GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- If you were debating which team had the best rotation in baseball last season, you might have mulled the merits of the Mets versus the Nationals or speculated that the Cardinals had something special. This season, those teams' rotations are all still formidable. St. Louis lost John Lackey but gets Adam Wainwright back. And by adding Lackey, the Cubs inserted their imposing unit into the mix.
But the rotation with the stuff to be baseball's best in 2016, in the American League, at least, and perhaps in all of baseball? It ain't any of those teams. It belongs to the Cleveland Indians.
At first blush, that might sound like a reach, considering that the Indians finished third in the AL in quality starts (and tied for sixth overall) and just 10th overall in ERA among big-league rotations in 2015. But their pitchers did lead everybody when it came to putting people away at the plate, whiffing 24.2 percent of all batters faced against an MLB average of 19.5 percent from starters. Cleveland finished second in swing-and-miss rate (with 24.8 percent) to the Dodgers, a team that had Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. And this year, Indians pitchers will get the benefit of a full season playing in front of a much-improved defense anchored by shortstop Francisco Lindor. Even including the team's first-half defensive woes, the Indians' rotation ranked fourth in WHIP (1.16), behind just the Cubs, Dodgers and Mets.
"We have a great rotation, so much talent!" Indians right-hander Danny Salazar enthused.
The talent is there, but the Indians don't have the pedigree that other top rotations do.
"Our guys have unbelievable stuff," said Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway, while munching on fajitas before a recent game, "yet not one of them was just 'the man' coming out of the draft. Danny Salazar struggled in A-ball. [Carlos] Carrasco has had his ups and downs and struggles throughout his career. And now Trevor [Bauer] has had some struggles, but he looks like he's turning some things around."
Cleveland manager Terry Francona calls Corey Kluber his self-made ace. Right-hander Carlos Carrasco was the centerpiece of the 2009 trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Phillies. But just as he was establishing himself at the age of 24, Carrasco lost a third of the 2011 season and all of the 2012 season to Tommy John surgery and had to be eased back into the mix. As a 19-year-old in 2009, Salazar allowed 5.03 runs per nine innings during his full-season debut in the minors while generating just 5.5 K/9. Trevor Bauer might have been projected to be an ace when Arizona picked him third overall in the 2011 draft, but the Diamondbacks decided he was more valuable as a trade chip and flipped him in the three-way trade less than 18 months later. Josh Tomlin was a 19th round pick, Cody Anderson a 14th-rounder.
"In a lot of ways, it is the envy of baseball," an American League executive said of the Indians' rotation. "They have this great rotation, and it's not even hitting their payroll too much. They have guys who are under control or who are signed to really great, long-term deals or team-friendly deals. I think when you combine how good they are with the cost, they're the best in baseball."
So while the San Francisco Giants might have doled out $220 million in an attempt to reinforce their rotation during the offseason, and while there might be a much-vaunted "Cardinals way," the Indians have followed a more economical path -- but have still built a rotation that elicits jealousy from other teams. Consider what Cleveland has going for it at each spot in its rotation:
No. 1: Kluber: A fourth-round draft pick out of Stetson by the San Diego Padres in 2007 before he was traded to the Tribe in 2010, Kluber was never a top-ranked prospect, and his career minor league ERA (4.42) is more than a run higher than his major league ERA (3.39). So how did he become an ace? As Francona said, Kluber is self-made, pure and simple.
"The reason he's succeeded is because all the things you stress -- work hard, be diligent, do everything the right way, pay attention to the 'small' things in your game -- that's what Corey's done," Callaway said. "Some guys go out there, and they're just the best. That wasn't Kluber. He's turned himself into the best."
The 2014 American League Cy Young winner is perhaps the ultimate role model for the rest of the rotation. He throws 93 mph, supplemented with an excellent cutter and slider -- and an equally impressive work ethic.
"We tell a lot of our young kids, 'Watch what he does' -- not just when he pitches, but on his work days," Francona said. "Whatever he does, he does professionally, with an attention to detail. It's not by luck that he got this good."
The 29-year-old right-hander pitched well last season but didn't have a lot to show for it, thanks to a lack of offensive support. He'll make his second consecutive Opening Day start when the Indians begin the 2016 season at home on April 4 against Boston.
"I think every team, especially every good team, should have somebody in their rotation who's kind of a role model, not just in terms of ability, but in terms of their work ethic and preparation," said a rival American League executive. "It's good to have a guy other players can look up to, so that when he does stuff, your other pitchers sit up and pay attention."
