The Cleveland Indians' rotation was surprisingly strong in 2013, as the club emerged to grab a Wild Card spot and earn a playoff berth for the first time since 2007. Led by incumbents Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, the resurgent Scott Kazmir, and newcomers such as Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, and Zach McAllister, their staff WAR of 13.2 ranked 7th in baseball, while their 3.70 FIP was good for 8th.
Unfortunately for the tribe, both Kazmir and Jimenez are expected to depart for greener pastures this spring as both are among the top starting pitchers available in this year's free agent market.
While Cleveland has certainly expressed interest in bringing both former All-Stars back for 2014, the chances appear unlikely, especially considering the organization has only gone over $80 million in total payroll once (2009) since 2001.
Assuming Kazmir and Jimenez sign elsewhere, and the club declines to go outside the organization for help, the Indians will head into 2014 with a rotation of Masterson, Kluber, Salazar, and (most likely) McAllister. Since McAllister's spot isn't really set in stone, let's assume the Indians have two rotation spots to fill this winter.
There are a variety of options available for those last two spots, with several in-house candidates, as well as a multitude of free agent options, so let's take a look at some of the candidates.
McAllister made 24 starts for Cleveland last season, and had somewhat of a breakout year at age 25. In just over 134 innings pitched, the right-hander and former Yankees third round draft pick struck out 101 batters, walked 49, and posted a 3.75 ERA, which was exactly league average according to ERA+. McAllister's FIP (4.03) suggests he got a bit lucky. He doesn't have much of a track record, with his 134.1 innings pitched last season representing a career high, and scouting reports have never projected him as more than a back end of the rotation type starter. It remains to be seen what Cleveland has in store for McAllister in 2014, but him making the league minimum certainly makes him one of the leading candidates to grab one of those two open rotation spots.
A once promising Phillies prospect and key part of 2009's Cliff Lee mega-deal, Carrasco has yet to figure things out at the major league level. After posting a 4.62 ERA in 21 starts for the Indians in 2012, Carrasco struggled last season, making just 15 appearances for Cleveland, and spending a majority of the season at the Triple-A level. His potential remains immense, but whether he can reach it remains a huge question mark.
Bauer has had a quite a fall from grace since being selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks third overall in the 2011 draft. Arriving in Cleveland as part of last fall's three-team trade with the Reds and Diamondbacks, Bauer's role for the Indians in 2013 was minimal, as he made just 4 starts and spent most of the year with Triple-A Columbus. At Triple-A, his performance wasn't particularly special considering his pedigree, posting just a 4.15 ERA in 22 starts. It is quite feasible that the Indians plug Bauer into the 5th spot in their rotation next year and roll the dice, however, the team will likely start him back in Triple-A, leaving the door open for him to join the club were the need to arise.
The 29-year-old Tomlin underwent Tommy John surgery late in the 2012 season, causing him to miss nearly all of 2013 before making one appearance with the Indians in September. Before his injury, Tomlin had struggled in 2012, posting a 6.36 in 103.1 innings. Despite his disappointing past two seasons, Tomlin was actually quite good in 2011, as he posted a 2.1 WAR and 4.25 ERA in 165.1 innings. He has never been one to miss bats (just a 4.9 career SO/9 rate), but he offers pinpoint control, with a career BB/9 rate of just 1.7. His 1.1 BB/9 rate in 2011 was the best mark in the majors. Tomlin doesn't offer much upside, but he could provide a reliable performance at the back end of the rotation.
Hudson has drawn plenty of interest early in the free agency period, despite him missing over two months with a fractured ankle last season. Even though he will turn 39 during the middle of next season, Hudson's performance has yet to decline, as he has averaged a 3.33 ERA and 2.8 WAR over 188 innings the past four years. Last year, he had a 3.97 ERA in 21 starts, but his SO/9 rate jumped from 5.1 in 2012 to 6.5 last season, and his WHIP dropped from 1.21 to 1.89. On a one or two year deal, Hudson could provide plenty of value, and his price range will likely be affordable for Cleveland.
If the Indians want to give out a deal of 3+ years to a pitcher this winter, Garza or Nolasco would be my guess as to whom. Garza has missed parts of the past two seasons dealing with injuries, but when healthy, he has been quite effective, with an ERA of 3.82 last season, slightly better than his career mark of 3.84. Garza can offer the Indians plenty of above-average innings as a number two starter, without forcing the club to give up a draft pick. However, Garza may very well be too expensive for the Indians, since he will likely receive a deal in the range of four years and $55-65 million. The biggest free agent deal in Indians' history came last winter when they gave Nick Swisher $56 million over four years. This may be a reach, but if Cleveland is willing to spend, Garza could be their guy.
Like Garza, Nolasco should command a deal of roughly four years and $50-60 million, making him a stretch for the cash-strapped Indians. Nolasco was certainly better than Garza in 2013, going 13-11 with a 3.70 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 199.1 innings for the Marlins and Dodgers. Because of his mid-season trade, Nolasco comes without draft pick compensation, making him more appealing to a team that must build through the draft like the Indians. Once again, this one may be a reach, but Nolasco would fit in nicely in the middle of Cleveland's rotation.
Similar to Hudson, Arroyo is a near 37-year-old who isn't likely to receive more than two years in any deal, which has made him quite the hot commodity so far this winter. Since imploding for a 5.07 ERA in 2011, Arroyo has been very good the past two years, with a 3.76 ERA (5% above league average) and 6.1 WAR during that span. He hasn't thrown less than 199 innings in a season since 2004, and like Hudson, he will probably receive an AAV in the range of $10-15 million, making him affordable to the Indians.
Colon famously netted the Indians Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Cliff Lee in a 2002 trade with the Expos, so Cleveland certainly has some familiarity with the 40-year-old. After being suspended 50 games in 2012 for supposed PED use, Colon had an incredible resurgence in 2013, as he went 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA (141 ERA+), 5.0 WAR, and league-leading 3 shutouts in over 190 innings pitched. While he is unlikely to repeat his All-Star 2013 performance, Colon could provide plenty of value as an innings-eater towards the top of the rotation. Due to his advanced age, Colon is likely in line for a one-year deal, and does not come attached with draft pick compensation.
Dan Haren and Josh Johnson
Given their limited budget, Cleveland could be well served by giving one of these two former aces a one year deal in the range of ~$10 million, and hoping they can return to their pre-2013 performance levels. Though it would be risky, hitting on one of them would give the club a clear front-line option to headline their rotation.
With two open spots, it is likely the Indians go both internally and externally to fill those openings. McAllister is the clear favorite of the internal candidates, with question marks surrounding both Tomlin and Carrasco's potential impact, and Bauer most likely headed to the minors to start the season. On the free agent market, my guess would be that the team seeks out a pitcher on a one or two year deal, so I think Hudson, Arroyo, and Haren are the most viable candidates.
With plenty of rotation options, and a deep lineup, the Indians are well set up to make another run towards the postseason in 2014.