Battle Begins to Determine Indy's Top Starting Pitchers

Indians have spots to fill from one of the International League's top staffs in 2017

Nick Kingham is expected to anchor Indianapolis' rotation after a strong finish to the 2017 season. (Photo by Adam Pintar)

By Blake Baker / Indianapolis Indians | February 15, 2018 10:54 AM

INDIANAPOLIS - Pitchers and catchers have finally reported for spring training, itching to begin the 2018 campaign. Though they dream of starting the year on the big league roster, many pitchers who make the trip will be fighting for a spot in the Tribe's starting rotation. Here are nearly a dozen arms who could take the mound in a starting role for the Indians this season. Top 20 rankings for the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system by Baseball America and MLBpipeline.com are in parentheses. 

POSSIBLE STARTERS

Tanner Anderson: Anderson's 19 starts for Double-A Altoona in 2017 marked a career high, and his 1.25 WHIP, 97 strikeouts and 10 wins did the same. Primarily a reliever to begin his career, Anderson proved his versatility a season ago. The 24-year-old Harvard grad transitioned into a starting slot before returning to the bullpen. He finished the year with 10 relief appearances, surrendering an earned run in just three of them and nabbing the win in two. Traditionally a ground-ball pitcher (career groundout-to-flyout ratio of 3.06), he is likely to begin the year with Altoona, but could see a mix of starts and relief appearances in Indy this season, as well. 

J.T. Brubaker: The former sixth-round selection experienced an up-and-down season last year. With 109 strikeouts, he ended Altoona's championship run as one of two pitchers to eclipse the 100-K mark, averaging over four punchouts per start. Brubaker also started the second-most games of any Altoona pitcher with 24. On the other hand, the Akron product fell victim to poor stretches, losing back-to-back starts multiple times in 2017 and giving up a team-high 63 earned runs. A little more consistency from Brubaker could help land him a starting role for the Tribe sometime in 2018. 

Austin Coley: Before Coley delivered an outing that sent Altoona to the Eastern League Championship Series, the 25-year-old righty closed out the regular season red hot. He solidified himself as one of Altoona's most durable starters by reaching seven innings pitched in six of his final 12 starts. During that span, the former Belmont Bruin went 4-2 and lasted over six innings on average. Coley's late dominance contributed to career-best numbers in strikeouts (144, which led the club), homers allowed (10), ERA (3.01, which led the club's full-time starters), losses (4) and games (29). With all that momentum, he is primed to make the jump and test himself in Triple-A.

Cody Dickson: He was another hurler to appear in both starter and reliever gigs in 2017. Dickson, who the Pirates chose in the fourth round in 2013, compiled a 3-4 record as a starter. The left-hander started six games each for Altoona and Indy, but his numbers for the Tribe last season could lead to a spot in the rotation going forward. Though he accumulated fewer strikeouts for the Indians, Dickson's 3.63 ERA topped his mark from Altoona by almost three whole points. Overall, he showed flexibility appearing in multiple situations and showed promise in getting out of jams (23 strikeouts with runners on, 13 with runners in scoring position), and although Dickson didn't make the non-roster invite list to spring training, he should compete for time on the Tribe's staff sometime this season.

Tyler Eppler: Eppler (BA 2017 preseason ranking: #18) spent the entire 2017 season with the Indians and put together a pretty good year. When the six-foot-six-inch right-hander pitched six or more innings, he performed especially well. He amassed a 5-3 record in such games and was unbeaten in games he pitched through the seventh inning (4-0). Overall, though, Eppler failed to improve on a 2016 campaign that saw him garner Eastern League midseason All-Star honors in Altoona, allowing the highest WHIP (1.41) and most home runs (23) in his four-year career. He did receive a non-roster invite to Pirates spring training, but with a 6-1 record at Victory Field last year, Tribe fans would love to see the 25-year-old back on the mound for Indy. 

