2012 burning question: Cleveland Indians

From Tuesday’s season preview of the Cleveland Indians

Burning Question
Can the revamped Cleveland rotation propel them into contention in 2012?

Cleveland completely revamped their rotation for the 2012 season, adding Ubaldo Jimenez for a full year (after acquiring him for the final two months last July), and veterans Derek Lowe and Kevin Slowey. Those three join 2011 holdovers Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin to make up the Tribe’s front five. The artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona (Roberto Hernandez) won’t be with the team until later this season, if at all, due to his identity crisis in the Dominican. Carlos Carrasco will miss the season following Tommy John surgery last year.

Masterson was the only Indians starter last year to post more than 1.8 fWAR, logging 4.9 in 216 innings. He’s the ace of the staff, and one of the more underappreciated pitchers in the league. His peripherals aren’t bad, with a 6.58 strikeout rate and 2.71 walk rate last year, but his 0.46 homer rate and 55.1% groundball rate are glorious. The 3.21 ERA and 3.28 FIP point to extended success in his career, especially next year. At just 27 years old, he’ll be the Indians’ Opening Day starter this season.

Tomlin was second on the team with 1.8 fWAR, but his peripherals baffle me. He only struck out 4.84 batters per nine innings and allowed 1.31 homers per nine, but buffered that with a miniscule 1.14 walk rate. I’m scared for Tomlin in the future, because if that walk rate spikes, his low ground ball rate and high homer rate will cause his ERA to skyrocket. Even with everything going right with his control last year, he still had a 4.25 ERA and 4.27 FIP. I’m sure Cleveland would have rather had Carrasco in their rotation than Tomlin, but his injury pretty much submarined that.

Jimenez got a raw deal last season for Cleveland in his 11 starts with the team. Despite a 5.10 ERA, he had just a 3.85 FIP. Jimenez struck out 8.54 batters per nine innings while walking 3.72 per nine, consistent with his career marks. A 61.9% strand rate caused his ERA to go through the roof, and once that stabilizes, he’ll be a great complement for Masterson in the Indians rotation.

Now, the two new arrivals this offseason. We’ll start with Lowe, the former Brave. Lowe wore out his welcome in Atlanta due to a $15 million per year contract and a knack for mediocrity. Three straight sub-3.0 fWAR (and 4.00+ ERA) seasons earned him the ire of Braves fans, despite posting FIPs under 4.00 in his final two seasons and over 185 innings each year. The Indians will be paying just $5 million for Lowe this year, and the makes his performance a lot more tolerable. Like Masterson, Lowe gets groundballs in bunches, which was a demerit for him last season with the Braves having awful infield defense at three of the four positions. If Masterson can thrive in Cleveland with his style of pitching, Lowe can too. He’s not the same pitcher that he was with the Dodgers a few years ago, but he’s still a useful rotation piece.

And then, there’s Kevin Slowey. Cleveland has familiarity with him after his years with the Twins, but he’s more of a back-end guy. He possesses fantastic control, walking just 1.42 batters per nine innings, but like Tomlin, has a homer problem, allowing 1.42 per nine over his career. Unlike Tomlin though, Slowey can get strikeouts: 6.67 per nine innings over his career. Last season was an odd one for Slowey, with a sub-60% strand rate giving him an ERA more than two runs higher than his FIP. Over his brief, 59 inning season, Slowey walked just five hitters…and allowed ten homers. Something as divergent as that likely won’t happen again in 2012, but he could be a solid four or five for the Twins.

Overall, the Indians rotation DID improve going into 2012…but by how much? Jimenez for a full year is better than Carmona/Hernandez, Lowe is probably worse than Carrasco, and Slowey is about the same as the Talbot/Gomez/Huff trinity form last year. I think Cleveland’s 2013 rotation will be even better though, with Masterson, Jimenez, and Carrasco leading the charge. But for now, Cleveland’s 2012 rotation is a mild improvement over that in 2011. I don’t think it’s enough to surpass the Tigers, though.

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Joe Lucia

About Joe Lucia

I'm the managing editor of Awful Announcing and the news editor of The Comeback. I also made The Outside Corner a thing for six seasons.