Kluber, McAllister and Salazar looking to prove doubters wrong
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- A few members of the Indians rotation are fighting a battle against the back of their baseball cards. Outside of Cleveland, not much is known on a national scale about the three pitchers viewed as locks to make the staff behind Justin Masterson.
They have 101 combined starts over the past three years, but none have worked a full season in the big leagues. The Indians are trusting these arms to replace -- or, hopefully, to surpass -- the innings lost when veterans Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir took their skills elsewhere as free agents over the offseason.
"We might not have the names in our rotation," Indians pitcher Corey Kluber said. "We might not have guys who have had the success for extended amounts of time like the Tigers or the Dodgers, or teams like that with big names in the rotation.
"That doesn't mean we don't have guys who are completely capable of going out there and being just as good as those teams."
Kluber is on that list, as are right-handers Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar. Cleveland's unquestioned rotation leader is Masterson, who will have that trio falling in line behind him in the upcoming campaign. The last spot on the staff will be sorted out over the course of the Cactus League slate, but Cleveland is counting on big things from the arms already deemed on the roster.
The Indians could have forfeited a compensatory Draft pick in order to re-sign Jimenez to a deal similar to the four-year, $50-million pact he inked with the Orioles. The team could have tried to match or beat the two-year, $22-million contract that the A's handed Kazmir. The Tribe also could have opened the wallets to pursue the likes of Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco or A.J. Burnett.
Cleveland chose instead to stick by its internal options.
"I'll take those two any day of the week and let's go try to win," said Indians manager Terry Francona, referring to Kluber and McAllister. "They compete. They want to get better. They listen. They're good teammates. They just don't have eight years in the big leagues. That's OK. That doesn't mean we can't win."
What the Indians did not do over the winter seems glaring in light of what Jimenez and Kazmir did for the team last year.
A pitching enigma for much of the 2011-12 seasons, Jimenez put it all together in '13 and helped guide Cleveland to the American League Wild Card game with an incredible second half. Kazmir, who was out of affiliated baseball in 2012, emerged as one of baseball's best comeback stories, winning 10 games, striking out 162 batters and logging 158 innings.
Combined, Jimenez and Kazmir went 23-18 with a 3.65 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 356 strikeouts in 61 starts (340 2/3 innings) for Cleveland last year. That production helped give the Tribe one of the game's top rotations, especially in the second half.
"Those are tough guys to make up for," McAllister said. "But if everyone does their job, and does what we're supposed to do, then things will work themselves out. Ubaldo and Kazmir are great pitchers and they were a huge reason for what we did last year, but it's a new year for us and we're excited for the new challenges we have to face."
The trio of Kluber, McAllister and Salazar nearly turned in the same combined pitching line in '13.
During Cleveland's run to the postseason last year, those three right-handers went a combined 22-17 with a 3.70 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 302 strikeouts in 60 starts (333 2/3 innings). Kluber and Salazar began the season in Triple-A, and McAllister and Kluber each sat out roughly six weeks due to right middle-finger strains during the summer.
Still, they are young in years and experience, making analysts skeptical about Cleveland's chances of fielding a strong starting staff this year.
"You're not going to buy into something you don't know that well," Indians catcher Yan Gomes said. "You kind of want to test-drive it a little bit and see if you like it. But I'll tell you right now, man, those three, last year was just a little of what they can do. They had great years, it was a huge thing for us and I'm excited about what they've got coming this year."
Kluber went 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA over 24 starts last season and ranked among the top 10 to 15 American League starters in multiple categories until his finger injury in August. McAllister, who added a slider over the winter as a potential strikeout pitch, relied heavily on his fastball last year, but ended 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA in 24 appearances.
The least-known commodity, and perhaps the most intriguing arm in the mix, is Salazar.
In 10 starts for the Indians last season, the 24-year-old right-hander posted a 3.12 ERA with 65 strikeouts against 15 walks in 52 innings. His 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings represented the highest single-season rate in Indians history among pitchers with at least three starts. Hall of Famer Bob Feller ranks second on that list for his work with the Indians in 1936.
Cleveland was so impressed with Salazar that it named him the starter for the Wild Card game against the Rays.
"He's a guy with great, great talent," McAllister said. "He's got a great arsenal of pitches. It's hard to find guys that can throw 100 [mph] and throw strikes. We were able to see that in the small sample size last year. It was exciting to see."
Last year, Kluber and McAllister spent a lot of time learning under Masterson, who served as a kind of mentor to the young pitchers. This season, Kluber said Salazar will benefit from having even more experienced pitchers around him.
"We've got guys in here where, if he does run into some growing pains," Kluber said, "and almost everybody does, we've got guys to help guide him through that. He's not going to be on his own to figure things out if he does hit a rough patch."
As for all the uncertainty that seems to be swirling around the staff, Kluber allows himself to smirk.
"Isn't that the same thing people were saying last year?" said the pitcher.