No Indians starting pitcher has taken as bad of a rap as Josh Tomlin in the last few seasons. While many have had their ups and downs, including Carlos Carrasco and Zach McAllister, they both eventually found their place and success. Tomlin, however, has never changed and the fan base, at least soured on his style of pitching quite awhile ago.
This is not to say that Tomlin isn’t serviceable. Prior to the beginning of the season, I argued how a pitcher like Tomlin could actually be better late in the rotation than one with higher potential, but less consistency. It has been Tomlin’s extremely high home run rate that has harmed his value and his name as he has generally been an excellent control pitcher and even struck out his fair share of batters. When all things are considered, Tomlin was a near equal pitcher to former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia in terms of ERA, FIP and fWAR, but while he was significantly better when it came to walking batters (in fact, best in the AL at just 1.0 BB/9), his 1.87 HR/9 made up the difference in value.
Tomlin has always been a very reliable pitcher and when he was needed most, in the 2016 postseason with each of the Indians starters dealing with one sort of injury or another, he won each of his games in the ALDS and ALCS by pitching more than five innings and allowing two or fewer runs, then helped the Indians win game three of the World Series by shutting out the Cubs through 4.2. His only poor start in the postseason was his last and it was likely this performance on the grand stage that earned him a guaranteed spot in the rotation to start the season.
That being said, it’s very possible that now is the time for the Indians to move on. Tomlin was taken apart in his first two starts, losing to the Diamondbacks by allowing six runs in 4.2 innings, then the White Sox when he allowed 7 in 1.2 including two home runs. While Tomlin brought his season numbers a little closer to normal in his third start last night against the Twins, the simple fact is that the Indians have better options available.
Thanks to those starting pitcher injuries previously mentioned, the Indians had a chance to look at a few different starters last year. While Cody Anderson is out for the year with Tommy John surgery, Mike Clevinger and Ryan Merritt are both available and healthy in AAA Columbus.
Clevinger’s overall season numbers from 2016 in the Majors don’t look too impressive, but during a 12 appearance stretch from July 5th through September 22nd, he held a 3.00, .205 average against and struck out 34 in 36 innings. Currently in Columbus, Clevinger has overmatched all opponents for a 0.47 ERA and just nine hits allowed in 19 innings across three starts. He’s also struck out 25 to just 5 walks and the only run allowed was on a solo home run. In short, his training is complete. While the Indians could simply hold him in AAA and wait for an injury, there’s little question at this point that Clevinger is not only more talented at the moment, but has a significantly higher ceiling than Tomlin. If the Indians continue to trot Tomlin out there every five games, his numbers very likely could regress back to his career norm, but Clevinger should be significantly better than Tomlin’s career norm.
The second part of this is the emergency injury component. No team wants to be caught not being ready when something unexpected happens and they need a pitcher. Even with Clevinger in the rotation, however, Merritt is the perfect option. Merritt has less of a ceiling than Clevinger and isn’t having quite the season (although he pitched six scoreless last night), but his dominance against Toronto last year was enough on it’s own to earn him another shot to start this year. There will almost certainly be a time this year where the Indians need another starter, even if it’s just for a double header as the 26th man and that man should be Merritt, not Clevinger. Clevinger is simply too good to be wasted in AAA in hopes that he may be needed at some point down the line.
Contractually, there’s little keeping the Indians from completely removing Tomlin from the roster. He’s only owed $2.5M for this season and $750 for a buyout of his 2018 option. As it is, it’s extremely unlikely that the Indians would exercise Tomlin’s $3M option for next year even if he does stick around for the entire season. There would be another option, to place Tomlin in the bullpen where he could be used as that emergency starter/long man, but already the Indians have viable Major League relievers in AAA who are also more reliable than Tomlin. Shawn Armstrong was recently sent down simply because the Indians needed another reliever after Tomlin’s short start against Chicago forced him to throw 2.1 innings in relief. Joe Colon and Kyle Crockett have both been dominant in AAA as well and Nick Goody, who was recalled for Armstrong, has pitched two scoreless for the Indians to add to his 4.1 scoreless with 10 strike outs in Columbus.
All this means that the Indians have two starters and three relievers who would be more useful than Tomlin currently in AAA. Every one of these pitchers has at least a little Major League experience, so this is a far cry from those calling for something extreme like Francisco Mejia to be called up to replace Yan Gomes. There is no question that the Indians as a team would be improved with Clevinger instead of Tomlin and that it would be better still if Tomlin was off the team entirely and not taking up the roster spot for a more specialized reliever.
Tomlin is owed a debt of gratitude for his incredibly consistent work since 2010 and his clutch performances in the 2016 postseason. He’s also owed respect for being the second longest tenured player on staff and for taking a huge home town discount when signing his current extension. Because of this, the Indians may drag out this situation much longer than necessary, but there are ways to honor players beyond keeping them on the 25 man roster. There’s a time for reflection, but that time is not now and won’t be until after the Indians have won a World Series. In order to make that happen, the Indians need to field the best possible roster and the fact is, that does not include Tomlin anymore.