What was universally recognized as the most unstable part of the Indians’ roster when the season began?
The starting pitchers, of course. Everyone agreed from General Manager Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona to casual fans in Mogadore and Orrville.
You only needed to look at the previous season to know there was something to worry about.
Ubaldo Jimenez was statistically one of the most ineffective starters in the majors. Justin Masterson struggled after seemingly solidifying his place in the rotation the previous year.
Zach McAllister made a big leap forward, but his track record wasn’t extensive enough to engender confidence that he should be part of the club’s future. Corey Kluber was just another guy to fill in for a starter on the disabled list, and Scott Kazmir was a former whiz kid who had sunk to pitching for an independent league team in Sugar Land, Texas.
Was this a rotation likely to keep the Tribe in the Central Division race with the Detroit Tigers, whose top three starters are Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister?
Closing in on the halfway point of the season, a look at the earned run averages of Jimenez (4.66) and Kazmir (5.89) would seem to bear out the early concerns. But look again. Not just at these two pitchers but the entire rotation.
Masterson, who we knew had the raw talent to become a strong No. 2 or even a No. 1 starter, is 9-5 with a 3.48 ERA. He is a legitimate candidate for the All-Star Game.
In his past 10 starts, Jimenez is 5-2 with a 3.04 ERA, and keep in mind that on April 16, his ERA was 11.25.
Can he fall back into being the underachieving Jimenez who throws 100 pitches in five innings, constantly works from behind in the count and throws fat pitches when he’s on the verge of issuing yet another walk?
Certainly it’s possible, but his work with pitching coach Mickey Callaway seems to have made a huge difference, and the lessons he learned probably will stick.
McAllister is on the disabled list with a finger injury, but he should be back relatively soon. Before he got hurt, he was continuing on his upward curve, as evidenced by his 3.43 ERA.
His 4-5 record is a product mostly of non-support by the offense. In McAllister’s 10 starts, the Tribe has scored an average of 5.5 runs, but 26 of those runs came in two games. Take those away, and the offense is producing an average of 3.6 runs when McAllister pitches.
Kazmir is riding a roller coaster through the season. That is to be expected. Because he hasn’t pitched regularly in a big-league rotation since 2010, Kazmir needs time to relearn his craft.
More than likely, it will take the rest of this year for him to regain his consistency. At times, he has displayed his old dominance, at other times he has lost his mechanics and paid for it. But his arm is sound, and he is only 29, so I’m betting that Kazmir can become a reasonable facsimile of his former self.
Kluber by far has been the biggest surprise. In his past seven starts, he is 3-2 with a 2.51 ERA. But forget that. Anyone can have a stretch of seven games where he puts it all together.
In Kluber’s case, he does not look remotely like the same pitcher who made 12 starts and compiled a 5.14 ERA a year ago. The velocity of his fastball has increased three or four miles per hour, his breaking pitches have more snap, and he has far better command of the strike zone.
The upgrade in skill level isn’t magic, nor is it an illusion. It comes from confidence gained through repetition.
Carlos Carrasco is back in the rotation after serving two suspensions and stretch in Triple-A. He made two widely spaced starts the first 10 weeks of the season and was awful in both. He made his third start last week and held the Kansas City Royals to one run and four hits in 7⅓ innings.
Which is the real Carrasco? We won’t know for awhile, but he has the kind of live arm to become successful. Maybe he is ready to harness his ability.
If the rotation continues to be a strength, the burden won’t remain so heavily on an offense that might not be quite as prolific as it looked the first six weeks of the season.
It has become clear that Mark Reynolds won’t hit 50 home runs, and that Drew Stubbs isn’t likely to lift his average into the 280s after batting .212 last year. Nick Swisher has struggled with a shoulder injury that might go away. Then again, maybe it will nag him all season.
Obviously, there are implications for the future if Antonetti discovers that not only is his rotation sound, but that he has a surplus of talent.
When McAllister is activated, someone will have to move out of the rotation. That someone could be a pitcher who is producing praiseworthy results.
And consider that even if Jimenez leaves as a free agent after the season and that Antonetti chooses to let currently injured Brett Myers go, he will have a boatload of viable starters reporting to spring training next February.
Antonetti will have to make a decision about Kazmir, who will be a free agent. The general manager’s verdict will depend in part on the team’s overall needs, but it’s unlikely that the Tribe will have to break the bank to keep Kazmir.
In addition to having an inventory of Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Carrasco and maybe Kazmir, Josh Tomlin should be ready to resume his career after recovering from elbow reconstruction surgery.
Keep in mind that Tomlin already has shown he can win in the big leagues, though undoubtedly — as a finesse pitcher rather than a power thrower — he will need time to regain his edge after missing more than a year of competition.
Add to this mix Trevor Bauer, who probably has the highest upside of any pitcher in the organization, and Antonetti might not feel compelled to look for a starter over the winter.
When is the last time an Indians GM had that luxury?
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.