If you ask anyone who keeps a keen eye on the minor leagues, they would tell you that the Indians have stockpiled some of the best relief pitching prospects out there. The crown jewel of all those late-inning arms is Nick Hagadone.
Hagadone was originally acquired from the Boston Red Sox in the Victor Martinez deal of 2009, along with Justin Masterson and Bryan Price. Hagadone was dealing with elbow problems at the time. It was those same woes that derailed his chances of being a Major League starter, and in 2010 the Indians officially moved him to the bullpen at Double-A Akron.
Hagadone has also struggled with his control in the past—he had a 6.6 BB/9 between High-A Kinston and Double-A Akron in 2010. But 2011 went differently for Hagadone. In his first full year in the bullpen he lowered his walk rate to a much more respectable 2.8 BB/9 while still striking out over a batter an inning (9.8 K/9) between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus.
That eventually earned him a promotion to the big leagues, where he pitched only 11 innings but looked solid. Hagadone held an ERA of 4.09 (100 ERA+) and struck out a batter an inning, but his walk issues slightly resurfaced(4.9 BB/9). This should be taken with a grain of salt due to the small sample size, and Hagadone’s pedigree should be enough to suggest he can only build upon that in 2012.
While Hagadone could start the year at Triple-A Columbus since he’s pitched only 48.1 innings there in his minor league career, I think the Indians are better off giving him a bullpen spot from the outset this season. Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez were effective in 2011, but I’m concerned for both of them in 2012. Sipp’s K/9 has steadily declined each of his three MLB seasons, from 10.8 his rookie year, to 9.9 in 2010 and 8.2 last year. To Sipp’s credit he did lower his walk rate to 3.5 BB/9 (his previous career rate was 5.6), but his propensity to give up home runs (1.5 HR/9 for his career) does not fit the mold of a setup man. Meanwhile Perez’ his K/9 rate has dropped even more sharply than Sipp’s and was just 4.7 in 2011. The Indians need of a power lefty out of the bullpen, which is exactly what Hagadone will provide them.
I would not be surprised to see Hagadone take a similar path to Vinnie Pestano‘s last year: he begins the season as a 26-year-old rookie who just makes the team out of spring training, then strikes out so many batters that he earns a job as a setup man. Hagadone could easily take over Sipp’s role as the premier lefty in the pen and even make Perez expendable, perhaps opening up room for another top bullpen prospect, Chen Lee.
Hagadone has true closer potential, and I see him (not Pestano) supplanting Perez in the ninth-inning role down the road.