The Indians only have three competitions for starting jobs on the team and this is the only one that really affects who will and won't make the 25 man roster. Last season, the Indians had a main rotation of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber. Of these, the Indians lost Kazmir and Jimenez, but already replaced one of them with Danny Salazar, so there is only one spot remaining going into the next season.
While the Indians have been looking out all off-season for an external replacement while watching players like Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo and many more mid-level starters sign elsewhere. While hopes have somewhat maintained about signing either Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez who have remained on the market much longer than expected, those have now dwindled as well. The Indians will have to go with the players they have already in camp.
In whole, the competitors for the job are off-season pick-ups Shaun Marcum and Aaron Harang along with current Indians Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer. All five of these have shown signs of greatness, but all are also coming off serious issues from last season. These problems can be broken down into two overly simplified issues as Marcum and Tomlin are both coming off injuries while Harang, Bauer and Carrasco have had issues with control.
Besides missing all of 2009, Marcum has been a top of the line starter from 2007 through 2012, but all that ended in 2013. Last year with the Mets, Marcum dealt with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, eventually ending his season with surgery for this in July. Free of this non-baseball related injury, there is no reason Marcum shouldn't return to his old form (averaged a 3.67 ERA and 135 strike outs per season from '07-'12). He averaged 27 starts and 166 innings per year over that stretch, all numbers that the Indians would be incredibly happy with this season out of their fifth starter. This makes him a favorite for the job as long as he can get through Spring unharmed.
The next best option may be Tomlin, who was forgotten for most of the last two years as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. He made it into a single game in 2013 after having the operation at the end of 2012, so we already know that he is ready to throw from day one of camp. While he was largely forgotten, he is still a pitcher who can make 20 to 30 starts per season and hold an ERA about 4.00. As a young player just entering his prime (age 29) season, it is likely we haven't seen the best of Tomlin yet. In addition to his opportunity to become the fifth starter, a long relief role could also suit Tomlin as it would allow him to slowly increase his innings and get him used to facing Major League hitters again. This way, if he isn't named the fifth starter at the beginning of the year, he will still be around for the inevitable injuries during the season, ready to step right into the rotation.
A favorite of upper management, Carrasco may have a better upside than either of the two pitchers already mentioned. He is the youngest to this point at just 27 going into this season and hasn't made enough starts (just 40) to really know what to expect. He is decent at striking out batters (6.2 career K/9), but has a major issue with the long ball, including 19 allowed over his last 170 innings. The biggest drawback with Carrasco is that he is out of options, meaning he will need to be exposed to waivers if he doesn't make the opening day roster. With so few open roster places in the rotation and bullpen, it would take a tremendous Spring in addition to some bad luck for the other competitors for Carrasco to earn a spot.
Bauer is someplace between superstar of the future and total bust, a quality that will be largely decided during the 2014 season. As the third overall pick in 2011, the Diamondbacks thought he was ready for the Majors just one year later and used him in four games before completely giving up on him. The Indians thought he needed a little more time in AAA last season, but he still made four spot starts, where he showed a complete lack of control. In just 17 innings, Bauer walked 16 batters including a record four in a row to start his Indians career. As the season progressed, things seemed to get better, but in his final spot at the end of June, he allowed five runs in just 0.2 innings. If he can get things under control, he could be not just a presence this season, but a strong number two behind Danny Salazar for the foreseeable future.
Harang was a last minute addition to camp, being signed after pitchers and catchers officially reported. He had the best track record of the competitors, but is also the oldest, so getting a late start in camp, even by a few days, could lead to a slow start. His career numbers of 325 games, almost 2,000 innings pitched and more than 1,500 strike outs with a 4.28 ERA are numbers that can't matched by youngsters like Tomlin and Carrasco. He may be the best option for this season (although at 36, he might not have many more after it), but he will have to prove he is past 2013, when he struggled with the Mariners and Mets with a 5.40 ERA in 143.1 innings.
While Marcum seems to have a slight advantage in the race, it is only just beginning. Each competitor will get starts and innings during early Spring Training and things should sort themselves out. As the only option with options, Bauer is most likely to get left behind, but a strong Spring would make him a prime candidate for mid-season call-up. Depending on how the Indians decide to make up their roster, two of the players listed above could make the team (one as a long reliever), but this would likely cost the team a bat or some infield versatility. Either way, at least one, and possibly three of the players could be gone from the team for good if they don't make the 25 man roster out Spring Training. Because of this, this competition is of much more importance than similar ones in previous seasons.
A large part of this decision will be deciding to place importance on winning now, or winning in the future. Carrasco would be under team control through 2017 and as mentioned before, he may have the best upside, but would likely be the worst option for winning in 2014. Marcum could be the best choice for winning right now, but could cost them both Tomlin and Carrasco, severely limiting the options for even 2015. The situation with the upper rotation could also affect this decision. If Masterson signs a long term deal, the Indians may feel confident enough in their future rotation to let Carrasco go. The same is true if Salazar, Kluber and McAllister look particularly dominant. This competition will definitely be one to watch this Spring and is possibly the most important of them all.
Marcum is ready to compete for a starting job.