Last year, the Cleveland Indians starting pitchers gave up 540 runs – the fourth worst total in Major League Baseball. Their only notable rotation addition over the winter was Derek Lowe, who the Braves were desperate to get rid of after he posted a 5.05 ERA last year. And yet, despite retaining most members of a group that were part of the team’s failure last year, advanced projection systems suggest that the Indians could have one of the best rotations in baseball in 2012.
The fact that Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections like Justin Masterson (204 IP, 3.31 FIP) shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given that Masterson had a breakthrough season last year and doesn’t turn 27 for another 10 days. Masterson’s improvement of his command while maintaining his groundball and strikeout abilities make him one of the game’s best starting pitchers. For reference, Masterson’s projection ranks him as essentially the equal of CC Sabathia (3.30 FIP) and slightly ahead of Dan Haren (3.36 FIP), so while he may not be widely recognized as a legitimate front-end starter, ZIPS expects Masterson to remain one of the elite starters in the American League.
However, Masterson was terrific in 2011 and the Indians rotation still struggled, so the expected improvement has to come from the #2-#5 spots in the rotation. And, this is where ZIPS believes that Cleveland will see drastic improvement.
Ubaldo Jimenez wasn’t particularly great for the Indians after coming over in a mid-season trade that cost the team two of their top pitching prospects, but his strong track record in prior years and the fact that his rise in ERA was based mostly on a drop in strand rate – something that has been shown to have little predictive power – combine to create a projection for Jimenez (197 IP, 3.26 FIP) that is actually even better than Masterson’s. In fact, among American League starters, only Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Jered Weaver are projected to post a better mark than Jimenez. Like Masterson, his combination of strikeouts and groundballs give him the chance to be a dominant front line starter, and while his reputation took a hit last year, he’s still just 28-years-old and has a long history of premium performances. Few teams in baseball have as strong a 1-2 punch as the Indians have in Masterson and Jimenez.
There’s a significant drop-off between those two and the rest of Cleveland’s rotation, but the three starters penciled in for the back of the rotation are all still projected to be useful starting pitchers. While Derek Lowe had his problems in Atlanta and didn’t come close to justifying the contract he was given back in 2009, his durability is still an asset, and his underlying performances have been better than the results would indicate. ZIPS projects a 4.01 FIP for Lowe, putting him in the company of guys like Trevor Cahill, John Danks, and Derek Holland. Even if he doesn’t perform quite that well – Lowe has generally posted ERAs a bit higher than his FIPs throughout his career – he should still provide value as an innings-eater who can keep the Indians in most games.
Behind Lowe, the final two spots are expected to be filled by some combination of Kevin Slowey, Josh Tomlin, and Zach McAlister. The projections for all three peg them as useful back end starters, and give the team some needed depth that can help bridge any gaps created by injuries. While many AL contenders have serious weaknesses in the #5 spot, ZIPS believes that the Indians have multiple good options for the final rotation spot, and that buffer can provide an alternative if a member of the opening day rotation ends up struggling.
While the Tigers are still the clear favorites for the AL Central title, the difference in expected performance from each team’s starters is not where their advantage lies. Below are the projected lines for each team’s top six starters, with the results weighted by expected innings pitched for each group:
CLE (Masterson, Jimenez, Lowe, Slowey, Tomlin, McAlister): 2.70 BB/9, 6.35 K/9, 0.91 HR/9, 3.82 FIP
DET (Verlander, Fister, Scherzer, Porcello, Turner, Oliver): 2.81 BB/9, 6.75 K/9, 0.96 HR/9, 3.85 FIP
The Tigers get a few more strikeouts, but the Indians starters are expected to issue fewer walks and give up fewer home runs, and the overall output for both groups is expected to be quite similar. While Detroit’s starters get more recognition and are coming off better 2011 seasons, ZIPS believes that Cleveland’s depth advantage will help the battle of rotations end in something akin to a draw.
The Tigers offense is still the clear cream of the crop in the division, and Cleveland may not have the bats to stay in contention all year long, but their rotation is stronger than they’re given credit for. If the Indians can find a way to score enough runs, their starting pitchers have the ability to help them contend for a playoff spot.
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