As the ALDS gets set to kick off between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox this Thursday, one of the major story lines is the state of the Cleveland pitching rotation. Carlos Carrasco is done for the year and Danny Salazar will be of no help for at least this round and will be limited to work out of the bullpen should the Indians make it past the Red Sox and to the ALCS. This leaves the Indians relying on one starting pitcher who started the year off in the bullpen, another coming off a hamstring injury, a third who has been in and out of the lineup all year long, and a rookie. Beyond that is more spare parts and unreliable performers, meaning the Indians will rely more than ever on their stellar bullpen if they hope to make a deep run in these playoffs and shake off their 68-year slump.
The volatile and enigmatic Trevor Bauer will take the mound to kick-start the playoffs for the Indians. Bauer has been surprisingly consistent since he made his first start at the end of April after starting the year off in the bullpen. Though he has only thrown one complete game all year long and made it past the 6th inning in less than half of his 28 starts, Bauer did post the 2nd lowest ERA of his five-year career, while at the same time pitching the most total innings of his career and cutting down on his wild pitches. His advance metrics also illustrate his vast improvement this season limiting his big play mistakes. Despite all the indications that Bauer has potentially turned the corner and may finally be ready to live down his reputation as a loose cannon, one may have a hard time trusting him as a #1 on a championship contender.
Game Two will see the return of Corey Kluber from his hamstring injury. Kluber has once again been a rock for this Cleveland club. After another 30+ start season that saw him post three complete games with two shutouts, if Kluber’s hamstring can hold up he should be able to do battle with David Price in what should be one of the best pitching match-ups of the divisional round. Other than his health, Kluber is the lone starter left standing that the Indians should have complete trust and faith in. Kluber was 10-2 in the last three months of the season, striking out seven or more batters in all but three of those games. He is poised for a strong playoff run and the Indians will need him more than ever without Carrasco and Salazar.
Josh Tomlin will be called upon to be the 3rd starter for the Indians during the ALDS. Tomlin managed to tally up the most wins of any season in his career thanks in large part to starting the most games of his career. Never a big strike out pitcher, Tomlin did manage to rack up over 100 Ks this season, though he did also give up 36 home runs, by far the most of his career. The month of August was a brutal one for Tomlin, but he bounced back in his last four starts before the end of the season. The Indians will call on Tomlin to be a game manager and not a game changer, if he can give them a solid five innings without making any major mistakes and turn it over to the bullpen in a close game, then I will count it as a success and I imagine the team will as well.
Most indications are that Indians will keep the rotation to just Bauer, Kluber, and Tomlin, at least for the divisional round, but if Tomlin struggles or Kluber’s hamstring flares up or Bauer back slides then the Indians do in fact have a few options. The most likely 4th starter would be rookie Mike Clevinger who appeared in 17 games this season, starting 10. Who knows how Clevinger would respond to the pressure of a game four in Boston against the hottest team in the AL, but he has big strike out ability and in the seven starts he has made since being called up at the beginning of August he has only given up more than 2 runs once. The biggest concern with Clevinger is his tendency to give up home runs, as he gave up a home run in all but two of his starts in August. Other than Clevinger the Indians could call on Zach McAllister or Cody Anderson, both of who made spot starts over the course of the past season and have starting experience from seasons past. McAllister has been phenomenal out of the bullpen this season and after flaming out as a starter is not ideal, but in a pinch he has the stamina to pitch deep into games and at his best is an excellent strikeout pitcher who could definitely take over games. Anderson began the season as starter though he struggled early and often before getting hurt, demoted, and then finally moved to the bullpen. During his rookie year last season he came on strong out of nowhere and proved to be a reliable starter who used creativity and smarts to outwit batters. If healthy, Anderson would be an excellent candidate to chew up some innings and bridge the gap to the bullpen.
No matter what happens with the starters, the Indians have a very strong bullpen to lean on which may end up being their saving grace. With Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, and Jeff Manship in the bullpen, the Indians have the ability to ride their bullpen to a championship if need be. So will it work? As an Indians fan, I sure hope so.