MLB's most volatile rotation.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Imagine this: You're a 2013 playoff team coming off a huge turnaround from a poor 2012 season. You accomplished this largely due to a pitching staff that allowed 183 fewer runs to score than the year before. When the offseason comes, 40 percent of the rotation departs via free agency. To replace them and support a good offense that hopes to contend in 2014, you do ... nothing.
If that sounds crazy, well, maybe it is. But that's the path the Cleveland Indians have chosen to take this year. Instead, they are going to entrust their playoff hopes to a starting rotation made up entirely of internal options in their 20s, several of whom many fans would have difficulty naming were they spotted half the letters in their names.
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Maybe that works out, and maybe it doesn't. Either way, Cleveland is counting on its own young talent, which is generally preferable to gambling on the low-upside Jason Vargases and Edinson Volquezes of the world. The end result is a rotation that might have one of the highest variances in possible outcomes between "great" and "terrible" of any playoff contender, and though they might not be the best in the game or even their own division, that makes them among the most intriguing.
That makes them, if we can use a word too rarely used in the game today, fun.
A large part of Cleveland's 2013 improvement came from the 340 2/3 surprising innings of 3.65 ERA ball contributed by Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. We can say this was unexpected since Jimenez had been awful for the Indians in 2012 (5.40 ERA) and Kazmir had pitched in exactly one major league game over the previous two seasons.
Both are now gone, so behind ace Justin Masterson the Indians need to replace those 340 innings from within. That means not only counting on two members of last year's young rotation (Corey Kluber, age 28 in 2014, and Zach McAllister, 26) to improve or stay steady, it also means that at least two members of an unproven group (Danny Salazar, 24, Carlos Carrasco, 27, Josh Tomlin, 29, and Trevor Bauer, 23) must step up, lest the team be forced to turn to nonroster veteran retreads such as Aaron Harang or Shaun Marcum.
The star in the making
Salazar in particular has fans buzzing with excitement despite the fact that he has just 11 major league starts, including the AL wild-card game against Tampa Bay. Just two springs ago, Salazar was an Class A righty who had thrown all of 47 innings in the previous two seasons following 2010 Tommy John surgery. Now he's one of only 14 major leaguers to hit 100 mph twice in 2013, helping him to strike out 65 in just 52 innings.
But Salazar also walked just 15 in that time, putting him in some limited company. Among all pitchers who threw at least 50 innings, only eight struck out at least 30 percent of the hitters they faced and walked fewer than 8 percent. One is Salazar, and one is injured Kansas City reliever Luke Hochevar. The remaining six? They're a who's who of elite closers in the game, including Greg Holland, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Glen Perkins, Trevor Rosenthal and Koji Uehara. It's a lot to put on a young pitcher with such limited experience, but Salazar's combination of an elite fastball, outstanding change, improving slider and the ability to limit free passes make him one of 2014's most obvious breakout candidates.
[+] EnlargeTrevor Bauer
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Trevor Bauer has shown flashes of his old velocity this spring.
Of course, the pitchers on that list are all one-inning relievers, not starters, and that makes for Salazar's biggest question mark: Can he work deep into games, and can he keep up his solid performance while doing so? Salazar threw 87.2 innings in his return from injury in 2012, and then 145 more in the regular season in 2013. It's reasonable to expect him to throw more, perhaps enough to replace Kazmir's 158, but it's far too soon to look to him to be a 200-inning horse.
McAllister is relatively unspectacular, although there's value in 150 league-average innings, but fellow incumbent Kluber found himself as a 2013 breakout performer thanks to a sinker that generated grounders and a slider/change combination that missed bats. Like Salazar, Kluber's profile is a unique and impressive one. Eight pitchers threw at least 140 innings while generating at least 45 percent grounders, 20 percent strikeouts and 6 percent or fewer walks. When the other names on that list include Matt Harvey, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Adam Wainwright, you're doing something right.
