The Cy Young favorite will be pushed back to Game 2 in a calculated risk by Cleveland manager Terry Francona.
The conventional wisdom of a playoff series is that, if you can, you lead with your best pitcher. In the case of the Indians, who will open their postseason at home on Thursday night against the winner of the AL wild-card game, that would mean starting Cy Young favorite and staff ace Corey Kluber in Game 1 of the ALDS. But as we learned last October, Cleveland manager Terry Francona isn't afraid to get weird with things. On Tuesday, the team announced that, instead of Kluber, Trevor Bauer would take the ball for the Division Series opener against either the Twins or Yankees. Via the Associated Press:
"I think on a number of reasons it makes good sense," Francona said Tuesday as the Indians awaited the winner of the Twins-Yankees wild-card game. "Not that you go into a game thinking you're going to lose, but if you do, you have your ace coming back. The biggest thing was keeping him on his 5-day (schedule). That was really important to Kluber. That was really the only way we could do it.
"Again, you don't want to put the cart ahead of the horse, but if you're fortunate enough to win in four, you have your ace ready for the next series."
On the surface, this seems crazy, if only because starting a worse pitcher to open the series is to invite a 1–0 deficit. Worse, should the Indians fall behind two games to one, they won't have Kluber available in Game 4 to keep the season alive; that assignment would, as of now, go to back-end starter Josh Tomlin, who posted a 4.98 ERA this season and is no one's idea of a postseason savior. (Tomlin will be available out of the bullpen for Games 1–3; should he have to pitch, Game 4 could possibly go to either Danny Salazar or Bauer on short rest.)
But as Francona notes, moving Kluber to Game 2 keeps him on his regular schedule and does leave him available for a do-or-die Game 5, if things get that far, or sets him up to start Game 1 of the ALCS (and pitch three times in that series, if needed) if Cleveland can wrap things up before then. Plus, for as uninspiring a choice as Bauer may seem, he is coming off his best season as a starter—a mediocre 4.19 ERA but a good 10.0 strikeout-per-nine rate—and was stellar in the second half, with a 3.01 ERA in 83 2/3 innings, and he won't be going up against the ace of whichever team advances. And if Bauer gets into early trouble, Francona will have a fully rested Andrew Miller and Cody Allen ready to bail him out.
Ultimately, though, it feels safer simply to give the ball to Kluber and figure out the rest of the series from there. But only time will tell if this is the Indians getting too cute with their strategy, or if Francona and company have once again figured out a new and better way to do things in the playoffs.