and will go for the sweep in a tough series finale against Chris Sale today.
Here are the updated wildcard standings:
Here are the remaining schedules:
Indians: at White Sox (1), at Royals (3), ASTROS (4), WHITE SOX (2), at Twins (4)
Rays: at Twins (1), RANGERS (4), ORIOLES (4), at Yankees (3), at Blue Jays (3)
Rangers: OAKLAND (1), at Rays (4), at Kansas City (3), ASTROS (3), ANGELS (4)
Yankees: at Red Sox (1), at Blue Jays (3), GIANTS (3), RAYS (3), at Astros (3)
Orioles: at Blue Jays (1), at Red Sox (3), at Rays (4), BLUE JAYS (3), RED SOX (3)
Royals: at Tigers (1), INDIANS (3), RANGERS (3), at Mariners (3), at White Sox (4)
Say what you want about the Indians not beating this contender or that contender, all that matters is that they have more wins than most of the teams competing for the wildcard. These next four games against Sale today and then the three game set against the Royals present the toughest stretch left for them before they finish out the season with 10 games against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. The Indians should not face an imposing starter those final 10 games and will face three of the worst pitching staffs and offenses in the American League.
If the Indians can find a way to win two of three in Kansas City, they have a chance to jump into the wildcard lead because the Rays and Rangers will be playing each other at the same time with a big four game series between the two of them where one of them is guaranteed to lose at least two games. Plus, a lot of the other contenders all play against each other or other playoff teams this coming week, so the wildcard picture might not be any clearer by this time next week.
However, if the Indians can be in the lead or no more than 1.5 games out going into that final 10 game stretch they have, they have a very strong chance of making the postseason if they take care of their own business and beat the teams they are supposed to beat by going 8-2 or even 7-3 down the stretch.
How much fun would it be to host a one game wildcard playoff? Or, just get in and go on the road and play it? If this team can find a way into the postseason I think they have as good a shot as anyone to win in October - poor offense and all. If you have starting pitching and a solid bullpen, which the Indians have, you are dangerous in October.
By the way, if the Indians do make the postseason, guess who is lined up right now to make that one game wildcard playoff start? None other than Ubaldo Jimenez. I don’t think many people would have thought playoffs were possible at the outset of this season and that Jimenez would be the guy who would pitch a meaningful one game wildcard playoff. Isn’t it amazing how the course of a 162-game season can change things?
The Indians have used him sparingly since his return from the disabled list, but outfielder Ryan Raburn continues to produce and be one of the Indians best run producers this season whenever he is in there. Even though he is still slowed by a calf, foot and Achilles injury, it has not affected his performance at the plate as he 6-for-11 at the plate in limited action this month but also has a homer, 11 RBI and 1.797 OPS.
Raburn, 32, has enjoyed a revival in Cleveland this year after hitting a low in his career last season with Detroit. Last season he hit just .171 with 1 HR, 12 RBI and .480 OPS in 66 games (205 at bats), but this season in just about the same at bats (206) he is hitting .286 with 16 HR, 52 RBI and .987 OPS in 75 games. His stunning turnaround from one year to the next has a lot to do with him being healthy as he battled some injuries last season, but also in how manager Terry Francona has used him and protected him from being exposed by playing every day.
As Raburn tries to play through his injury, which probably would still be a DL situation if it were June, the Indians will continue to pick their spots when they play him. For now Francona appears content to have him in there when they face a left-hander, and as he gets healthier and if they make the playoffs perhaps he will be in there most of the time.
There have been a lot of cries to play him every day, but it is important to note that a lot of the reason for his success is the way he is used. The Indians would be wise to continue to use him as a bench player and in some sort of platoon role next season, although right now they should definitely side using him as more of an everyday player because of their lineup limitations at the moment – again, provided he is healthy and can handle playing five to six games a week. That’s the key.
Raburn has been a lifesaver for the lineup this season and easily been one of the best – if not the best – offseason acquisition for the Indians in some time. He is an important cog to the lineup that is returning next year, and maybe gets more playing time depending on what roster moves the Indians make in the offseason. Hopefully we have some time yet before we start analyzing and breaking down what the Indians should do to fix the offense in the offseason. Playoff talk will do that.
Right-hander Justin Masterson is still recovering from a strained left oblique he suffered in his last start against the Orioles on September 2nd. He began his return to throw program this week and threw back to back flat ground sessions from 90 feet on Thursday and Friday. He was inactive on Saturday and is expected to continue to ramp up his program with more throwing today and Monday. If he continues to progress well he could throw a bullpen sometime next weekend. His availability for the rest of the season is still in doubt as he would still only possibly make one more start this season unless the Indians make the playoffs. … Right-hander Carlos Carrasco was away from the team for a few days earlier this week due to personal reasons but has since returned to the team. … The Indians 3.25 ERA as a team since the All Star break is 2nd best in the American League only to the Royals (3.06 ERA). Their 3.23 ERA from their starting rotation has led the way for them in the second half and is 2nd only to the Tigers (3.14 ERA).
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If Tomlin is able to go 45 to 50 pitches, I think he would be a great piggy back option with Salazar, allowing Carlos to be available for spelling any other starter needing to come out early.
The Rangers have to play the Rays four times and the A's once, but otherwise their schedule is easier than the Rays.
If the Indians don't get a wild card spot being only one game back with this schedule it's no fault but their own. Unless Tampa and Texas both get red hot and only lose to each other.