But Kluber, McAllister and Salazar have all experienced recent big league success. That's more than can be said for two faded top prospects who were once the jewels of big trades, Bauer (last year's Shin-Soo Choo deal) and Carrasco (2009's Cliff Lee trade), or Tomlin, who was decent in 2011 and tough to watch since.
Carrasco was designated for assignment last summer and is all but out of chances, and Tomlin might win the last spot out of camp despite a near-total inability to miss bats (4.92 career K/9), but Bauer is the only one really worth getting excited about. Despite an ugly 2013 performance and a rough outing against the Angels on Monday that might result in him starting the year in Triple-A, Bauer turned only 23 in January and is less than three years off of being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
Among Bauer's various issues last year was a fastball that seemed to top out at 92, but after a winter's worth of work on his mechanics, his velocity has been excellent this spring, routinely averaging 96 and occasionally hitting 98. It won't matter unless he can address his command issues as well, but that doesn't have to happen by April 1. Like Salazar last year, there's enough time to come up during the season and make an impact.
The Indians can also hope for some assistance for their pitching staff coming from behind the plate. In the still-nascent art of pitch framing -- a catcher's ability to get borderline pitches to be called his team's way (or not) based on how he receives the ball -- recent studies have indicated that Carlos Santana was among the worst in the sport, routinely costing his pitchers strike, and, by extension, runs. By comparison, fellow backstop Yan Gomes was above average, and so it's not a coincidence that Gomes will be the regular catcher this year, a move that should help every Cleveland pitcher.
The pieces of a breakout rotation are there. Now it's just a matter of them all coming together.
10 guys scouts are raving about.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
While you never like to put too much stock in spring training performance, there is no question that scouts, coaches and execs take notice when a player looks particularly good during camp. I'm not talking about the stat sheet, but rather their actions on the field, which could be anything from their swing, to their fastball, to the way they move.
Here are 10 players who have evaluators excited this year.
1. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington Nationals
Zimmerman is taking some grounders at first base this spring, but that is only to give the Nationals more lineup flexibility when a left-hander is on the mound. He looks great at third this spring and his arm strength has returned. This will allow him to once again play a deeper third base and restore his inclusion within any Gold Glove conversation. More important for fantasy players, with a healthy right shoulder for the first time in years, they should anticipate a return to his 2009 numbers.
2. Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants
Around the trade deadline last July, Belt made some significant changes at the plate. He moved back from the front of the batter’s box to the back and more important tweaked his grip on the bat. The results in the second half were incredible, as he put up a .326/.390/.525 line. With a year of maturity and the club’s confidence that he's their long-term solution at first base, he should finally have a full breakout season.
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Manager Rick Renteria told me that Rizzo needs to hit left-handers better this year, as he did in the minor leagues. He must to go back to going the other way (which always has been his bread and butter) and then just turn on the inside pitch. Like Belt, there is a noticeable change in maturity and mindset, and because of it scouts believe he'll live up to his 30/100 potential this year.
4. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
Arenado won the Gold Glove last year, but his bat was somewhat of a disappointment. However, scouts are raving about the way he is swinging the bat early this spring and many believe that his offensive numbers will follow this year.
5. Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
Every year, players who play winter ball show up at spring training way ahead of everyone else, which is why some might be reluctant to read too much into how good Moustakas looks at the plate. However, he indeed has made huge adjustments at the plate, and most scouts believe his five weeks playing in Venezuela really helped him.
He appears hungry and his relationship with the Royals hitting coach Pedro Grifol is spectacular. Manager Ned Yost told me he has been really impressed with Moustakas' approach at the plate this spring and expects a big year out of him. With the Royals’ lineup a little deeper this year because of the additions of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki, there also will be less pressure on him.
6. Ian Desmond, SS, Washington Nationals
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told me Ian Desmond "is on a mission" and scouts agree, telling me he will hit 25 homers with at least 90 RBIs and runs. Desmond just keeps learning and adjusting at a fast rate.
7. Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
Owings hasn't won the shortstop job yet. He doesn't have the range or arm that Didi Gregorius has but there is no doubt he has a superior bat. One experienced scout told me that he wouldn't be surprised if Owings potentially hit .300 in his rookie season with 10 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Scoring runs and driving them in will of course depend on where he hits in the lineup.
8. Rex Brothers, LHP, Colorado Rockies
After the Rockies signed LaTroy Hawkins, they told him that he would be the closer and they would move Brothers back to the set-up role. That might be the case to start the year, but I'm not buying it and neither are the scouts.
It's only a matter of time before Brothers returns the closer role. Newly acquired left-hander Boone Logan can handle the lefty set-up role just fine in his place.
9. Nate Jones, RHP, Chicago White Sox
I asked GM Rick Hahn last week if Jones would be his closer and he told me, "nothing has been decided. Nate is certainly a candidate, as are Matt Lindstrom, Ronald Belisario, Daniel Webb, and perhaps even Mitchell Boggs." However, after watching Jones last year, with his 98 mph fastball and 88 mph slider to go along with his bulldog attitude, I am confident he becomes the closer and ends up with most saves for the White Sox this year.
10. Cody Allen, RHP, Cleveland Indians
The Indians' plan is for John Axford to be the closer. With his prior experience in the role and based on how good he looked in the postseason he has a reasonable shot of succeeding. But if there is an injury or for some reason he doesn't get the job done, Allen is ready to step in and should be on the radar of every fantasy owner.
Scouts continue to be impressed with his repertoire and deception. I asked GM Chris Antonetti if Allen was next on the depth chart for the closer role and he responded, "that would be accurate." It's also accurate that if given an opportunity he could pile up some saves.
Byron Buxton is the real deal.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Here are some notes from my last game of Florida spring training for the year, a game which pitted the Minnesota Twins against the Toronto Blue Jays.
• Byron Buxton, the best prospect in baseball coming into this year, didn't disappoint, hitting a hanging slider from Toronto starter Drew Hutchison deep over the left-center field wall, showing off his speed with a couple of sub-4.1-second run times from home to first, and smoking a ground ball in the ninth inning ... that led to a double play with the infield in, but hey, let's not quibble over details.
Buxton saw a ton of pitches across his five at-bats, taking the first pitch every time, putting himself in good position to get a pitch to hit in every at-bat but one. There's little new to say here; he's a true five-tool guy, showing or projecting as plus in all five of those categories, with an improving approach at the plate. He did let the ball travel well on him on Saturday, taking advantage of his quick wrists to start his bat a little later than most hitters would. His only real miscue was failing to call for a fly ball to shallow center on the shortstop side, so that the shortstop ran out to catch it and had to peel off at the last second, after which no one caught it.
• Max Kepler didn't put anything into orbit like Buxton did, but acquitted himself well through three at-bats, including a double to the right-center wall off a Kyle Drabek curveball, a four-pitch walk, and a base hit off Hutchison. He's grown into his frame well in the past couple of years and still has a great rotational swing that should allow him to hit for above-average power, but his swing is quieter than it was when the Twins first signed him and he should hit enough to get to that power. He was also running well and should be above average defensively in either outfield corner.
• Josmil Pinto is some kind of strong, and while the swing isn't beautiful, he's going to make the best of whatever contact he does make. Pinto starts with his hands back and up and bars out his lead arm when he loads even further back. He's got a plan at the plate and shortens everything up with two strikes; I'm not sure you'd want him to shorten his swing in other situations, because you might cut off some of his power.
Behind the plate, Pinto was fine receiving but not throwing, showing fringy arm strength and taking forever to get rid of the ball. You can work on the latter -- some of it was hesitation, some was about getting into the right position to throw -- more than the former. If the Twins want Pinto to catch long term, and they certainly should, pushing him to the majors now when his defense isn't ready may work against that goal.
• Twins starter Phil Hughes was very ordinary, no better than what we've seen from him over the past few years in pinstripes and maybe a tick worse.
