September 1, 2014

Medina
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Indians: No. 5 starter remains a mystery

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Spring training will be over in little more than two weeks, and the identity of the Indians’ fifth starter remains a mystery.

Kazmir

Blame manager Terry Francona for that. Or blame the competitors for the job: in alphabetical order Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

None of the four has come close to pitching himself out of contention. In fact, a case could be made for each starter being given the roster spot.

Francona has offered few hints as to which way he is leaning, if he’s leaning at all. The only clue that he might favor one pitcher over another is his continuous glowing praise for Kazmir, virtually from the first time he threw a ball in camp.

And Kazmir certainly seems like the front-runner, even if one disregards Francona’s tributes. He has pitched three times in exhibition games, allowing no runs, five hits and one walk in eight innings.

He also asked to pitch in a practice game against minor leaguers to work on his slider, which he did not think was up to speed, and threw equally well.

When it comes to consistency and readiness to pitch from the outset of the spring, Kazmir has no peer among the contenders. His fastball has reliably remained in the 91-92 mph range, occasionally dipping or rising by one or two mph, and his command has been dependably precise.

This from a guy who spent much of the 2012 season pitching for an independent league team in Sugarland, Texas.

“Maybe we caught a break,” Francona said of Kazmir’s humble recent past. “Sometimes you have to catch a break. Maybe we did this time.”

Francona recalled the words he spoke after he watched Kazmir throw to hitters for the first time this spring.
“I was pleased that first day, but I told you guys not to get excited,” Francona said. “He came in ready to go. The question was whether he could hold it. And it’s been exciting.”

In other words, there has been no slippage from what Kazmir showed in his first outing. He has only gotten better.

The other part of the Kazmir equation is his track record. He has not pitched effectively since 2008, when he posted a 12-8 record and 3.49 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays, which followed a 13-9 record and 3.48 ERA for the same club. But Kazmir has done it before, and he is only 29.

When training camp began, it appeared that the Tribe’s deep thinkers expected Carrasco to win the job. He’s finally healthy after undergoing elbow reconstruction surgery in August 2011, and club officials boasted of his velocity as he rehabbed over the winter.

The movement and velocity has returned, but in three exhibition games Carrasco has allowed seven earned runs and 12 hits in eight innings.

Some of those runs scored immediately after he was struck in the helmet by a line drive. Whether being hit in the head contributed to his ineffectiveness is open to question, but one thing is almost certain: Pitchers who endure serious arm surgery and miss more than a year need to remember how to pitch again. Usually that takes three to six months.

“It’s different for everybody,” Francona said. “But it’s unrealistic to think a guy can just jump back in. It takes awhile.”

The starter with the highest ceiling probably is Bauer, 22, who has performed capably in spring games, giving up two earned runs and four hits in seven innings. Hitters are batting .160 against him, and he has walked one.

So why not give him the job? Because Bauer has made only four big league starts and could benefit by more time in the minors. But would Bauer have been given the roster spot if there had been no veteran contenders such as Kazmir and Matsuzaka?

“I don’t think you want to do that,” Francona said. “You want him to be great, but you want him to earn it. That’s why Chris (GM Chris Antonetti) did a great job by bringing in Dice-K and Kazmir. It sets us up to make much better decisions.

“I think we all understand that he is not a finished product, even though he has a pretty bright future.”
What is Bauer’s biggest failing?

“Command,” Francona said. “With young pitchers that’s what usually comes last, consistency of command.”
Matsuzaka appears to be the longest shot on the board. He velocity has lagged, and the Tribe has little invested in him.

Because he is a major league free agent signed to a minor league deal, he can walk March 26 unless the team offers him a $100,000 retention bonus. The bonus allows the team to keep him until June 1.

“We’ve got 12 days until then,” Francona said. “Hopefully, everyone will get two or three more appearances, which should go a long way toward answering these questions.”