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2017 Positional Breakdown: The Starting Pitchers

Heading into 2016, there was no questioning a Cleveland Indians starting rotation anchored by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Once Carrasco (fractured right hand) and Salazar (right forearm strain) were placed on the disabled list, the lack of depth at the position was exposed in the postseason. The IBI's John Alfes breaks down 2017's starting staff...

The Cleveland Indians made off-season adjustments to their bullpen, outfield and infield due to the departures of Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp and Mike Napoli. By finishing one game away from a World Series title in 2016, the organization emphasized the need to fine-tune their roster with the signings of Edwin Encarnacion, Boone Logan, Austin Jackson and Richie Shaffer.

The Tribe’s elite pitching staff did not need any of this fine-tuning. Rather, they needed rest.

Manager Terry Francona implemented a three-man starting rotation to compensate for the injuries of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar toward the closing stretch of the 2016 campaign. The tactic had temporary success but eventually exposed its weaknesses in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series when Josh Tomlin and Corey Kluber each struggled to make it past the third and fourth innings in their pair of season-defining starts.

Moving forward, the rotation consisting of Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Tomlin expects to return in 2017 with unfinished business in mind.

RHP Corey Kluber

Kluber took a step to stardom by performing at a superior level throughout a postseason in which he pitched on short rest three different times. If Kluber’s 4-1 record, 1.83 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 34.1 playoff innings were taken into account, he likely would have won the 2016 AL Cy Young Award.

It was an inauspicious beginning for the 30-year-old after registering a 4.24 ERA in April and 4.08 ERA in May. Six of Kluber’s 11 early-season appearances were quality starts, one of which was a shutout against Detroit: 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R/ER, 2 BB, 7 K.

The tide settled for the remainder of the year as the Stetson College product shifted into cruise control and posted a 3.14 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and allowed a career-low 7.12 H/9. Once Carrasco went down, Kluber firmly asserted himself as the ace of an injury-riddled pitching staff.

What to expect: Kluber will receive a lighter workload this spring to keep his arm conditioned for another deep playoff run. Undoubtedly, Kluber will be the ace of the Tribe for both the present and future of the franchise.

RHP Carlos Carrasco

A hard line-drive off the bat of Ian Kinsler spelled an abrupt end to Carrasco’s thriving season. As a result, hurlers like Kluber, Bauer and Tomlin faced the challenge of pitching on short rest on the biggest stage in baseball.

Would last year have been different if Carrasco evaded the injury bug?

That answer is up for debate, but the 29-year-old certainly pitched better than the average number two starter by tallying double-digit wins for the second time in his career, at least 100 strikeouts for the third year in a row and a K/BB ratio above 4.4 for a third consecutive season.

What to expect: Carrasco is healthy again and will likely be monitored throughout camp to see how his right hand reacts to pitching for the first time in five months. If all goes smoothly, the Venezuelan native will reclaim his role atop the starting rotation.

RHP Danny Salazar

There was a point in 2016 when Salazar was in the conversation for the AL Cy Young Award. He dominated the competition in the months of April (2.35 ERA), May (2.41) and June (1.91) before hitting a mid-season roadblock.

Previously undergoing Tommy John surgery in August of 2011, there was fear that Salazar could face the same procedure five years later. The flame-throwing right-hander found himself on the 15-day disabled list on Aug. 2 for right elbow inflammation. Fortunately for the Indians, the injury designation was more of a precautionary matter as Salazar returned to the hill just 16 days later.

Things continued to trend in a downward spiral for the 27-year-old.

Salazar surrendered 17 earned runs in 12.1 frames of work to finish with an 0-4 record in August alone. His three scoreless innings in the playoffs proved the elbow injury might not have been as bad as it originally seemed to be, but Salazar needs to stay healthy moving forward.

What to expect: Salazar’s fastball-changeup combination can be devastating for opposing hitters when he commands the ball as well as he did in the early portion of 2016. Expect Salazar to join Carrasco with a reduced workload this spring to prepare for the grueling MLB season.

RHP Trevor Bauer

It is hard to talk about Bauer’s career year without mentioning the odd injury he suffered prior to the ALCS.

The former UCLA standout suffered a lacerated right pinkie in a drone-induced injury at the climax of the campaign. Bauer calmed the fearful Tribe fans by claiming he would not miss any time, but his bloody finger in the first inning of ALCS Game 3 forced an early exit.

Despite the postseason struggles, Bauer avoided arbitration this off-season by signing a one-year deal worth $3.55-million. His 12 wins, 190 innings and 1.31 WHIP were all career-bests in a 2016 season that began in the bullpen. As the third overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, there is still reason to believe in Bauer’s gradual development and growth into a premium pitcher.

What to expect: It is safe to assume that Bauer will not be returning to the bullpen anytime soon as supported by his performance last season. The 26-year-old has worked well with pitching coach Mickey Callaway and gained a sense of understanding as to what the club expects out him. His unique shoulder tube and pole-to-pole throwing routines have garnered the pregame attention of the Cleveland faithful and maybe even helped him avoid a stint on the disabled list.

RHP Josh Tomlin

Like Salazar, Tomlin is another player with a Tommy John procedure (August, 2012) to his name. Profiling as a command specialist with an average fastball velocity of 88.28 mph, Tomlin filled the void left by Carrasco and Salazar in the postseason by allowing three earned runs in his first three starts (1-0, 15.1 IP, 1.76 ERA).

