Tribe’s Starters Need To Step Up

Last season, the Cleveland Indians went to the seventh game of the World Series despite missing two of its starting pitchers (Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar) for the entirety of the post-season.

It was a handicap because the starting rotation was considered the strength of Terry Francona’s ballclub.

So far in 2017, that simply hasn’t been the case.

Last night’s start by Danny Salazar just highlighted the issue once again.

The right-hander had early inning issues once again, giving up a three run homer to Jose Bautista after the hitters handed him a 2-0 first inning lead.

Then, after the Indians went up 7-3 with a five run third, Salazar couldn’t finish the bottom of the inning, giving up two more tallies before departing.

With Corey Kluber on the disabled list with a bad back and Trevor Bauer’s struggles being well chronicled, Salazar needs to pitch well to take the burden off the bullpen.

The statistics show the starting pitchers haven’t been that bad on the season thus far.  In the first 33 games in 2017, Cleveland pitchers have compiled 16 quality starts, a percentage that ranks in the middle of the pack in the American League (7th).

However, those numbers are skewed by the dominance of Carlos Carrasco, easily the Tribe’s best starter this year with a 1.86 ERA.

Carrasco has six of those quality starts (out of seven appearances), meaning in the other 26 starts, Indian hurlers have put together just 10 starts of six innings, allowing just three runs.

Kluber has three of those 10, and he’s not pitching right now.

Outside of Carrasco, the other four starters have an ERA of over 5.00.  Josh Tomlin and Bauer both have figures over 7.00.

Some of the issues can be from playing in a lot of hitter havens to start the 2017 season.  Cleveland has played a dozen games in Texas, Arizona, Chicago, and Toronto, all pretty good places to hit.

However, as a pitching staff, the team ERA is better on the road than it is at Progressive Field.

Each of the struggling pitchers seem to have different issues.

Salazar is striking people out (53 K’s in 36-1/3 innings), but has had problems with control, a team leading 18 walks, and putting hitters away.  He winds up throwing a ton of pitches because of the latter.

He’s also had issues in the first and second innings.

Tomlin doesn’t have control issues, but he’s allowed 41 hits in 30-1/3 frames.  Surprisingly, he’s allowed the least home runs among the rotation, and we say that considering his history.

To be fair, since two horrible starts to begin the season, he’s been pretty good in his last four starts (24 IP, 11 ER).

And Bauer was discussed earlier this week.  He has tremendous stuff, but has had extreme consistency issues in 2017.  He needs to start being able to keep his team in a game through five innings to give them a chance to win.

We know that if the rotation straightens itself out and goes two times through it, the Indians could have a 10 game winning streak.  That’s how good they can be at their best.

That the ballclub is 18-15 without them being special is a tribute to how good the Tribe and their bullpen is this season.

MW

 

 

 

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Are Tribe’s Post-Season Chances Done?

After Carlos Carrasco left Saturday’s game with the Detroit Tigers with a broken bone in his hand, The Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes wrote that the Cleveland Indians’ playoff chances ended before the post-season even began.

We aren’t going to get into whether or not the column was appropriate, nor are we going to discuss the reactions to the piece in the Tribe clubhouse.

We did want to analyze whether or not the Indians’ really do not have a chance once the post-season begins the first week in October.

Perhaps as little as five years ago, losing two starting pitchers from a team that leads the American League in ERA could have been a death blow to that squad’s World Series hopes.

But baseball has changed over the past few seasons, and in the playoffs, the bullpen is becoming more and more important as managers bring in one flamethrower after another to work one inning in October.

Certainly, the Tribe will need its ace, Corey Kluber, to give them a lot of innings in the games he starts, much like Madison Bumgarner does for the Giants.  Terry Francona will need Kluber to go deep in games, because he will lean on his bullpen heavily in the games he doesn’t start.

From there on out, Francona will be happy with at least five innings from his starting pitchers and then he will turn the game over to his bullpen where he can pull a page out of Joe Torre’s book and ask his three best relief pitchers, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller, to give him four outs each instead of the three he usually asks for in the regular season.

