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Tribe Notes

Commentary: Indians starters failing to live up to expectations, but at least it's still early

  • Indians-Tigers-Baseball-5

    Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer walks off the field against the Detroit Tigers in the fifth inning of a baseball game in Detroit on May 1.

    PAUL SANCYA / AP

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The season is only five weeks old, so you can either dismiss this as a small sample size, or you can start scanning the room for a panic button.

Either way, here’s what we know so far: The Indians’ starting rotation, which was supposed to be one of the best in the American League, isn’t. Not even close.

In fact, it’s the worst.

In 2016, the Indians had the second-best starters’ ERA in the league at 4.08. This year, through Friday, they were last in the league, at 5.15. That’s almost one full run higher than the closest team.

Last year, the Indians had the second-best starters’ WHIP. This year: fourth worst.

Last year, Indians starters had the second-lowest opponents’ batting average. This year: second highest.

Last year, Indians starters gave up the fewest hits in the league. This year: third most.

Corey Kluber, who is on the disabled list, finished fourth in the AL in ERA last year. This year, he’s 46th with a 5.06 ERA.

Josh Tomlin (prior to his start Saturday) and Trevor Bauer fall just short of the minimum number of innings pitched to be ranked. But if they were ranked, Bauer (7.67) and Tomlin (8.87) would rank 50th and 51st — last and second-last in the league in ERA.

The Indians’ bullpen has been brilliant, a 1.94 ERA, which is 30 points better than the closest team.

The Indians’ offense has been underwhelming, ranking right around the league average in most categories. But as the weather warms, so should their hitters.

The biggest, and most unexpected, problem is the starting rotation. What should Indians officials do about it? They have two options:

Wait, or worry.

Kluber will be fine, assuming his lower back strain is the minor speed bump it appears to be. Carlos Carrasco is the only starter who has pitched up to expectations. Danny Salazar, who leads the league in strikeouts per nine innings (13.1), is off to a decent start, although his 4.2 walks per nine innings are troubling.

The red flags in the rotation are Tomlin, who had a good outing Saturday in a loss to Kansas City, and Bauer. The Indians can probably still win their division with mediocre years from both, as long as The Big Three produce as expected.

But the goal for the Indians is to not merely win their division. It’s to return to the World Series. Can they weave their way through the postseason with two flat tires in their rotation? Possibly. They did it last year with basically a 2½-man rotation.

Which makes this a good time to point out that in eight starts since Bauer was attacked by his pet drone in October, he is 2-5 with a 7.00 ERA.

The Indians’ wounded rotation at the end of last season resulted in Kluber having to be overworked, pitching on short rest in three of his six high-stress postseason starts. He was sensational in the first four starts, going 4-1 with an 0.83 ERA.

But he was clearly out of gas when he took the mound for Game 7 against the Cubs. Had he not been on fumes, who knows how that game plays out.

Was starting three World Series games on short rest, plus a shortened offseason for recuperation, a contributing factor to the strained lower back that has landed Kluber on the disabled list? Just asking.

In his last seven starts, meaning Game 7 vs. the Cubs plus his six starts this year, Kluber is 3-2 with a 5.47 ERA.

The goal needs to be: Get Kluber healthy, keep Kluber healthy and avoid having to overwork him during the postseason. To do that the Indians will need three other dependable starters. They currently only have two, Carrasco and Salazar, assuming they stay healthy.

In 1995, when the Indians went 100-44 and won their division by 30 games, they only had three dependable starters: Dennis Martinez, Charles Nagy and Orel Hershiser. Winning the division was a given. But general manager John Hart was looking beyond that, to a postseason in which he knew he needed a fourth starter.

So four days before the July 31 trade deadline, Hart traded three minor leaguers to St. Louis for veteran Ken Hill, a 16-game winner the year before with Montreal.

In 11 second-half starts for the Indians, Hill went 4-1 with a 3.98 ERA. In four postseason starts he was 2-1 with 1.84 ERA, and helped the Indians reach the World Series.

If their rotation is still sputtering by the trade deadline, would Indians president Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff consider trading for a veteran starter? Some interesting names could be available.

Antonetti and Chernoff showed last year they aren’t afraid to swing for the fences. This wouldn’t necessarily require a deal the magnitude of the one that brought Andrew Miller. But the Indians still have the minor league inventory with which to go fishing for the right rotation arm, if needed.

Contact Jim Ingraham at 329-7135 or jingraham4@gmail.com. Follow him @jim_ingraham on Twitter.

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