There were many unlikely heroes during the Cleveland Indians’ 2016 World Series run. You could make an argument that none were more surprising than starting pitcher Josh Tomlin.
The man they call the “Little Cowboy” wasn’t even supposed to be part of Cleveland’s playoff rotation, especially after a brutal stretch of late season games resulted in his being sent to the bullpen. However, injuries forced the Tribe’s hand, and Tomlin found himself inserted as the team’s third starter.
Instead of becoming a rotation liability, Tomlin excelled. He allowed just three earned runs through his first three starts, striking out eleven. While many assumed Cleveland’s ailing pitching staff would result in a quick postseason exit, Tomlin was a big reason why no such scenario played out.
Based on how his 2017 has started, it might be safe to wonder if his magic has run dry. Tomlin has been spanked in two straight appearances, both sizable losses. Though he’s certainly earned at least another look or two, the Indians should already be keeping him on a short leash.
To be fair, Tomlin didn’t struggle right out of the gate. He seemed to be pitching just fine during his season debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks last Friday. Unfortunately, the wheels came off in the fifth inning. Arizona scored seven runs on the night, six of which were tagged to Tomlin.
Those hoping this was merely a blip on the radar were treated to an even worse performance last night. Facing off against the Chicago White Sox, Tomlin gave up a home run on the very first pitch of the game. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, his night was over. Tomlin served up seven earned in just 1 and 2/3 innings.
The problem so far has been an inability to locate his pitches. Since he doesn’t boast the same stuff as that of Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco, Tomlin has to rely on accuracy. When he’s on, he can spend the night inducing nothing but weak groundouts from opposing hitters. When he’s off, Tomlin does nothing but serve up a plate of meatballs, pitches which more often than not end up in the outfield bleachers.
One can easily rely on the usual – and, to be fair, accurate – clichés. It’s still very early in the season. You can’t judge Tomlin on just two starts. He’s proven in the past he can work his way out of this kind of funk.
That said, the Indians are in a situation where potentially pulling Tomlin from the rotation this early isn’t a crazy thought.
For one, the team’s offense as a whole has flat-lined. After scoring 21 runs in the first series of the year, the Tribe has only scratched across 13 in the past six games. Indians hitters have spoiled numerous chances, stranding runners in scoring position at a frustrating rate.
With this in mind, the team can ill-afford to be facing a five or six run deficits the likes of which Tomlin has been handing them.
Additionally, Cleveland also has primed and ready replacements should Tomlin be yanked. Mike Clevinger proved late last year he’s ready for the big leagues, while ALCS Game 5 star Ryan Merritt is also worthy of a look. Both of these pitchers could be seen as a late rotation staple in the near future, while Tomlin’s time with the team likely isn’t going to last beyond his current contract.
As a result, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Indians to react quicker than usual and swap Tomlin out of the rotation should he have another short and brutal outing. This shouldn’t be seen as any sort of early-season panicking. Instead, it’s simply a realization that a veteran pitcher is struggling mightily, while at least two relatively proven prospects are waiting in the wings.
Tomlin has at the very least earned another start or two, there’s no denying this. However, if we’re presented with yet another night which ends early thanks to his continued gifting of home runs, the Indians shouldn’t hesitate to find a replacement.