Trevor Bauer would probably be the game two starter, and if he is throwing strikes, could be another guy who can soak up some innings.  For all of Bauer’s inconsistency, especially after the all star break, when he is on, he can be dominant.

Our guess is if the other two starters, Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger, can give Tito four solid innings, the skipper will be satisfied.

That’s because the post-season roster will have either eight or nine bullpen options, depending on what Francona feels comfortable with.

It’s also why Tito has been conducting some tryouts over the last month to see who will be part of his playoff relief corps.

Obviously, Dan Otero will be one of those members, as will Zack McAllister, who has been much more effective over the last six weeks.

We also believe Kyle Crockett will give the Indians an extra left-hander in the ‘pen in the post-season.

The last two spots are up for grabs, and the frontrunners are probably veteran Jeff Manship and rookie Perci Garner, who the manager has gone to in some very high leverage situations lately.

His strikeout of Victor Martinez on Saturday, with a man on third in a scoreless game, may have clinched the spot for him.

Without a doubt, it would be easier for the Indians with four starters who can give the team at least six innings throughout the post-season, but that ship has sailed.

However, we can definitely see a scenario where the pitching burden is put more on the bullpen in October, and that gives the Cleveland Indians just as good of a chance for success as they would have if the starting rotation was intact.

MW

 

Tribe’s Strength Is Failing Them

At the All Star break, the Cleveland Indians were sitting in first place with a 52-36 record and considered a favorite for the American League pennant because of their dominant starting pitching.

Two of the rotation members, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar made the AL roster for the Midsummer Classic, and a case could be made for Josh Tomlin (9-2, 3.51 ERA) as well.

Carlos Carrasco wasn’t considered because he missed a good chunk of the first half with a hamstring injury and Trevor Bauer (7-3, 3.30 ERA) was pitching as well as he ever had in the big league tenure.

Collectively, Tribe starters had a 3.70 ERA at that point.  Surely, it would be difficult to beat them in a short series.

My, how things have changed.

The Indians still lead the Central Division by 4-1/2 games over the Tigers and 5 over the surging defending champion Royals, but the starting rotation, considered the strength of the team by nearly everyone, experts and fans alike, is leaking oil.  Badly.

Since the break, the Cleveland rotation has an ERA of 4.92, and this isn’t a ten or fifteen game stretch we are talking about.  This span has now lasted 40 games, or a quarter of the major league schedule.

And if you remove Kluber’s sterling second half (5-0, 1.84 ERA) out of the mix, the remainder of the starting pitchers have a 5.87 ERA in the second half.  If this continues, Terry Francona’s team will have a problem getting into the post-season, let alone making it all the way to the Fall Classic.

Here is how the rest of the rotation has fared since Kluber was the winning pitcher in San Diego to give the AL home field advantage in the World Series:

Bauer         2-3     5.20 ERA      45 innings
Tomlin      2-6     7.29 ERA      45-2/3 innings
Carrasco   4-4     4.25 ERA      55 inningsSalazar      1-2   10.70 ERA      17-2/3 innings

Salazar was disabled for two weeks with some discomfort in his elbow, and in his two starts since has lasted a total of five innings.  Today’s start versus Texas is a huge start for him, the manager, and the pitching coach.

Francona didn’t use Mike Clevinger last night because he knew he needed him today in case the right-hander could only give him two or three innings.

Carrasco has been the next best pitcher after Kluber, but he has had starts where he dominates early, and then starts getting hit hard.

Bauer has been a mystery for most of his big league time, but looked to have figured it out in the first half.  In the last month or so, he has started walking hitters again, and has been prone to the gopher ball.  He did out duel Max Scherzer in Washington though.

When he has been good, he’s been very good.  On the other hand…

Tomlin has been awful, with a 7.29 ERA over 45 frames.  In many of the games he has started, he’s given the Tribe no chance to win.  He has been especially bad against the better teams in the AL, and gives up dingers at an incredible rate.

