There are a handful of key storylines to follow from Indians spring training in Goodyear, including Carlos Santana's attempt to win some playing time at third base, the battle for available spots in the bullpen, and more than half a dozen hitters vying for the final spot on the bench. Santana's going to play nearly every day no matter what though, and the final arm and bat on the roster are only rarely going to be involved at significant moments, so the most important competition might be the one for the final spot in the starting rotation.
Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, and Zach McAllister all had successful seasons for the Tribe in 2013, and have already been pencilled into the first four spots, but the fifth spot is up for grabs, with a list of candidates that's gotten even longer since pitchers and catchers reported last week.
Here's a look at each of the contenders, with a look at their recent production, and the pros and cons of their candidacy:
Bauer was one of the top prospects in baseball as recently as a year ago, but after a disappointing 2013, he's dropped way down prospect lists (or fallen off them completely). In 33 MLB innings over the last two seasons, Bauer has walked 29 batters, which works out to 7.83 per 9 innings, the most of any pitcher in baseball with 30+ innings over the last two years. In 121.1 Triple-A innings last year, Bauer's walk rate was 5.4, and even that "improved" rate would have been the worst of any qualified MLB starter.
Bauer has worked on his mechanics, and after his first workout of spring training, manager Terry Francona said the difference was like "night and day. That's encouraging, but I'll need to see it in a game before I'm convinced. Bauer has the highest ceiling of any of the guys on this list, but I expect the team will want to see him succeed in Columbus for at least a little while before bringing him up.
Carrasco is about to turn 27, so I think we should be finished referring to him as a prospect. He's made 40 MLB starts in his career, with an ERA of 5.53 in those games. There are occasionally pitchers who have a full season that bad, and then turn things around, but they're few and far between. 2013 was his worst year as a starter yet. 7 starts is a small sample, but not so small as to make an ERA of 9.00 insignificant.
Carrasco seems to be considered the favorite for the fifth spot to begin the year, in part because he doesn't have any options left, which means he's either on the 25-man roster, or he's got to be put on waivers. Carrasco did much better as a reliever last year, with a 1.32 ERA in 8 appearances, and better strikeout, walk, and home run rates. If he pitches well in camp, great. If he struggles, I'd put him in the bullpen.
Harang was signed just last week to give the team another option. He got solid results as a starter as recently as 2012, but health and age both seemed to catch up with him last year, as he gave up roughly a million home runs, despite playing in parks that favor pitchers, and 2009 was the last time his peripherals were much good.
I have a hard time seeing him succeed over any sort of long haul, but he did manage to throw 2 complete game shutouts in 26 starts last year, so if he's willing to report to Columbus to begin the year (and it's not like he'd be blocking a flood of top prospects there), he seems like a reasonable option as an injury call up here an there throughout the year.
Marcum is another formerly successful MLB pitcher the Indians were able to sign to a minor-league deal due to injuries and diminished returns in 2013. Marcum missed all of 2009 after having Tommy John surgery, but returned and was above average from 2010 to 2012. Elbow stiffness caused him to miss a chunk of 2012 though, and a pinched nerve in his neck and a shoulder procedure led to him being shut down in July last year.
His ERA was an ugly 5.22, but his FIP was 3.64, which is quite good. His xFIP (which is seen as more predictive from year-to-year than ERA or FIP) was 4.22, which is pretty close to average. The Indians slowed down his rehab work in January, but he was later cleared to throw, and he tossed a 25-pitch bullpen session earlier this week. Francona has said Opening Day isn't really the goal with Marcum, so it seems unlikely he'll win the spot in camp, but if he's healthy, he seems like the best bet for solid, back-of-the-rotation production eventually in 2014.
Tomlin pitched 165.1 decent innings for the Indians in 2011. He didn't strike anyone out, but had excellent control (only 1.1 walks per 9 innings), and his ERA, FIP, and xFIP were all reasonable for a #5 starter. His season ended early though, due to an elbow strain, he was then a total mess for the in 2012, and was shut down early again, this time to have Tommy John surgery. He made it back in time to throw 29.1 innings last year, mostly in Columbus.
Tomlin didn't walk a single hitter in those 29.1 innings, so the command (often slow to return from surgery) was still there. When considering Tomlin's chances of being an effective starter though, you really have to fixate on his 2011. He was never a highly touted prospect (he topped out at #28 on Baseball America's list for the Indians, after 2008), and he has just that one season of modest MLB success, going on three years ago. I think he has the lowest ceiling of these five guys, and his health history means his floor as as low as anyone's.