Similar to the previous discussion on designated hitters, this is going to be more of a discussion about a group of players than one single hole. The Indians used eight different pitchers in 2014 that could be considered starters including Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco. Of these, there is a decent chance that Kazmir and Jimenez will be leaving in free agency, so for the moment they will no longer be considered.
There does seem to be a few things set for next year, including Masterson as ace with Kluber and Salazar following him in the rotation. All three pitchers impressed in 2013 and were probably the biggest part (along with Jimenez) of the Indians making the play-offs.This leaves two spots free with three pitchers left to fill them. The problem here is that Tomlin didn't make a start during 2013 as he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and the Indians wish that Carrasco didn't make a start. McAllister will likely take the fourth rotation spot after an average 2013 campaign.
Carlos Carrasco is an interesting case this off-season for the Tribe. After a couple disastrous starts, he was moved into the bullpen where he was incredibly successful, even when used for three or more innings. This may prove that his struggles are mental, as he had no problem facing the same hitters multiple times in the late innings. Without the pressure of starting the game, he showed the potential the Indians have been waiting around for years for.
This change wasn't a matter of in season progression either. After his first successful relief appearance (5 IP, 0 RA on August 9th) he made the next start and gave up four runs in four innings against the Twins. Carrasco is out of options and will need to make the 25 man roster out of Spring Training next year or will have to be exposed to waivers. He may make the team as a member of the bullpen (that is a subject for another article), but is unlikely to return as a starter.
Tomlin doesn't have the potential of Carrasco, but has already had a stronger career. His biggest problem is being a fly ball pitcher that can't overpower batters, leading to 52 home runs allowed in 54 career starts. The Indians could definitely do a lot worse than Tomlin next year as fifth starter, but if they want to return to the play-offs, an upgrade may be necessary.
Trevor Bauer is another question mark after struggling through a 2013 season that should have been his breakout year. After coming into Spring Training looking like the Indians possible fifth starter, he was surpassed by Kazmir and Salazar and kept off the roster during the stretch run. While his talent is obvious, his control is still an issue and it could be hard for the Indians to thrust him into the starting rotation next season from the start as they will be looking to compete for the Central Division title.
If the Indians decide to look elsewhere for help, there are a lot of top level free agent starters on the market including Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Dan Haren and A.J. Burnett, but those are not for the Indians to think about. The importance of the upper tier of free agents is to distract away from the mid-level that the Indians could actually afford. This includes former Indians starter, Kazmir as well as others like Aaron Cook and Bronson Arroyo. There are also a bunch of the high risk aging veterans that could be had on the cheap that the Indians love, including the two they took chances on prior to 2013, Brett Myers and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Also out there are former Central Division foes Bruce Chen, Scott Baker and Gavin Floyd. None of these options look very attractive or attainable.
With Jimenez declining the Indians $14.1M qualifying offer, Kazmir may still be an another option. When nobody else would give Kazmir a chance even as a relief pitcher, the Indians made him their fourth starter to begin the season. They stuck with him all season, even when he struggled in August and it looked like he had nothing left in the tank. He has made it sound as if he would like to return to Cleveland and would be considerably cheaper and less of a risk than Jimenez. While he is less of a risk, he has less of an upside as well, but it would be nice for the Indians to have a left hander in the rotation, especially one already familiar with the Indians coaching staff.
The Indians will likely sign at least one cheap veteran starter (they do every year), but other than that, don't expect a whole lot of big moves by the Tribe in the rotation. With four solid starters already, it would not be worth trading anything of value to add a fifth or to spend copiously on a top level free agent. The best case scenario for the Indians this offseason would be to sign or trade for a big name ace. The worst, to go with Josh Tomlin using Carrasco in long relief. Of course, with this option there won't be much depth available with no more superstars waiting in AAA, but the Indians will have to take that risk if they are unwilling to spend enough to retain their free agents.