Early in the year, most were solo shots, which is fine, but lately, they have been three run blasts and grand slams.  Those are killers.

Can these guys get it back?

Carrasco and Bauer’s issue seems to be consistency.  They are good some days, but horrible others.  That seems fixable.

Is Salazar healthy?  If so, he’s a dynamic third starter in the playoffs (assuming the Indians make it), capable of dominating opponents.  If not, that’s a huge chasm to fill.

Tomlin has always been a back of the rotation guy anyway, albeit a solid one.  He’s probably not going to start in the post-season anyway.  But the Tribe needs another capable starter from here on out in the regular season.

Another failure Tuesday night vs. Minnesota could force Francona and Callaway to make a change.

Right now, this should be the biggest concern for any fan of the Indians.  The team’s perceived strength as little as six weeks ago, has turned into a humongous question mark.

KM

Tribe Positives and Concerns Over First 27 Games.

The Cleveland Indians hit the 1/6th mark of the season with a 14-13 record.  They didn’t have the great April they needed to get casual fans revved up about them, but they didn’t bury themselves either.

And that can be done during the season’s first month, just ask the Minnesota Twins.

The biggest problem for the Tribe is the Chicago White Sox, who have ridden excellent pitching to take a five game lead in the AL Central.

Of course, they is a long way to go to make up that deficit.

Anyway, here is what we see as positives over the first 27 games, and also, things were are concerned about.

POSITIVES

Nobody doubts the talent of Francisco Lindor, but right now, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a sophomore slump.

The 22-year-old is hitting .324 (814 OPS) thus far and is making a defensive gem on a nightly basis.

If you had Josh Tomlin as the staff leader in wins before the season started, you were in the minority.  But the right hander sits at 5-0 with a 3.72 ERA and is showing remarkable control as usual with a 19 to 2 strikeout to walk ratio.

It seems like over the last few seasons, one starting pitcher makes a step toward elite status, and this year it is Danny Salazar following in the footsteps of Corey Kluber (2014) and Carlos Carrasco (2015).

Salazar has allowed just 18 hits in 37-2/3 innings, while striking out 43 batters.  Yes, his walks are high (16), but for the most part, he has been dominating each time he takes the mound.

The Indians have been searching for a right handed power bat for years and years, and they may now have one in Mike Napoli.  Yes, he strikes out a lot, on pace for close to 200 whiffs on a 500 at bat season, but he also has six homers and 20 RBI.

His history says the strikeouts will taper a bit, and he does see a lot of pitches, but he has a chance to belt more than 25 bombs this season.

CONCERNS

The bullpen still scares us and we know that Bryan Shaw has pitched better lately.  Terry Francona likes to use Zack McAllister in the 7th, Shaw in the 8th, and Cody Allen in the 9th if the starting pitcher can only give him six innings.

You can probably count the game where each has provided a clean inning in the same game on one hand.

McAllister started great, but has struggled his last few outings.  Shaw was a mess early on, and Allen still seems to go through periods where he can’t throw strikes.

Maybe Tommy Hunter can provide a lift here.

Yan Gomes is also having a hard time at the plate, hitting just .176 (541 OPS).  Gomes has walked just four times, compared to 22 punch outs.

He never has walked a lot, and you have to wonder if many the word is out that you don’t have to throw him a strike to get him out.

He also needs to start taking the outside pitch to right centerfield.

Jason Kipnis’ diminishing contact is also troubling.  He has almost struck out as much as Napoli.  His career high was 143 in ’13, but right now, he is on pace to fan over 160 times.

Our last concern is the usual veteran problem.  How long of a rope does Francona give some of these guys.

Juan Uribe has an OPS of 652.  Rajai Davis’ is 690, and Lonnie Chisenhall’s is 626.  Under 700 isn’t very good.  The team already sent out Tyler Naquin who had a 753 OPS (.315 batting average) to the minors.

When you are a contending team, which the Indians are, you can’t wait too long to replace players who aren’t producing.