[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
AP Photo/Steven Senne
Moving to a new organization -- and a new ballpark -- may help to rejuvenate Phil Hughes' career.
The good news is he had a solid-average curveball and used it a lot, even to left-handed batters, and while it's not as good as it was four or five years ago, it's a weapon he'll need to be successful.
The bad news is that he was hitting 91-93 mph with no life on the fastball, flashing what I think was a cutter at 89 (without a ton of cut to it), and he didn't have feel for his changeup. I still think there's value here, now that Hughes is in a new organization and won't have to pitch in a homer-friendly home park, but he needs better stuff than he showed on Saturday against the Jays.
• Right-hander Trevor May finished up for Minnesota and showed velocity but zero command, and what looked like a fear of the zone. May, acquired with Vance Worley in the Ben Revere trade, was hitting 91-93 mph with a very straight four-seamer, and flashed both a curve, a downer in the mid-70s, and a slider, the first one at 84 mph and easily the best pitch I saw him throw all day.
His changeup is very true and not that deceptive, but it was the lack of command that was most bothersome. He's probably never going to work out as a starter, but even to pitch in relief in the majors you have to know where the fastball is going and be willing to put it somewhere the hitter might make contact with it.
• Moving over to the Jays, Hutchison looked solid with his fastball/changeup combination, not quite where he was before Tommy John surgery but much of the way back. He sat around 91-93 mph and his changeup was working, a little hard at 85-86 but deceptive, helped by his ability to put it where he wanted it, including inside to right-handed hitters.
His slider wasn't sharp -- he hung that one that Lord Byron shot into the palm trees -- and he had more control than command. His delivery is good, very clean in back and repeatable; sometimes pitchers do everything right and still blow out. Hutchison showed enough of the total package for the Jays to feel comfortable with him as the fifth starter, should they choose to put him there.
• Right-hander Drabek, coming back from his second Tommy John surgery, was the tandem starter for Hutchison, going three innings and showing average to below-average stuff across the board. Drabek used mostly cutters and two-seamers rather than the four-seamer, hitting 85-89 mph on the cutter, 87-89 on the two-seamer, commanding neither pitch and not getting enough life on the latter one. The cutter can function like a short slider at the lower end of that velocity range, but at 88 or 89 mph it started to straighten out too much.
Drabek used to have a hammer curveball, but that wasn't in evidence in this outing, as his best curveball came in at 78 mph with 11/5 break but loose rotation. His changeup is very firm and not a major weapon for him right now. He's approaching two years since the surgery, so more of his stuff would be back by now if it is ever going to come back.
• Brett Lawrie ... I'm not sure what to tell you about him. He's still a great athlete, he still runs well, and there should be some power in there, but he was on top of everything today, hitting almost every pitch where he made contact, fair or foul, into the ground. He may be over-rotating, considering that at the point of contact his hips are turned so much that that portion of his anatomy is facing the pitcher (it looks like more than a 90-degree turn from where his hips started). It may be that he's trying so hard to keep his hands inside the ball that he's not getting the bat around the ball enough when it's out over the plate, a pitch he should be able to drive.
It could be nothing, perhaps just an off day for him. He has raw tools, but this swing isn't working for him -- he hit .265/.320/.401 over the past two years -- and he doesn't walk or play enough defense to be an everyday solution if he's not hitting for a high average.
Scouting Stroman, plus Rays and Nats.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays rolled out a number of young arms Friday, led by Toronto's No. 2 overall prospect Marcus Stroman, who is in the running for a rotation spot. Stroman showed his full four-pitch repertoire and has the durability to start, but problems keeping his fastball down led to trouble for him.
Stroman was 91-95 mph over his three innings of work, getting a little arm-side run but no sink or downhill plane. He left several fastballs up, with Kevin Kiermaier hitting a 92 mph four-seamer out to deep right. Stroman throws two breaking balls, a hard slider/cutter at 85-87 mph and a hard slurve at 81-83. He also flashed an average changeup at 84, but the harder slider was his best offspeed pitch on the day.
