The Most Exciting Young Rotation In Baseball

Imagine this: You’re a 2013 playoff team coming off a huge turnaround from a poor 2012 season. You accomplished this largely due to a pitching staff that allowed 183 fewer runs to score than the year before. When the offseason comes, 40 percent of the rotation departs via free agency. To replace them and support a good offense that hopes to contend in 2014, you do … nothing.

If that sounds crazy, well, maybe it is. But that’s the path the Cleveland Indians have chosen to take this year. Instead, they are going to entrust their playoff hopes to a starting rotation made up entirely of internal options in their 20s, several of whom many fans would have difficulty naming were they spotted half the letters in their names.

Maybe that works out, and maybe it doesn’t. Either way, Cleveland is counting on its own young talent, which is generally preferable to gambling on the low-upside Jason Vargases and Edinson Volquezes of the world. The end result is a rotation that might have one of the highest variances in possible outcomes between “great” and “terrible” of any playoff contender, and though they might not be the best in the game or even their own division, that makes them among the most intriguing.

That makes them, if we can use a word too rarely used in the game today, fun.

Blind faith

A large part of Cleveland’s 2013 improvement came from the 340 2/3 surprising innings of 3.65 ERA ball contributed by Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. We can say this was unexpected since Jimenez had been awful for the Indians in 2012 (5.40 ERA) and Kazmir had pitched in exactly one major league game over the previous two seasons.

Both are now gone, so behind ace Justin Masterson the Indians need to replace those 340 innings from within. That means not only counting on two members of last year’s young rotation (Corey Kluber, age 28 in 2014, and Zach McAllister, 26) to improve or stay steady, it also means that at least two members of an unproven group (Danny Salazar, 24, Carlos Carrasco, 27, Josh Tomlin, 29, and Trevor Bauer, 23) must step up, lest the team be forced to turn to nonroster veteran retreads such as Aaron Harang or Shaun Marcum.

The star in the making

Salazar in particular has fans buzzing with excitement despite the fact that he has just 11 major league starts, including the AL wild-card game against Tampa Bay. Just two springs ago, Salazar was an Class A righty who had thrown all of 47 innings in the previous two seasons following 2010 Tommy John surgery. Now he’s one of only 14 major leaguers to hit 100 mph twice in 2013, helping him to strike out 65 in just 52 innings.

But Salazar also walked just 15 in that time, putting him in some limited company. Among all pitchers who threw at least 50 innings, only eight struck out at least 30 percent of the hitters they faced and walked fewer than 8 percent. One is Salazar, and one is injured Kansas City reliever Luke Hochevar. The remaining six? They’re a who’s who of elite closers in the game, including Greg Holland, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Glen Perkins, Trevor Rosenthal and Koji Uehara. It’s a lot to put on a young pitcher with such limited experience, but Salazar’s combination of an elite fastball, outstanding change, improving slider and the ability to limit free passes make him one of 2014’s most obvious breakout candidates.

Of course, the pitchers on that list are all one-inning relievers, not starters, and that makes for Salazar’s biggest question mark: Can he work deep into games, and can he keep up his solid performance while doing so? Salazar threw 87.2 innings in his return from injury in 2012, and then 145 more in the regular season in 2013. It’s reasonable to expect him to throw more, perhaps enough to replace Kazmir’s 158, but it’s far too soon to look to him to be a 200-inning horse.

Continued progression

McAllister is relatively unspectacular, although there’s value in 150 league-average innings, but fellow incumbent Kluber found himself as a 2013 breakout performer thanks to a sinker that generated grounders and a slider/change combination that missed bats. Like Salazar, Kluber’s profile is a unique and impressive one. Eight pitchers threw at least 140 innings while generating at least 45 percent grounders, 20 percent strikeouts and 6 percent or fewer walks. When the other names on that list include Matt Harvey, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale andAdam Wainwright, you’re doing something right.

But Kluber, McAllister and Salazar have all experienced recent big league success. That’s more than can be said for two faded top prospects who were once the jewels of big trades, Bauer (last year’s Shin-Soo Choo deal) and Carrasco (2009’s Cliff Lee trade), or Tomlin, who was decent in 2011 and tough to watch since.

Carrasco was designated for assignment last summer and is all but out of chances, and Tomlin might win the last spot out of camp despite a near-total inability to miss bats (4.92 career K/9), but Bauer is the only one really worth getting excited about. Despite an ugly 2013 performance and a rough outing against the Angels on Monday that might result in him starting the year in Triple-A, Bauer turned only 23 in January and is less than three years off of being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.

Among Bauer’s various issues last year was a fastball that seemed to top out at 92, but after a winter’s worth of work on his mechanics, his velocity has been excellent this spring, routinely averaging 96 and occasionally hitting 98. It won’t matter unless he can address his command issues as well, but that doesn’t have to happen by April 1. Like Salazar last year, there’s enough time to come up during the season and make an impact.

Secret weapon

The Indians can also hope for some assistance for their pitching staff coming from behind the plate. In the still-nascent art of pitch framing — a catcher’s ability to get borderline pitches to be called his team’s way (or not) based on how he receives the ball — recent studies have indicated that Carlos Santana was among the worst in the sport, routinely costing his pitchers strike, and, by extension, runs. By comparison, fellow backstop Yan Gomes was above average, and so it’s not a coincidence that Gomes will be the regular catcher this year, a move that should help every Cleveland pitcher.

The pieces of a breakout rotation are there. Now it’s just a matter of them all coming together.




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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not.

Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Hask12
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Hask12

The owner promised that when the team became competitive he would spend the big money. He lied. You don’t rush to sign players to long term contracts after just one good year. This team continues to be a ship without a rudder. Indiana couldn’t beat teams with a winning record last year.

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