Around the Horn: Indians' rotation still dominant

Five returning starters should form one of top rotations in Majors again

January 28th, 2019

The projected starters: , , , Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber
The rumors regarding the Indians' starting rotation have swirled around Cleveland since the beginning of the offseason. But here we are, nearly two weeks away from Spring Training, and the rotation has remained intact. If the Indians break camp with all five projected starters still in a Tribe uniform, their starting staff has the chance to be one of the most dominant in baseball, yet again.
The Indians are returning all five top starters from last season, a year in which the club led all starting rotations in WAR (22.9), according to FanGraphs, and had two American League Cy Young Award candidates, Kluber and Bauer, who placed third and sixth in last year's voting, respectively.
Kluber is coming off his third consecutive All-Star season in 2018, a year in which he threw to a 2.89 ERA in an AL-leading 215 innings (33 starts). He went 20-7, recorded 222 strikeouts and tossed two complete games, logging a WHIP of 0.99. If that wasn't enough, Bauer added to the Tribe's success with a breakout year on the mound, pitching to a career-best 2.21 ERA with 221 strikeouts in 28 appearances (27 starts).
Carrasco picked up 17 wins in 2018, posting a 3.38 ERA and fanning 231 batters in 192 frames. Clevinger tacked on 13 wins in 32 starts, including one complete-game shutout. In 200 innings pitched, the right-hander struck out 207 hitters and logged a 3.02 ERA.
Then, there's Bieber. The right-hander made his Major League debut on May 31, 2018, his 23rd birthday. Now, with some big league experience under his belt including some postseason innings, Bieber may be setting himself up to have a breakout sophomore campaign after a solid rookie season, one in which he recorded a 4.55 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 114 2/3 innings.
There may be some areas of uncertainty on the Indians' roster, but Cleveland's rotation is one that has proven its strength over the past few seasons. If the upcoming year follows suit, the Tribe's starting staff may again find itself atop of the WAR leaderboard at the end of 2019.
Depth: , and
Plutko made 12 starts for the Indians last season, posting a 5.29 ERA in 68 innings in that role. The right-hander also made five appearances out of the bullpen. Although Bieber appears to have the fifth spot in the rotation locked up, Plutko could be an easy option with recent starting experience to slide in if the team would need to make a change at any point during the season.
Now, for Anderson and Salazar, it's been a little longer since they were a part of the Indians' rotation. Anderson has been sidelined for the past two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2017. His last big league appearance came on Sept. 28, 2016, when he pitched one inning of relief against the Tigers. Salazar missed the entire '18 season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder this past July.
Anderson is expected to be unrestricted at the start of Spring Training after having a normal offseason. The most likely option will probably be easing the right-hander back into baseball by having him work out of the bullpen. However, if needed, he has big league starting experience from 2015, when he logged a 3.05 ERA in 15 starts (91 1/3 frames). In '16, Anderson made 19 appearances, including nine starts, recording a 6.68 ERA in 60 2/3 innings.
The Indians are still not quite sure when Salazar will be completely ready to go. As of Jan. 11, the right-hander was throwing at 90 feet without symptoms and was hoping to start throwing bullpen sessions around the start of Spring Training. Once Salazar is cleared, Cleveland will be able to evaluate its needs and decide where he could best benefit the club. However, it wouldn't be surprising if Salazar is also an option out of the bullpen, but the 29-year-old could most definitely be used in the rotation if there is a need, given his previous five seasons of starting experience.
Prospect to watch: No. 1 Triston McKenzie
Cleveland's top prospect -- 41st on MLB Pipeline's 2019 Top 100 prospect list -- has made quite a name for himself since he was drafted by the Tribe in '15. After an impressive senior campaign at Royal Palm Beach (Fla.) High School, where he struck out 157 batters in 91 innings, McKenzie went on to earn All-Star honors in the New York-Penn League in '16 before advancing to full-season ball at age 18. The right-hander spent the beginning of this past season on the disabled list with right forearm soreness, but went on to record a 2.68 ERA with 87 strikeouts, 28 walks and a 1.00 WHIP in 16 starts (90 2/3 innings) for Double-A Akron.
According to MLB Pipeline, McKenzie has a "feel for locating his low-90s fastball throughout the zone, all while using his height to create good angle toward the plate. McKenzie's curveball, thrown with tight spin and loads of depth, flashes plus and nets him plenty of whiffs, and he shows a similarly advanced feel for throwing an above-average, fading changeup."
The 21-year-old McKenzie has made a quick climb through Cleveland's Minor League system and has a chance to continue to advance at the same rate if he maintains his recent success.
Who else is in the Pipeline?
No. 3 Ethan Hankins, RHP (age: 18, highest level: Rookie-level)
No. 8 Sam Hentges, LHP (age: 22, highest level: Class A Advanced)
No. 9 Lenny Torres, RHP (age: 18, highest level: Rookie-level)
No. 10 Luis Oviedo, RHP (age: 19, highest level: Class A)
No. 17 , RHP (age: 25, highest level: MLB -- Rays)
No. 18 Elijah Morgan, RHP (age: 22, highest level: Class A Advanced)
No. 19 Aaron Civale, RHP (age: 23, highest level: Double-A)