Francona needs to use Jose Ramirez more, because he has been productive (783 OPS), and he needs to leave Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot. We know it is a small sample size, but Cleveland is 8-1 when Santana leads off.

He walks a lot, and has already led off two games with home runs.

Overall, the offense has made a big improvement, ranking 4th in the AL in runs scored per game, and the pitching is starting to pick it up, ranking 7th in ERA.

Again, our biggest concern is the bullpen.  With some improvement over the first 27 games in that department, the Indians could have been 17-10 instead of 14-13.

MW

Tribe Play, Moves Puzzling

There is no question the six game losing streak on the west coast trek for the Cleveland Indians turned a so-so month of April into a disappointing one.  The Tribe left Cleveland at 11-11, a .500 record, and they returned home 11-17, and in last place.

More concerning to the media and the fans is the sloppy play of Terry Francona’s bunch.  Using two of the major defensive statistics available, the Indians rank last in the American League in defense.  They’ve made the most errors and they have the worst defensive efficiency.

Thank goodness Cleveland pitchers rank third in the league in strikeouts.  The less balls put into play, the better.

Sometimes, the errors don’t allow runs to score, but they make pitchers have to throw more pitches.  This was never more evident than Friday night, when Elliott Johnson’s error in the fourth inning made Danny Salazar throw at least 15 more tosses to home plate.  Otherwise, Francona could’ve squeezed another inning out of the starter.

Along with the poor play, the front office has made some curious  moves thus far, and we aren’t talking about having Carlos Carrasco start the season in the rotation, we could understand the reasoning for that.

Two of these strange moves were made yesterday.  The Indians announced Josh Tomlin would start on Tuesday against Minnesota.  While Tomlin deserves to be back with the big club (2-1, 2.06 ERA), he’s not the Columbus starter with the best statistics.

That would be Trevor Bauer, who owns a 3-0 record with a 1.10 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 32-2/3 innings.

Why not reward Bauer for his outstanding pitching, plus his presence in the rotation would send some excitement to both a fan base and perhaps a clubhouse that appears to need a jolt.

Look, this is not to say make the move for the fans.  Bauer’s performance merits a promotion.  He’s pitching well, his confidence should be at an all time high, and he’s got the look of a potential ace.

With all due respect to Tomlin, we know what he is.  He’s no better than a third starter, a guy who won’t be spectacular, but will keep you in games.  And we’ve advocated bringing up the right-hander when he was the only starter having success in AAA when he came up in 2010.

The other puzzling move was bringing up reliever Nick Hagadone to provide an extra arm in the bullpen until Tomlin gets the call on Tuesday.  (Hagadone was sent back today to make room for Nyjer Morgan, needed because of Michael Bourn’s hamstring problems).

Really, there wasn’t anyone on the 40-man roster they could’ve brought up other than a hard throwing lefty, who can’t find home plate?

Wouldn’t you rather give a guy like Austin Adams a shot?  Or bring Vinnie Pestano up for a few days?

Hagadone has an electric arm, but he’s never demonstrated an ability to throw strikes consistently.  Why does the front office continually reward him with major league time?  That said, it’s a moot point now, and again, he would’ve been sent out on Tuesday anyway.

With Bourn day-to-day, the Indians have another problem.  With Francona’s preference for carrying 13 pitchers, the Tribe can’t have a roster spot for a player who may be out several days.  They almost have to put that player on the disabled list.  That’s why it wouldn’t be a surprise if Bourn has to go back on the DL when Tomlin comes up in a few days.

For now, what the Indians need most is to tighten up their defense and win some ball games.  The season is more than 1/6th through.  You can’t use the “it’s early” excuse much longer.

MW

 

 

Tribe’s Patience May Be a Bit Too Much

The one thing we have learned from following baseball for many years is that the management of a major league baseball team have to have an extreme amount of patience.

We like to think we are more patient than the normal fan, who wants to bench people, trade people, and sent players to the minor leagues after a bad week.