No. 2: Carrasco: The man they call "Cookie" has a fastball that sits around 94.5 mph, mixed among a slider and changeup. He didn't just break through in 2015, in the second half he started striking out 32.5 percent of the guys he faced, a rate only bettered by guys named Kershaw and Strasburg. That was enough to put him on my list for picks to click in 2016, because he has kicked it up a gear.
"We always thought he could get to that level. You watch him throwing bullpen and it's like, 'Whoa, that's unbelievable,'" Callaway said. "Last year, I don't think he was quite sure he could do it for a whole year. But right at the All-Star break, he comes up to me and said, 'I'm going to do it.' And he did it for the full second half. Now, I expect he's going to do it for the full season."
"He's got that tremendous changeup as far as depth and movement, which is sometimes tough to throw for a strike because it does move so good," Callaway said. "But he's been really working on the slider and the curveball, to be able to mix that in so that he doesn't have the third time through, where everybody's just sitting on the heater."
So he's working at getting even nastier. You can imagine what hitters might feel about that.
Nos. 4-6: Here's where things get interesting, because between Bauer, Tomlin and Anderson, the Indians have an interesting decision to make if they run with a classic five-pack.
As a function of talent, Bauer is the one everyone expects to take things up a notch. A human metronome on the mound in how he works through his games, he is paradoxically a bit of a tinkerer and a source of frustration with flashes of extraordinary promise thanks to a full spread of stuff.
"You still see a guy with plus stuff who just hasn't been able to harness it consistently," said the AL executive. "He's kind of a baffling guy, because in terms of stuff, he should be right there with the Carrascos and the Salazars and Klubers of the world. It has to be frustrating."
It was frustrating, at times, for his pitching coach.
"Last year, his first half was really good, and then he started to change his routine, and he kind of struggled in the second half," Callaway said. "It made for tough days, some tough conversations in the second half. We just tried to continually express to him how valuable having a consistent routine is. It looks like he took it to heart this winter."
Francona deems Bauer's development a work in progress.
"Trevor is, I would say, ongoing, I think by his own admission," Francona said. "There's been times where he's told you guys he isn't sure what he wants to be or where he is."
This spring, Bauer is especially focused on dialing things up on a fastball that had sat around 93 mph; in spring training, he has been closer to 96 mph. Whatever he becomes, the expectation is that it can ultimately be something very special.
But beyond Bauer, Tomlin and Anderson are hardly chopped liver.
Tomlin is a pinpoint control fiend, having walked just 76 batters unintentionally in 513⅓ career innings, while allowing more homers (83) than walks. He has had trouble staying healthy, going through Tommy John surgery that took him out down the stretch in 2012 and cost him all of 2013, and then missing a big chunk of 2015 to early-season shoulder surgery. Despite those big-fly tendencies and health woes, he has notched a 4.46 ERA as a starter while making 40 quality starts in 80 turns. If that's your No. 5, it's a good No. 5. But if he breaks down, Anderson makes for an excellent alternative. Last year as a rookie, Anderson threw 10 quality starts in 15 turns to run up a 7-3 record and a 3.05 ERA; he is someone who might especially thrive in front of the Indians' improved defense.
Indeed, Cleveland's pitchers can expect a little more help this season from their friends in the field. After shortstop Lindor's debut on June 14, the staffwide batting average on balls in play dropped from .326 (28th in MLB) to an MLB-best .271.
"This guy Lindor has so much energy. He tries to catch everything," Salazar said.
If last season's massive in-season improvement on defense holds true for a full season, Indians starters should no longer be quite so worried when opponents get the ball in play.
"That's one of the things that those guys struggled with at times last year," Callaway said of his rotation. "They're young; if guys make an error, it's tough to deal with. They came out last year and dealt with it. And then all of a sudden, they get to see Francisco? And then they get to see [third baseman Giovany] Urshela? And now they get [Juan] Uribe, who's been a really solid defender?
"I think there's a lot of excitement that the left side of their infield is going to be really strong and that they don't have to strike a guy out no matter what."
The infielders, for their part, know they need to step up. "With the pitching staff we've got, we have to turn those double plays," second baseman Jason Kipnis said of their responsibilities. "Hopefully, we'll be the key to turning things around and getting the season off to a better start."
Combine impressive stuff from an impressive staff with another well-run Francona bullpen and you've got a pitching-and-defense formula that should strangle opposing offenses and put the Indians in the mix for big things.
"I hope we're not just a pitching and defense team, because I don't know if that's good enough," Francona said. "But I do know that doing that, you're going to stay in most games."