At this time last year, the Cleveland Indians were wondering how they’d approach the postseason missing a handful of starting pitchers. Now, they have too many.
The team appeared to have its playoff rotation all figured out earlier this week. However, thanks to last night’s outstanding performance from Danny Salazar, Cleveland now has to deal with the problem of deciding which of its key starters has to be pulled from the postseason rotation.
As you can see, this isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have.
It’s definitely a better outlook than last year, when the Indians headed into the playoffs with a rotation in tatters. Injuries to Salazar and Carlos Carrasco forced Cleveland to work with only Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin as the lone starters. Their efforts, combined with a spot start from Ryan Merritt, somehow pushed the Tribe within the brink of a World Series championship.
So, when you realize this time the Indians might have an abundance of starting pitchers to pick from, the last thing you do is complain. You have to think a slightly better rotation could’ve pushed Cleveland across the finish line last postseason.
However, despite now enjoying a far healthier group of starters, the Indians still have tough choices to make. While Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer are locks for the first three games of the ALDS, the fourth spot still appears up in the air.
What’s funny is the fact this decision sure looked figured out this past weekend. Despite many – myself included – thinking Mike Clevinger had earned the nod, Cleveland instead intimated Tomlin would start in a Game 4. The move sure felt like a showing of respect from Tribe manager Terry Francona, so it really wasn’t too surprising. Clevinger would head to the bullpen, where he and Tomlin would work as a de facto tag team starter.
I imagine the Indians felt a sense of relief when they came to a conclusion on a difficult situation. Said relief probably evaporated once Salazar wrapped up his start last night.
Facing a Minnesota Twins team trying to clinch its wild card berth, the Dominican hurler proceeded to make every batter he faced look foolish. In just 4.2 innings pitched, Salazar allowed only one hit, one walk and struck out nine. Had he not been on a monitored pitch count, he clearly would’ve gone longer. Still, it was an incredibly dominant showing in just a handful of innings.
Ironically, Salazar’s start was supposed to be the last of the year for him, one final look before the team moved on without him on the playoff roster. After what he did last night, though, Cleveland is now forced to reevaluate its postseason rotation.
Again, the first three spots are locked up. The same can be said for Clevinger’s spot in the bullpen. If Salazar’s showing indeed reopened the debate on determining the fourth starter, it’d be between him and Tomlin.
Frankly, this isn’t as easy a decision as you’d think.
Though hardly an intimidating pitcher, Tomlin has had a steady September since returning from the DL. He also proved to be far more reliable than anyone expected in last year’s postseason. It wouldn’t be surprising if Cleveland sided with him even after seeing what Salazar offered last night.
Also working against Salazar is his trademark inconsistency. He’s had a handful of starts like the one he put forth last night, where he’s able to throw an endless string of fireballs nobody can hit. However, he’s still susceptible to rough outings, as shown by his allowing a combined ten earned runs in two straight starts right after it seemed as though he had settled down for good in August.
Because of this, Cleveland may be tentative to redo its rotation after one great showing. The stakes will be a lot higher come October. An ALDS Game 4 would be the Indians’ attempt to either close a series or avoid being eliminated. It’s a situation in which relying on Salazar may be too risky, considering there seems to be a 50/50 chance he implodes.
Again, though, this is hardly a bad scenario for the Indians to be in. After leaning on a patchwork rotation in 2016, I imagine they’re more than happy to have too many options on their hands. Still, it may be difficult to make a choice between picking Salazar or Tomlin as the fourth starter.
Of course, Cleveland could make it easy and just sweep the ALDS, postponing any stressful decisions for the time being.
Casey Drottar is an independent sports writer. Subscribe to his podcast, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook