Excitement surrounding Tribe’s rotation, but final spot still up for grabs

If Salazar can keep the ball in the park and limit his inconsistency, it would be tough to keep him out of the rotation.

Last season, the Indians rotation was a work in progress from the time they reported to Goodyear, Ariz. Over the last two months though things gelled. During that period, they led the majors in strikeouts (358) and had the second-lowest ERA (2.76) while logging pitched the fourth-most innings (338 2/3).

Many are banking that this season the rotation will resemble that and not the one that languished the first four months of the season. Due to injuries, youth and ineffectiveness, the Tribe during that span had the fifth-worst ERA in the majors (4.40) as opposing hitters batted .270.

With Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber leading the rotation and an abundance of young arms, there is more optimism about the staff this season. Terry Francona is hoping that he can start the season with Kluber, Gavin Floyd, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer as his first four.

Before the April 6 opener at Houston, the biggest question though is who will emerge from what should be a five-man battle for the final spot? With pitchers and catchers reporting on Wednesday, here are the five candidates.

DANNY SALAZAR: The right-hander began last season as the Indians’ fourth starter, but went 1-4 with a 5.53 ERA in eight starts before being optioned to Triple-A Columbus on May 16. After being recalled in late July, Salazar went 5-4 with a 3.50 ERA in 10 starts.

Salazar didn’t pitch much in Cactus League games last year as the Indians took their time getting him stretched out, which played a factor in the early-season struggles. To combat that, Salazar reported to Goodyear in mid-January so that he will be ready this year.

"Even in his minor-league seasons, it took him a while to kind of ramp up into the season," Francona said. "When you’re in Double-A, that’s not the end of the world, but when you’re pitching for us, those are costing you wins. So, we were thrilled that he bought into it and he wanted to get out there because I think it will really help him."

If Salazar can keep the ball in the park and limit his inconsistency, it would be tough to keep him out of the rotation. In the April 10 start last season at Chicago, Salazar struck out 10 of the 18 batters he faced, but allowed two home runs, five hits and five runs in 3 2/3 innings.

ZACH McALLISTER: In his first four starts, McAllister was 3-0 and had a 2.28 ERA. In his remaining 11 starts, he was 0-7 with a 7.30 ERA. The right-hander is out of options, meaning he is either a part of the rotation or will move to the bullpen. After landing on the disabled list in late May last season, McAllister had a tough time getting back up to Cleveland and was often used as a spot starter along with spending time in Triple-A Columbus.

In his seven relief appearances after rosters were expanded, McAllister was very effective with a 2.77 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched.

INDIANS POSITIONAL OUTLOOKS

Most expect McAllister to end up in the bullpen, but Francona has cautioned against that and wants to let things play out.

"I think I’m more excited just to have Zach pitching healthy, because we saw what he can do," Francona said. He can do that whether he’s starting or relieving. It’s kind of the same thing with Carrasco. If you pitch like that, it doesn’t really matter where you’re pitching."

JOSH TOMLIN: He won his first two starts after being called up from Columbus, but a 2-6 stretch in 11 starts from early June to early August relegated Tomlin back to the bullpen.

Included in that stretch though was a one-hitter on June 28 at Seattle, marking the Tribe’s first one-hitter since Billy Traber in 2003. Like McAllister, Tomlin spent the last two months in the bullpen. If he doesn’t begin the season in the bullpen, Tomlin could head to Columbus since he has an option remaining.

BRUCE CHEN: The left-hander has agreed to terms and the deal is expected to be announced Tuesday. Chen though is a longshot to make it.

The 37-year old left-hander was 2-4 last season for Kansas City with a 7.45 ERA in 13 games with seven being starts. He was designated for assignment in August and released in September. In his 16-year career, Chen has pitched for 10 teams and is 82-80 with a 4.58 ERA in 398 games with 225 being starts.

T.J. HOUSE: After a rough start to his career in the minors, House has finally developed into a reliable starter and should be considered with Salazar as co-favorites for the spot.

House isn’t flashy, but he does get the job done. A lot was made of how well Carrasco did when he returned to the rotation but House was almost as effective. In his final seven starts, the left-hander was 4-0 with a 2.20 ERA with 36 strikeouts and only five walks. When opposing hitters do get contact, House has a ground-ball percentage of 61.5 percent, which led Indians starters last season.