Clay Holmes: The Alabama native was joined by Steven Brault last season as Indy's only pitchers to reach 10 wins in the previous two years combined. That mark alone may have boosted Holmes (BA 2017 preseason ranking: #20) onto the Pirates' 40-man roster entering the spring. He showed spurts of greatness in 2017, going 3-0 in both May and August and allowing one or no runs in a third of his starts. Improving his walk total, opposing average and ERA from 2016 turned heads, but his sheer ability to win games is what's given him a chance at the big leagues. His impressive regular season earned him the nod in the Tribe's Governors' Cup semifinal opener last fall.

Mitch Keller: Keller (BA Top 100 prospects for 2018: #12/MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospects for 2018: #16) enters the spring as the most highly anticipated prospect in the organization, and after his clutch play a season ago, the praise is warranted. The young gun wrapped up his second straight All-Star campaign with a one-hit, complete game shutout in the opening game of Altoona's postseason before tossing a seven-inning gem to capture the Eastern League Championship Series title. Just 21 years old, Keller experienced most of his 2017 success with High-A Bradenton. There he touted a 6-3 record, a 1.00 WHIP, a 3.14 ERA and 64 strikeouts. The former Most Outstanding Pitcher in the Single-A South Atlantic League started all 23 of his games last year, and though he's likely to begin 2018 with Altoona, Keller could appear in the Tribe's rotation before many expect him to pitch for Pittsburgh in the coming years. 

Nick Kingham: He's the second Indians pitcher from 2017 to make the 40-man roster entering Pirates spring training. Kingham (BA 2017 preseason ranking: #11) registered over three strikeouts for every walk last season and was a single out away from becoming the only Tribe pitcher to notch multiple complete games. The 26-year-old righty rehabbed to begin the season but finished his year on a tear. During a stretch where Indy competed for a division title, Kingham won six of his final eight starts, turning in a perfect 4-0 record in August. Pittsburgh's interest in the former High-A All-Star seems clear, and if he maintains the control he showed late last year, Kingham could be pitching for the Pirates soon enough. 

Alex McRae: At just shy of six innings per start, McRae ended the season as the most durable starter on Altoona's 2017 staff. The fifth-year hurler out of Jacksonville led the club with 149.2 innings pitched. Though he allowed 60 RBI with runners on, 43 of McRae's 89 strikeouts came with men on base, and he achieved the best WHIP of his career with a clip of 1.38. He built on his 2017 midseason All-Star bid with an invitation to Bradenton as a non-roster addition for this spring. Another 10-win season, McRae's second straight in double-figures, could be followed by one spent on Indy's starting staff. 

Casey Sadler: Sadler is the only gunslinger on this list with major league exposure. In 15.1 big league innings in 2014 and '15, he allowed 11 earned runs, but also tossed 12 strikeouts and won his only start. That win came in 2015, the same year the 27-year-old had Tommy John surgery. Last year, Sadler, a 2014 midseason All-Star for the Tribe, began his return to the mound out of the bullpen and didn't start a game until late July. However, he did win his sole start in an Indians uniform, making it six innings and allowing three earned runs, all of which came in the first. The Pirates' 25th-round pick from 2010 will get a chance to prove himself once again against major league competition as a non-roster invitee to spring training and could see his fourth season with double-digit appearances in Indy.

Brandon Waddell: He pitched in three levels of the minor leagues in 2017, but Waddell (BA 2017 preseason ranking: #16) made 15 of his 17 starts for Altoona, finishing with solid numbers overall. A stud on Virginia's College World Series championship team in 2015, he recorded the best figures in his three-year career for ERA (3.12) and WHIP (1.23) last season. Despite not winning a start in Altoona until July, Waddell notched six strikeouts and suffered no runs in the first game of the Eastern League Championship Series to earn a huge victory. Also impressive was his 68 percent strike rate in the postseason. The 23-year-old southpaw received the distinction of organizational All-Star in 2016, and a positive 2017 amidst issues with a left forearm strain should give Waddell hope for a slot on the Indians' rotation in the coming months.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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