Indians search for a fifth starter

Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco (59) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.

Jesse Johnson/Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training gets underway in about seven weeks, and one of the most intriguing battles on the horizon for the Indians this spring is how the fifth starter spot shakes out.

There is still some time left in the offseason for the Indians to trade or sign for a more proven starting pitcher which would eliminate all of the intrigue and unknown in the rotation, but at the moment the Indians appear content going with the options they have in place internally. Aside from signing a few more starters to minor league contracts who have had major league success in the past, what they have at the moment should be it.

And what they have is a collection of interesting solutions for the final rotation spot who all have the ability to lock it down, but bring with them several question marks.

Barring injury, the first four pitchers in the Indians opening day rotation will be Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. The competition for the fifth and final spot is between Carlos Carrasco, Shaun Marcum, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer.

The Indians have already gone out of their way to let it be known that Carrasco has a sizable leg up on the other three pitchers in the fifth starter competition. He is probably the most talented and has the best stuff of the four.

With a plus fastball that averages 95 MPH and touches 98 MPH to go along with a very impressive curveball and changeup, Carrasco has the three pitch mix which profiles him as more of a frontend starter rather than a backend starter. He has the delivery, the size and ability to haul innings, and has the pedigree as a former number one ranked prospect.

But while Carrasco has dominated the minors and proven he no longer belongs there, he has had trouble translating to the major league level and pitching with the consistency needed in the rotation. A big reason for that is his mental makeup as the game often speeds up on him and when he gets into jams he has a hard time working his way out of them. It has been his biggest knock throughout his time in the minors, and something he will need to overcome in order to have consistent success in the majors.

Last season Carrasco made 15 appearances (7 starts) for the Indians and went 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA and 1.76 WHIP. In his major league career he has made 48 appearances (40 starts) and compiled an 11-19 record, 5.29 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. Aside from an impressive six week stretch in 2011 before he went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, that is not a very impressive major league career to date. Short as it may be, it does not instill a lot of confidence in him for next season.

The wildcard in all of this is that Carrasco showed some promise as a reliever last season, although it was just eight appearances and it is tough to get a true feel from such a small sample size. But if Carrasco struggles in the rotation early next season, or he doesn’t win the fifth starter role coming out of spring training, then he most definitely will at least pitch out of the bullpen in some sort of swing or long man role.

A poor showing by Carrasco this spring would open the door for another pitcher in the rotation. He could also pitch well and miss out on the spot if Marcum has a very good showing this spring.

Marcum might be just as intriguing as Carrasco as he has the proven success at the major league level the Indians covet for the final spot, but he has struggled with some health issues the past few years. That is the main reason the Indians were able to sign him to a minor league deal two weeks ago.

Marcum has had a solid career but has struggled with injuries the last two years making 21 starts in 2012 with the Brewers (7-4, 3.70 ERA) and 12 starts with the Mets last season (1-10, 5.29 ERA). He is recovering from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery and will need to show he is healthy and effective this spring to make the major league roster.

New York Mets starting pitcher Shaun Marcum (38) pitches during the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Citi Field.

The intrigue with Marcum and Carrasco makes both pitchers the clear frontrunners for the fifth starter spot. While Carrasco is the favorite for the spot, Marcum may actually have the inside track because he has an opt out in his minor league deal where he can elect free agency if he is not on the Indians opening day 25-man roster.

Tomlin and Bauer are the others in the mix, but both appear to be decidedly behind Carrasco and Marcum.

Tomlin has actually done a solid job at the major league level going 23-19 with a 4.92 ERA in 60 appearances (54 starts). He won’t strike fear into any opposing lineup as his stuff is barely average, but he knows how to pitch and has shown some consistency in the past. But he is also coming back from Tommy John surgery so like Carrasco last season he may be limited.

Bauer is another very talented pitcher like Carrasco, but his biggest problem is his inability to consistently command the strike zone. He is the fourth guy on the totem pole at the moment and would probably only make it to Cleveland early in the season if a rash of injuries devastated the Indians starting rotation. He needs a good two months or so in the minors to fine tune the delivery changes he is making so that he can come up and impact the Indians rotation later in the year.

One thing to remember in all of this is at this time last year Carrasco went into spring training as the favorite for the fifth starter spot and Scott Kazmir was a minor league signing that was in the mix. Kazmir looked great in the spring, won the fifth spot, and had a fantastic season. If Marcum can do the same this spring and just be an average performer that gives the Indians some innings and competes well, then he should be the fifth starter for as long as his health allows.

The fifth starter battle this spring will carry the most attention. Let’s just hope that all parties involved pitch well and make the decision tough on the Indians.