I have no questions about Stroman's ability to be a starter in the majors beyond the matter of getting his fastball down in the zone. He's roughly 5-foot-9, very strong and athletic, but not tall enough to stay on top of the ball consistently. The A's faced a similar hurdle with Sonny Gray, but worked with Gray to give up a little velocity for more consistent downhill plane so he could avoid becoming a severe fly ball guy.
The Jays will have to work a similar transformation with Stroman for him to be a starter, but if they pull this off, he'll be more than just a back-end guy.
• Tampa Bay threw three pitchers they acquired this winter in Brad Boxberger, Nate Karns and Matt Andriese, all right-handers. Boxberger was 89-93 mph with a plus changeup, at least a 60 on the 20-80 scale, selling the heck out of it and fooling left-handed hitters consistently even when he'd triple up on the pitch; he threw Melky Cabrera three straight and Cabrera still hasn't stopped spinning.
• Karns was a little more erratic, showing a quick arm but less velocity than he's had in the past, sitting 90-93 with a hard curve and hard change, showing more feel for the change than the breaking ball. There's a little effort in his delivery, but hitters see the ball very late, and I think if the velocity creeps back up to its normal levels he'll be a clear rotation candidate for the Rays the next time they need someone.
• Andriese was disappointing, as he completely lost his arm slot in his second inning of work and was all over the place. He doesn't throw anything straight, with a two-seamer at 88-90 with a ton of life, a cutter at 85-87, and a big, slow curveball at 78-79 that was too easy to pick up out of his hand. He couldn't finish his assigned two innings of work because he couldn't locate anything.
• One Tampa Bay arm I didn't see, but heard very good things about, was right-hander Jake Odorizzi. He is a great athlete with a smooth delivery who never had any sort of swing-and-miss pitch. After working a little with Alex Cobb this spring, Odorizzi has a new changeup and the early returns are promising, with five swings and misses out of eight total changeups in his last outing.
• The young bat to stand out was Kiermaier, who homered and singled and showed plus speed, rounding first base in less than 4.2 seconds. The Rays are good at integrating role players, which might be all Kiermaier is for now, and I think he'll get opportunities for them this year because of his legs and his defense in the outfield.
• The Jays had Ricky Romero out there ... but it was ugly, 89-92, half of them in the dirt or way off target.
• Also from the Sad Trombone Files, the Rays gave 2012 first-rounder Richie Shaffer an at-bat and he punched out on three fastballs, all away, against a lefty, so he had the platoon advantage.
Notes on Nationals-Braves
• Shifting games to Thursday night, Washington played at Atlanta in a game light on prospects. Julio Teheran started, but it wasn't his best night as he didn't have a feel for his curveball and was throwing more sliders, although even on a less-than-perfect night he was still hitting 93-94 mph with his fastball. Jordan Zimmermann started for the Nats, working from 93-96 with a ridiculous changeup. He's ready to go.
• The Nats used two relievers of note, both recently acquired in trades, right-hander Blake Treinen and left-hander Felipe Rivero. Treinen, who came over from the A's, was 93-96 with a hard 82-85 slider with huge tilt, to the point that it's more like a power slurve. His fastball is straight enough to hang laundry on it, and his command is below-average, so he's more of a middle-relief prospect than someone I'd project for leveraged work.
• Rivero came over in the deal that sent Karns to the Rays and boasts a very quick arm but with a high-effort delivery he doesn't repeat very well. He was 90-93, pitching up with the fastball a lot, with an inconsistent curveball at 74-77 that backed up at 74 but was above-average when he finished it and got to the higher end of that range. He threw one changeup at 85, not enough to evaluate it.
If the delivery and arm action never change, he's a reliever for sure, but he's young -- 22 years old -- and the arm is pretty quick, so I wouldn't rule out the Nats (or some other team) cleaning him up enough to let him start.