The Starting Pitching
The starting staff regressed from last year, but not as far as the bullpen did. Among AL teams, the Indians' starters were more or less average to below average in several categories, including ERA (5th), WHIP (10th), OPS against (9th), and BAA (5th). The good news is that, unlike the bullpen, the Indians have a pretty good idea of their 2005 starting staff. CC Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, and (possibly) Scott Elarton are good bets to be back in the rotation next year, along with a free agent starter. The big issue is with Sabathia and Lee, who both fell off after the All-Star Break. Lee to me is more readily explainable than Sabathia, who had pitched 3 full seasons before this year. Cliff's strikeout rates held and even improved during the second half, so expecting a rebound from him next season isn't out of the question. Sabathia, however, is a different story. After CC walked off the mound against the Rockies with another shoulder "twinge", he seemed to have lost his control. Granted, an ERA in the low 4s isn't that bad at all from a starter, but compared to what Sabathia accomplished before the All-Star Break, it's got to be seen as a disappointment. Sabathia is probably the early key player for the 2005 team, in that the Indians probably won't bring in any pitcher who has the potential to be better than him.
Jake Westbrook is obviously the most pleasant surprise of the entire team, not to mention the starting staff. I've liked his stuff for a while now, and when he finally realized that throwing strikes was the key to his success, he never looked back. I would not exact a better ERA from him unless the Indians drastically improve their infield defense; a groundball pitcher is usually more susceptible to wild variations in runs allowed even if they're pitching the same. Once a ball gets put in play, there's little a pitcher can do other than to hope the ball is hit at one of his fielders. Westbrook has been a little lucky with his BABIP, but not flukey lucky. His ERA is inflated about a quarter of a run due to the unearned runs he's given up. As always, the key to his success is not walking hitters; now that he's committed to "pitch to contact," his pitch counts per start has gone down, and therefore he's not working deep into many counts.
Jason Davis, who was pretty awful in the rotation this season, is probably going to be in the bullpen next year. As I said in my bullpen review, he may find a home there with his stuff. Jeremy Guthrie will most likely go back to Buffalo and be given one last chance to start. Kyle Denney, after being added to the 40-man roster this September, should join Guthrie in Buffalo's rotation, as will Francisco Cruceta. The good thing is that there should be a little more starting depth next year than last year (although you never know with pitching).
On the whole, the starting staff was a disappointment; Jake Westbrook was the only consistent starter throughout the year. For the Indians to contend next year, they're going to need at least 3 starters that they can count on throughout the season. Hopefully that will be fixed somewhat via free agency, but the two southpaws already in the rotation need to step it up for the Indians to play meaningful games in late September.