A little has been made about Danny Salazar and Cody Allen reaching new career highs in innings and being limited for the rest of the year, but the exhaustion of the Indians players appears to be stretching a lot further than two rookie pitchers. Of the Indians five starters, three are going to be at career highs in innings pitched by the end of 2013 (Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Salazar) and Scott Kazmir will probably throw more innings than in any season since 2007. In the bullpen, Rich Hill is already at his highest innings point since 2009, Matt Albers will hit his highest total since 2010 and Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen are both already at career highs.
The pitchers listed make up the majority of the pitching staff that would be play-off eligible (eight of 12 pitchers expected to make the final roster), leading up to what could be a major problem, assuming the Indians are able to catch either Tampa or Texas and hold off the Yankees, Orioles and Royals. Right now, the Indians are doing the best they can to keep these pitchers fresh, limiting Salazar to four innings in his last two starts and keeping Kazmir under 100 pitches in five of his last six starts. These methods should help keep the rotation fresh (they have been greatly aided by the expanded bullpen, especially the additions of Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin), but are not the cure for the tired arms that the off-season will be.
Starting pitchers who excel in the Major Leagues are expected to throw around 200 innings and, while no Indians starter will reach that point this year, the young stars throwing around 150 this season will better prepare them for seasons in the future. Considering the playoffs this year, however, the Indians could be in trouble.
Using Justin Verlander as an example of a Central Division starter who carries a large work load and has pitched deep into the post season in multiple seasons, we can find a maximum of innings expected of a pitcher. During his seven seasons as ace, Verlander has averaged 220 innings per season, a ton of innings for any modern starter. In his three post-seasons (two of which ended in the World Series) he has averaged another 23 innings per year. This is almost 10% of his season work load, added to the end, something that is not often considered in wear and tear.
If the Indians make it to and past the one game Wild Card match-up, they will have an entire staff of worn out pitchers, all of a sudden expecting them to throw another ten to twenty innings. For these starters this added workload would amount to as much as 20% of their regular season innings, an amount that may be impossible for Kazmir and Salazar, if not others. In addition, the Indians will no longer have their giant relief corps to back up the starters, allowing them to come out of the game in or before the fifth and still giving the Indians a chance to win.
The Indians have a couple options left to push of the inevitable burning out of these pitchers, but none are great for a team that needs to win most of the remaining games to guarantee a play-off birth. Justin Masterson is the key to all this. If he came back, two starters could be removed from the rotation in the play-offs and added to the bullpen, allowing Masterson and Jimenez to pitch the majority of the play-off games. They have been the Indians top two pitchers this season and aren't near record inning counts. If Masterson cannot come back, he could be placed on the DL prior to the post season which would allow another pitcher to be added to the roster, possibly Josh Tomlin. Even if this is not necessary, Tomlin or Carlos Carrasco could be used to make a spot start and save a couple starters a few innings.
All this talk is unnecessary if the Indians don't make the play-offs, but the probability is high enough it is worth thinking about now. It would be almost as bad as missing the play-offs entirely if the Indians make it past the Wild Card game and get blown out of the next series due to lack of starting pitching. If the Indians don't make it, however, amount of work the starters are doing now will go a long way in avoiding this discussion during next year's campaign.