Then & Now is a weekly feature at Indians Prospect Insider during the offseason that takes a look at a prospect’s past and present while also offering a possible glimpse into the prospect’s future.
It was just a few years ago that the Cleveland Indians had left-handed starting pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee in the team’s starting rotation. Most teams long to have one left-handed starter of that stature, but the Indians had the luxury of having two.
Today, it’s a much different situation for the Indians. The team went into the 2012 season with a rotation equipped entirely with right-handed arms. Plus, while the team has some left-handed starters in the upper levels of its farm system, it’s safe to say that none of the pitchers could be described as “impact” arms.
However, even if a left-handed starter is not necessarily an “impact” arm, that does not mean the pitcher cannot have an impact on the Major League club.
A quality, finesse left-handed pitcher might be just what the Indians are looking for. While there are a couple of left-handed starters close to being Major League ready, perhaps none is closer than T.J. McFarland.
The Indians drafted McFarland in the fourth round of the 2007 Draft out of Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Illinois. Since making his debut with the Gulf Coast Indians at age 19 in 2008, it’s been clear that if McFarland is going to make the Major Leagues, he will make it behind one pitch: his sinker.
McFarland throws the pitch early and often, and it’s been probably the main reason that he’s been to move throughout the Indians system with relative ease. The pitch is not overpowering as it tops out at 92 mph on a good day, but McFarland is not afraid to pitch to contact, and he is an absolute groundball machine.
Prior to his stint with the GCL Indians, McFarland almost immediately found minor league success. In 2009 with Single-A Lake County, the left-hander went 9-4 with a 3.58 ERA in 120 2/3 innings of work.
He built off that success the following season at High-A Kinston. In 125 2/3 innings of work, McFarland went 11-5 and posted a 3.13 ERA. The season is still arguably the best of McFarland’s career. To anyone who watched him, it was clear that McFarland was quietly doing all of the right things to prepare himself to be a Major League caliber starting pitcher.
The numbers that season were by no means gaudy as evidenced by McFarland’s 6.5 K/9 rate. However, the season helped cement McFarland as two things: A.) a strike thrower and B.) a guy who just knows how to get hitters out.
McFarland’s success carried over into 2011 where aside from two starts, he spent the entire season at Double-A Akron. In 25 starts and 137 1/3 innings with the Aeros, McFarland went 9-9 that year. The numbers took a step back from the previous season, but there was still much to be impressed with. McFarland was just 21 and 22 years old during the season, and he never appeared overwhelmed.
If the story of T.J. McFarland in 2012 had a name, it would be “The Tale of Two Pitchers.”
McFarland began the season with a repeat stint at Akron. The Indians wanted to see him improve on some problem areas such as his walk rate and number of home runs allowed, and McFarland did not disappoint.
In all, McFarland made 10 starts with the Aeros and went 8-2 with a 2.69 ERA in 60 1/3 innings of work. He also showed marked improvement in the walk area as his BB/9 rate was down (1.8), and he only allowed one home run in those 10 starts.
However, something funny happened right before McFarland was about to be promoted to Triple-A Columbus. He got rocked.
In his final start with the Aeros, McFarland allowed seven runs in five innings of work. It stood out because he allowed no more than three runs in any of his other nine starts. Perhaps McFarland knew of his promotion and was just nervous, but that argument loses merit when you consider his performance at Columbus.
In 17 starts and 102 2/3 innings of work with the Clippers, McFarland went 8-6 with a 4.82 ERA. Though the numbers do not tell the true story behind McFarland’s 2012 stint with the Clippers. Make no mistake about it, McFarland had some excellent starts with Columbus. However, he also had a handful of poor ones. And that’s where the problem lies with McFarland. He was either outstanding or awful — there was no in between.
For example, there was one point of time in June where McFarland allowed a total of three earned runs in three starts and 22 innings. He then went out in his next start and was bombarded for eight earned runs in 2 1/3 innings of work. The problem here is that this kind of thing happened on numerous occasions.
On the positive side of things, McFarland did end the season on a good note as he threw six shutout innings on August 31 to earn a win over Louisville.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the future may hold for McFarland. Without a doubt, he is currently on the team’s radar and will likely be considered as an option for the Indians at some time during the 2013 season.
But if he does make it to the Major League club, how long does he stay? Many have drawn comparisons to former Tribe left-handed starters Aaron Laffey or Jeremy Sowers. That’s probably not the kind of comparisons that many of us had hoped for.
Though maybe McFarland just needs some more time at the Triple-A level to fine-tune his game. After all, look at his numbers from his first stint in Double-A compared to his second.
He’s far from an elite left-handed starter, but what if he is a little more than a Jeremy Sowers, David Huff or Aaron Laffey? Perhaps he is a left-handed starter in line with a Paul Maholm. If that is the case, McFarland could immediately help improve a major need within the rotation.
Though, the Indians have been getting nothing from left-handed starters over the past two years, so even if McFarland provides something, it has to be considered a major positive.