You may have noticed that the 2012 Indians starting rotation was bad -- really, really bad. Jason covered some of the damage here. The rotation's 5.33 ERA was the fifth-worth in team history, and when you adjust for context it was the very worst in team history, a full 33% higher than the adjusted league average, and by the same measure, it was the worst in the American League. The question we'll try to answer here is, is there a way to rebuild the rotation in one offseason?
The good news, if you can call it that, is that the staff probably wasn't actually that bad. By fielding-independent pitching (FIP), the rotation performed about half a run better than its 5.25 ERA, and its FIP- was "just" 18 percent worse than average, and only third-worst in baseball (by raw FIP, it was fourth-worst). The rotation figures to get a little bit better just by dumb luck (and/or by improving team defense, which is well beyond the scope of this post).
That's the rosy view, and it's still pretty damned dim. Ubaldo Jimenez had the fourth-worst ERA- and third-worst FIP- of any qualified starter in baseball, while Josh Tomlin had the worst ERA- and eighth-worst FIP- of any pitcher to throw over 100 innings. Derek Lowe's strikeouts per nine innings (while with the Indians; he turned it around a bit after the move to the Yankees) would have been the eighth-lowest of any pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched since 2000, and the lowest since 2005. This was a really, really bad group.
The thing is, though, with few ready pitching prospects (Danny Salazar appears to be the closest thing to a near-term bet), any return to respectability depends to a huge measure on new pitching coach Mickey Callaway -- or health, or the winds of fortune, though you can be sure Callaway will get the credit (or blame) for it - returning Jimenez to something like the pitcher he was in 2010, and Justin Masterson to something like the pitcher he was in 2011.
There are no tea leaves to be read here. Either Jimenez reverses the 30 percent he added to his walk rate and the 50 percent he added to his home run rate between 2011 and 2012, or he doesn't; either Masterson reverses the 40 percent and 72 percent he added to his own, or he doesn't. Anyone who even tries to speculate about whether or not it'll happen is just making stuff up; they're both relatively young and capable of it, but younger pitchers have lost it forever, too.
If it happens -- if they both come back even, say, two-thirds of the way toward themselves at their best -- the Indians might not have an ace, but they've got two very good number-twos. If one of them does it and the other doesn't, the rotation is probably pretty bad. If neither of them does, it's probably terrible again. It makes the whole exercise a lot less fun, I think, that more than half of it depends on something you just have to guess at.
For our purposes here, we have to guess that it happens -- not that either one is a Cy Young candidate, but both are good again. Callaway (or whatever external forces) reins in their control and gives the team two guys at the top who throw 200 innings at, say, ERAs 15-20 percent better than league average. That already puts them well ahead of most teams; just seven teams in 2012 had two pitchers who qualified for the ERA title with an ERA+ of 115 or better, and only three had two who did it in 200+ innings.
That's a great start, but what else? Number three is Zach McAllister, of course. There wasn't much in his minor league career to suggest the kind of performance he gave the big-league squad in 2012, but it was too good and for too long to ignore; he had a serious homer problem (another thing he didn't show at all in the minors), but an excellent strikeout-walk rate. If he can do for 30 starts in 2013 what he did in 22 starts in 2012, and especially if he can keep the ball in the park a bit more often, McAllister is the kind of third starter almost any team would love to have. We're three-fifths of the way to not just a passable rotation, but a darn good one.
In truth, I think we need only one more decent pitcher. All fifth starters starters suck, basically, and there's no problem with running an ongoing tryout for Jeanmar Gomez, Tomlin, etc. to see if one of them can establish anything. We'd need a fourth starter, though, to really make this a decent rotation, and I don't see one on the current roster or in the farm system. If we're serious about this -- and I'm not sure whether we should be, with a 94-loss team, but it's a bad division and a team with some young talent in the offense that might get better, and which was expected to compete in that division just a year ago, so why not -- we're going to have to go to the trade or free agent markets.
My choice -- and I warn you, it's very boring -- is Joe Saunders. He's reliable; despite terribly mediocre peripherals, he's been around average at actually preventing runs (and usually slightly better) for each of the last six seasons. Jim Bowden guesses that he'll go for two years and $14 million, which seems too high; as a marginal 32-year-old, it should be all one-year deals from here on out for Saunders. If he can get Bowden's deal somewhere, you might go to the startlingly similar Joe Blanton, who Bowden has at one year and $5 million. I gravitated toward Saunders because he's been slightly better lately and because it seems like the rotation could use a lefty, but the difference isn't great. Both are relatively dependable arms who could throw the 180-200 average innings a good rotation needs from its fourth starter.
At one year and $5 to 7 million, Saunders or Blanton would be just the right kind of add for this team, regardless of which direction things go. If Jimenez and Masterson revert to form, he's a very solid fourth starter at a great price; if they don't, it's a lost season anyway, and he's an excellent innings eater to protect your young guys. The rotation, and probably the season, will depend entirely on the fate of those two formerly star-quality starters. There's no way to foresee how that will play out, but it can't hurt to be prepared.