Spring Training 2004 Preview – Part II
Now the contenders for the rotation:
Starters (5 spots)
CC Sabathia – Age 23 Throws: Left
I think a lot of people don’t realize how special a pitcher Sabathia is. What he’s done over his first three years at his age is very rare. Although he posted his lowest win total of his career in 2003, it didn’t take a genius (or a Cleveland sportswriter..) to figure out that the inept offense had more to do with that than his pitching ability.
Sabathia is one of a select few pitchers to post three above 100 ERA+ seasons before the age of 22. The knock on CC is that his strikeout rate has been falling since his first season, but his walk rates have been falling as well:
2001 .95 K/IP .53 BB/IP ERA+ 103
2002 .70 K/IP .41 BB/IP ERA+ 103
2003 .71 K/IP .33 BB/IP ERA+ 118
When Sabathia first came up, he was basically a fastball pitcher, and threw a ton of them. The fact that his K rate has stabilized, and his walk rates have steadily declined paints a picture of a pitcher that’s learning how to pitch. This also means he’s throwing less pitches per game, which is always good for a young pitcher. The next year or two are absolutely critical; if CC can stay healthy, the Indians will have a cornerstone in their rotation.
Cliff Lee – Age 25 Throws: Left
In a way, Lee’s injury-plagued season in 2003 may have been for the best; his innings were kept down, and he’s a major key in the rotation this season. He possesses three fantastic pitches; a fastball, a slider, and a slow curve. It’s pretty pointless to construct a projection based on 62.2 IP over two seasons, but Lee is one of the best young pitching prospects in baseball.
Jason Davis – Age 24 Throws: Right
He’s probably a bit overrated at this point in his career. A sinker/slider pitcher, Davis nevertheless gave up 25 home runs in 165 innings of work. He needs to pitch low in the zone to be effective, and let his sinker work. His control is still an issue, as he tried to overthrow his fastball on a couple occasions. That being said, Davis is still a very raw pitcher, and he flew through the system, going from Kinston to Cleveland in 2002. I still like his upside, but Davis might have a couple bumps in the road ahead.
Jake Westbrook – Age 26 Throws: Right
If Davis is overrated, Jake Westbrook is a bit underrated. He’s never going to rack up the strikeouts, but his pitches all have movement, and those are the types of pitchers who stick around for a while. Two full seasons removed from shoulder surgery, Jake should be able to go 180 IP if inserted in the rotation, and be a nice 4th or 5th starter.
Don’t believe me? Here’s Jake’s numbers, along with the numbers another low-strikeout pitcher who had a “great” season:
Westbrook 133.0 IP, 4.33 ERA, 58 SO, 9 HR, 6 UER
Anderson 197.2 IP, 3.78 ERA, 87 SO, 27 HR, 27 UER
The difference bewteen the two? Brian Anderson gave up almost three times the number of unearned runs Westbrook did, and it deflated his ERA enough so that he got a two-year deal from the Royals. If Westbrook can trust his sinker (and it’s a good one), he should be able to eat a lot of innings in the back of the rotation.
Jason Stanford – Age 27 Throws: Left
You can’t really think of anything bad to say about a pitcher who worked in a deli in Buffalo in 2002. Stanford wasn’t drafted, even though he was left-handed and breathing, and has worked his way through the minors, leaving dozens of more highly-touted arms in his wake. What remains to be seen is if his stuff is good enough to get outs in the majors. He doesn’t really have a dominating pitch, and has to rely on control and location to succeed, but plenty of pitchers have made careers out of less stuff. I think he’d be a nice swingman for the Indians, if for no other reason to see where he could fit on the club. With Brian Tallet and Billy Traber both out for the year with bad elbows, Stanford should get at least a major look this year, whether that be in the rotation or the bullpen.
Jeff D’Amico – Age 28 Throws: Right
Because the Indians want one of the two spots in the rotation to go to a veteren, D’Amico is probably going to make the team. He’s still a pretty young pitcher, but arm injuries have derailed his career after lighting up the National League in 2000 with the Milwaukee Brewers. I seriously doubt we’ll see another 2.66 ERA out of Jeff, but he should provide 150-170 generic innings in the 5th spot, which is good enough.
Jason Bere – Age 32 Throws: Right
I put Bere in the same class as Ricky Gutierrez; he’s supposedly healthy again, but you can’t count on him for any material contribution. He’s signed to a minor-league contract, so he may bounce around Buffalo for a month or two until another team needs an arm.
Chad Durbin – Age 26 Throws: Right
Also coming off an arm injury, Durbin is a bit of a better gamble than Bere. He’s a lot younger, and still has pretty good stuff. The fact that he stayed on the 40-man roster all winter tells you that the Indians like him a lot. He may be a guy who the Indians stick in the bullpen to build back his arm strength a la Jake Westbrook, and may stick in the rotation towards the end of the year.
Other Starters on the 40-man Roster:
Billy Traber – Age 24 Throws: Left
He’s most likely out for the year with Tommy John surgery. With TJ being such a commonplace event with pitchers, he’s worth mentioning as a candidate for the 2005 rotation. Before he went under the knife, Traber had an uneven season, pitching masterpieces along with massacres. Of course, all of his work is now seen in a different light now that his condition is known, which made his one-hitter against the Yankees in July seem that much more impressive.
Brian Tallet – Age 26 Throws: Left
Also out with TJ surgery, Tallet had a horrendous year in Buffalo, posting a 5.14 ERA for the Bisons. And like Traber, those numbers look a lot different when you consider those numbers were on a bad arm. A fringe prospect, Tallet will probably have a tougher time cracking the rotation when he comes back from surgery, so he may end up in the bullpen permanently as a LOOGY; with his delivery and his splits versus left-handers, he could be very valuable in that role.
Jeremy Guthrie – Age 25 Throws: Right
Jeremy made a very impressive professional debut in Akron, but got lit up by AAA hitters. He’s going to have to prove that he can survive in the International League before coming to the majors, but this looks like more of a speed bump for Guthrie than a pot hole. Given a successful couple months in Buffalo, Guthrie should make his major-league debut in July or August. For those who continually deride owner Larry Dolan as “cheap”, I offer this pitcher (and his signing bonus) as Defense Exhibit A.
Francisco Cruceta – Age 23 Throws: Right
Still a high-ceiling arm, and not much else. Francisco can throw the heat quite effectively, but he still has to gain control of a breaking pitch before he can be thought of as a possible starter down the road. He’s being moved up to Buffalo this season, and that will provide a great test for his off-speed stuff.
Mariano Gomez – Age 22 Throws: Left
Since he was added to the 40-man roster this winter, the Indians are going to move Gomez quickly. He’s going to be in Akron’s rotation this season. A 6’6″ left-handed power pitcher, Gomez has the ability to make some eyes pop if his physical tools continue to develop.