We lobbied for the Indians to deal or release Ubaldo Jimenez at this point last season, only to have the right-hander earn a huge free agent deal by helping the Tribe get into the post-season in 2013.

However, you have to wonder just how much more patience Terry Francona and GM Chris Antonetti will have with the under performing players currently on the Cleveland roster, namely starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, and third baseman Carlos Santana.

Last year, when Jimenez struggled, at least the other members of the starting rotation (Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zack McAllister, and Scott Kazmir) were giving Francona mostly solid efforts.  You can kind of live with one guy in the rotation having problems.

When two starters are having problems, that’s a problem, because it puts pressure on everyone else to be good every time out.

The simple solution would be to send Salazar back to Columbus to rediscover himself and put Carrasco in the bullpen, because as we all know by now, he’s gone 16 consecutive starts without a victory.  That’s a half season of turns in the rotation.

The moves make particular sense because of the performance of both Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin at AAA.

Bauer has made four starts so far this season, three at Columbus and one with the Tribe, pitching 24-2/3 innings and allowing 4 runs, striking out 29 batters and walking just four.  Why wouldn’t it be time to give him a three or four start stint in the majors while he is pitching well?

As for Tomlin, he’s made four starts in AAA, compiling a 1-1 record with a 2.77 ERA.  In 26 frames, he’s allowed 19 hits, walking nine and striking out 18 batters.  And we know from Tomlin’s work in Cleveland that most nights he will keep his team in the game.

As for Santana, the switch hitter is now batting under .130 and yet is still in the clean up spot for a team struggling to score runs, getting three or less in 13 of the 24 games played.  He is still drawing a lot of walks (still a .316 OBP), but maybe he should get a couple of days off, or least drop down in the batting order until he gets it going.

Understand, the Tribe probably isn’t going anywhere without a productive Carlos Santana, but right now leaving him in the #4 hole isn’t helping the Indians get on the scoreboard.

Really, when you think of the problems of this trio, and you add in the horrible defensive play from the Tribe on a night to night basis, it’s kind of miraculous they are only two games below the .500 mark at 11-13.

This bodes well for the rest of the season, because when the defense improves, or the bats start heating up, or the rotation starts performing on a night in, night out basis, Francona’s team should start reeling off some wins.

Nobody is saying to give up on anyone, but perhaps making a couple of tweaks to the make up of the roster after almost 1/6th of the campaign might be in order.

After all, the changes can’t be any worse than what has transpired thus far.

KM

Carrasco Is Tribe’s Enigma

One of the regular debates surrounding the Cleveland Indians is what to do with Carlos Carrasco. Is he a starter or is he better suited for the bullpen?

One thing that no one doubts is the right-hander’s arm. He has outstanding stuff, getting his fastball to the plate around 95 MPH and he has a fine slider as well.

However, that stuff hasn’t translated to success at the big league level.

Carrasco was out of options at the beginning of the season, so the organization had to bring him north or risk losing him to another team. And again, with that arm, there really was no choice.

When there was debate about keeping the guy who is the last link of the Cliff Lee deal or keeping Josh Tomlin instead, the argument is simple: Tomlin is at best a back of the rotation pitcher, while Carrasco could be a #1 or #2 starter if he could put it all together.

Our thought on the righty is that it is a mental issue. He struggles when he has to think about his pitching between starts. When he doesn’t know when he is going to pitch, such as being in relief, he seems to have better success.

The other reason the bullpen looks like a good option is Carrasco’s pretty good the first time through a batting order, but has problems the second time through.

Last Sunday, he mowed down the first nine Toronto hitters he faced, and then gave up six hits and three walks in the next 2-2/3 innings.

Is that an effective start? Overall, 5-2/3 innings with six hits allowed doesn’t look bad, but when you consider all the damage was concentrated in an eight out span, it really isn’t good.

Last year, when pitching in relief, Carrasco held hitters to a .156 batting average in 13-2/3 IP last year, compared to a .383 average in 33 IP as a starting pitcher.

On the other hand, we said the same things about Ubaldo Jimenez last season.

