Assuming a starting rotation of Masterson, Jimenez, Lowe, Tomlin and Slowey break camp (admittedly, not necessarily a safe assumption), the three guys competing for the first call-up in the rotation will once again be David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez and Zach McAllister. These are the same three who occupied that role last year, each of whom ended up spending time in Cleveland during the second half. Looking at their results from last year, it seems as if the path to improvement for each of them is in improving their secondary offerings as a way to work better of their primary pitches.
Once a top prospect, David Huff has opted out of that role in recent years, instead auditioning yearly for the role of most hated pitcher in Cleveland. The dislike comes from his failure to live up to his high credentials, as well as the mediocre stuff he seems to bring to the mound with him in his starts. For 2012, though, he is the member of this group that I like the best. Part of this is that he is the only left-handed starter likely to see much time in Cleveland this year. But it is also because I remain somewhat intrigued by Huff's potential to "put it all together" one of these years and actually pitch up to his billing.
Huff actually got off to a good start with Cleveland last season, beginning with his 7-inning zero run performance against Minnesota on July 18th. In four of his first five starts in July and August he allowed a single earned run or less while averaging six innings a start. The rest of his starts, needless to say, were not as good. Some of this was bad bullpen work, as they only held 58% of the runners Huff left on, leading to a few extra runs getting tacked on to Huff's lines. But some of it was just more of the long-ABs, long-innings, and short outings we have come to expect from Huff.
Huff works with what amounts to a four-pitch mix, all of it playing off his fourseam fastball, but including a slider (used almost exclusively against left-handers), curve, and changeup (used more against right-handers). Huff's problems stem from not getting enough out of his fastball given his extremely high usage (72%) of the pitch. Last season, only 6% of his fastballs resulted in a swing and a miss. Another way of considering that number is that 83% of the time batters swung at his fastball they made contact with it. Huff's fastball was not entirely terrible, though (fangraphs actually rated it as a net-positive pitch), as Huff was able to get a substantial number of called strikes (19%) and foul balls (21%) off the pitch.
Jeanmar Gomez, on the other hand, seems to occupy the opposite position in Cleveland's mindset. An unheralded prospect (always young for his level) who has seemingly performed above expectation in his two stints in Cleveland. The truth is that he had about as much success as Huff last year, with similarly depressing strikeout numbers (considerably worse, actually), but much better ball-in-play numbers.
Gomez works almost exclusively with a sinker, slider (used a little more against righties), changeup (used a little more against lefties) combination. The sinker, obviously, is his best pitch, getting a good number of called strikes (24%) and producing a huge number of ground balls (55% of balls-in-play). When he throws it well, his slider can be a plus pitch and is his best swing and miss weapon, but too often the pitch flattens out on him and gets pounded (25% LD-rate on the pitch in 2011). While Gomez in general has excellent control and above average GB-tendencies on all of his pitches, his changeup gave him the most control and fly-ball problems a year ago.
McAllister has had the least exposure to Cleveland, proving the least amount of data to work from. McAllister also had the broadest array of pitches, as he showed five or six different pitches during his Cleveland stint last September. His actual line from that time period looks terrible, but again this is at least part to do with poor bullpen support (53% LOB%) and bad luck (.403 BABIP). McAllister pitched great in Columbus, though, and with two options remaining, should have plenty of time to improve his performance.
McAllister's pitching mix begins with a four-seam fastball that sits in the low-90s and that he employs just over half the time. Off of this, he mixes in a two-seam fastball, cutter, changeup and curve against left-handers and a two-seam fastball, cutter, slider and curve against right-handers. With the exception of the changeup, McAllister has shown the ability to consistently throw all of them for strikes. McAllister's problem is that none of them, by themselves, look particularly great. On the bright side, none of them seem particularly bad either. All of his pitches produce a moderate number of swings and misses, go for strikes, and even induce a decent number of groundballs (aided by McAllister's 6'6" frame). For McAllister to succeed at the major league level, it seems as if he needs to get a little more out of at least a few of his pitches, particularly making sure to limit the damage on balls put in play against him (opponents regularly put up ropes against him during his September stint in Cleveland).
The challenge for Cleveland vis-a-vis McAllister is figuring out how to get him the development he needs. He showed last year he can handle AAA hitters with aplomb, but there isn't currently a spot in Cleveland for him to develop his stuff against major league caliber hitters.