Because of Tomlin’s emergence, arms like Mike Clevinger and Ryan Merritt were assigned to pitch out of the bullpen in the World Series.

Tomlin’s late-season prosperity commenced on Sep. 14 when he allowed one run in five frames to the Chicago White Sox. The Texas Tech product earned the win and notched a quality start for the first time in a month. Tomlin followed up the encouraging outing with three more dominant appearances (20.2 IP, 16 H, 5, R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 7 K) to close out the regular season.

Contrary to Salazar, Tomlin culminated the year on a high note and should have plenty of confidence heading into big league camp.

What to expect: Tomlin went above and beyond in September and October and transformed from an afterthought to the second best starting pitcher on the playoff roster. Expect the 32-year-old veteran to team with Bauer at the backend of the rotation to begin the campaign.

RHP Mike Clevinger

Clevinger bounced around between the starting rotation and bullpen after making his major league debut in mid-May. Acquired from the Angels in exchange for reliever Vinnie Pestano, Clevinger had reoccurring control issues as evidenced by his 4.92 BB/9 and 1.49 WHIP.

The stuff is there for Clevinger, it is just a matter of throwing with confidence, consistency and command after recording video game numbers at the Triple-A level in 2016 (11 W, 1 L, 93 IP, 78 H, 32 R, 31 ER, 35 BB, 97 K).

It was already announced that Clevinger will vie for a spot in the starting rotation this spring; now he just has to prove he is capable.

What to expect: While he is still young (26-years-old), Clevinger will likely have to wait his turn for an opportunity in a major league rotation. Clevinger needs to be able to get hitters out the second and third time he faces them, as his longest start of the year happened to be his MLB debut of just 5.1 frames.

RHP Cody Anderson

It has been a tale of two drastically different seasons for Anderson. After pitching his way into a middle of the rotation role in 2015, everything seemed to unravel in April (7.65 ERA) and May (5.95) of 2016.

Unlike Clevinger’s command issues, Anderson was leaving too many pitches over the plate and allowed a whopping 56 hits in 39.2 innings. The California native was demoted to Columbus before returning to the Indians in a long-relief role in September.

Anderson allowed five runs in his last two regular season outings before undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery in November.

What to expect: Having pitched as a starter for the majority of his professional career, Anderson will have to return to his 2015 form (7-3, 3.05 ERA) if he wants another chance in 2017. His average fastball velocity of 94.06 mph is a positive takeaway from a dismal season and something to build on moving forward.

LHP Ryan Merritt

If Francona had a crystal ball and saw that Merritt would be the starting pitcher to help send the Tribe to the World Series before the season, he might not have believed his eyes.

Many Indians players were forced to do more than expected in the latter half of 2016, one of which was Merritt. Making just his second major league start in Game 5 of the ALCS, Merritt shutdown the likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion in a memorable effort that shaped out in a line of 4.1 IP 2 H 0 R/ER 0 BB 3 K.

With T.J. House gone, the 24-year-old should be considered for spot starts, a long-relief role or even a spot in the rotation if the opportunity presents itself as it did in the playoffs.

What to expect: Merritt will join the starting pitch mix but could very well spend most of the year at Triple-A. It is a small sample size, but Merritt’s 11 innings of two-run ball over the course of four big league outings is promising. If hurlers like Salazar or Carrasco run into further injury trouble, then this lanky lefty might be the next man up.

RHP Carlos Frias

Frias is a bit of an unknown to Tribe fans, but he has enough of a major league tenure to be on the radar heading into 2017. Acquired via trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Jan. 30, the 27-year-old has experience as both a starter and reliever in his three-year MLB tenure (6-6, 4.50 ERA, 144 IP, 123 H, 60 R, 57 ER, 34 BB, 74 K). Frias made one relief appearance in 2016 but 15 of his 33 MLB appearances have been starts since his debut in 2014.

Hailing from the Dominican Republic, Frias is not going to blow any hitters away but does feature a cutter registering an average velocity of 89.01 mph. Frias averages 5.92 K/9 and a 2.21 K/BB ratio and is coming off a right oblique impingement that landed him on the 60-day disabled list this past September.

What to expect: It is unknown whether Frias will be a starter or not, but he will get an opportunity to shine under the Goodyear, AZ sun at spring training. Additionally, the club is looking for a final reliever in the pen with the starting rotation set in stone.

RHP Adam Plutko

When Adam Plutko received word of his promotion, he was in the middle of a friend’s wedding and celebrating for reasons not pertaining to his baseball career. Shortly after the ceremony, the former College World Series standout booked a flight to Cleveland as the team’s latest September call-up.

It is hard to draw conclusions from Plutko’s two major league outings (7.36 ERA) as he was coming off a brilliant year with Double-A Akron and Columbus and had a few weeks off before the call up.  In his three minor league campaigns, Plutko has never recorded a WHIP higher than 1.34 and has shown impeccable command courtesy of his 411:104 strikeout to walk ratio.

What to expect: The 25-year-old was drafted almost four years ago and may need more work with the Clippers before he takes on a substantial MLB workload. Plutko could also be in the running for the bullpen as there is little room amid a healthy starting rotation.

John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.

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