Mickey Callaway worked a miracle with Jimenez a year ago, and by the end of the season, he was one of the best pitchers in the American League. Doesn’t Carrasco get the same benefit of the doubt?

The question is, though, whether Carrasco’s problems are mechanical or between his ears. To be sure, Jimenez’ problems were thought to be strictly with his delivery, but we are sure that the pitching coach had to build back the hurler’s confidence too.

If we read between the lines after Carrasco’s starts, we can sense frustration from Terry Francona and Callaway in the pitcher’s inability to maintain what he is being told.

It seems like Carrasco makes changes in his delivery, but when he gets in trouble, he abandons the alterations and goes back to just trying to throw harder.

Is that correctable? Of course, but the manager is trying to win games too.

Some pitchers don’t function well in certain roles. Former Indian reliever Steve Karsay was great as a set up man, but had problems trying to be a closer.

Francona needs to get the most out of Carlos Carrasco. It will be interesting to see if the pitcher can follow the Jimenez success story, or if he will wind up pitching out of the bullpen.

Management has to be more patient than fans. That’s a lesson we can all learn.
KM

Thoughts on How Tribe Pitching Staff Shakes Out

The regular season for the Cleveland Indians starts in less than two weeks, and there are still some unresolved issues on Terry Francona’s pitching staff.

The skipper has named four of his starting pitchers with Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zack McAllister, and Danny Salazar getting the nod, with one spot remaining open.

In the bullpen, John Axford, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Mark Rzepczynski, and Josh Outman seem to have nailed down spots with two openings in what figures to be a seven man bullpen to start the campaign.

That leaves several candidates for the three remaining spots on the staff when the season opens in Oakland on March 31st.

The battle for the last spot in the rotation boils down to Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, and Aaron Harang.

Carrasco struggled last year as a starter, but pitched very well in relief, while Tomlin missed most of 2013 with Tommy John surgery.  When healthy, the right-hander is a strike thrower and has demonstrated an ability to give his team at least five innings per start.

Harang was brought in right before spring training started to compete for a spot in the rotation and has pitched nine innings in “A” games, allowing two runs.

Carrasco and Tomlin have also been impressive thus far.

Our guess is that Carrasco will start the season in the fourth spot in the rotation while Tomlin will go to Columbus to length out his arm at the minor league level, which is needed since he pitched very little in 2013. 

As for Harang, GM Chris Antonetti will have to work some magic to keep him in the organization after March because other teams are looking for starting pitchers. 

The Tribe would like to keep the veteran around because Trevor Bauer doesn’t look ready to pitch in the bigs yet, and outside of Tomlin, there isn’t much starting pitching depth in the organization.

Perhaps the Indians can get Harang to go to Columbus with an out clause if he isn’t recalled by the end of April.

In the bullpen, the candidates for the last two spots are Vinnie Pestano, Blake Wood, David Aardsma, Scott Atchison, and C.C. Lee. 

Pestano would seem to have a leg up based on his success in 2011 and 2012 when he was one of the best set up men in the game.  He’s done okay this spring, allowing one run and two hits in five innings.

Wood is another Tommy John survivor and has big league experience with the Royals.  He’s allowed one run in seven innings, striking out eight.

Aardsma has had arm troubles too, but was the Mariners closer a few years ago.  He’s allowed two runs in six innings, while Atchison, who was with Francona in Boston, has given up a run in five innings of work.

Lee is a prospect who spent bits of last year with the Tribe, and he’s allowed two runs in six frame in Arizona.

Our prediction is that Atchison makes the squad, taking the Matt Albers role from 2013.  That is to say, pitching extended outings (two or three innings) if needed if the starter has to depart the game early.

The Tribe has also pointed out that Wood has an option remaining, so the other spot looks to be Pestano’s to lose.

Aardsma would be welcome in Columbus, but more likely will ask for his release so he can pursue a job elsewhere.

Of course, a late injury or a couple of horrid appearance could change these spots before Opening Day.

MW