The Cleveland Indians need pitching. That’s just a fact. The Tribe’s starting five was inconsistent to downright terrible in 2012, and it was one of the biggest reasons for that late July swoon that effectively ended the season. The front office has stated that one of the focuses for 2013 is bolstering that rotation so the Indians can compete. After all, the easiest way (if you can call it easy) to consistently compete in Major League Baseball is with strong pitching, and going from there.
The real problem is, it’s hard to create long term success in the rotation through free agency. The New York Yankees have done that to a degree, as have the Philadelphia Phillies and the Texas Rangers. But outside of a strange and hideous 2012 season for the Phils, these teams have had two things in common: they’re contenders and they’re rich. The first thing came from the second. The Indians aren’t rich, so they’re in a tight spot, and there’s not much besides Brandon McCarthy or Shaun Marcum or Zack Grienke that’s all that intriguing on the market this year anyway.
That means the Indians have to bolster that bullpen and give that rotation some relief. The three-man punch of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez was pretty good this year: 3.01 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 2.9 K/BB ratio in 2012. But the rest of ‘pen was pretty much not good: 4.56 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 2.2 K/BB. Plainly, with a middling rotation on the best of days and David Huff or Ubaldo Jimenez on the worst of days, this has to change, because these guys are going to get some work.
The main question the team has to deal with is whether Chris Perez will be around next year. With his critical comments throughout the season and the Indians’ lack of real competitiveness coming into 2013, it seems like a great chance to move the guy and get some pieces for the future. With Pestano shifting to the closer’s role (and you better believe he’ll do it big) that means a new setup man is needed. How about Nick Hagadone? His numbers were less than electric in 2012, but he struck out 26 in 25 innings despite walking 15. That’s going to have to change if he’s going to be an effective reliever. He’s left-handed, and righties had a .797 OPS against him compared to .519 for lefties, so it could be that he’s little more than a lefty specialist. But the kid has some filthy stuff and I think it could translate to the setup role. That whole thing with his being put on the restricted list might have caused some bad blood between him and the organization, but unless the team is holding a grudge, it could work.
You have to think Joe Smith will be back. He’s been a primo seventh-inning guy who helps to change the pace with that sidewinder motion of his. Could you do better? Probably, but the fact remains the Tribe isn’t going to shell out for a seventh-inning guy. Smith has been anywhere from fine just fine to spectacular. He’s been in Cleveland four years now and has a 138 ERA+ in that time with a 1.14 WHIP and he gets the job done more than anything. You’re always confident when he comes trotting out of the ‘pen.
Likewise, Tony Sipp is locked in as the lefty specialist. Tony got knocked around at times last year but he still held lefties to a .663 OPS against. I know it sounds naïve, but it felt like he wasn’t on his game last year and I think he could be better in 2013. With Hagadone in the fold (theoretically) that’s two solid-to-very-good lefties in the bullpen, and Sipp at least can pitch decently against right-handed batters too (.663 OPS against in 2011).
Thanks to the magic of the disabled list, we don’t have to look to free agency to find another reinforcement for 2013: Rafael Perez. When Raffy is good he’s real good—he has a vicious slider that murders righties (.146 career wOBA against) and a strong 3.45 SIERA. He’s about as good as they come as a middle-to-late reliever. If he comes back from shoulder surgery healthy and normal (as reports suggest) we’ll have a bolstered Bullpen Mafia.
Having Rafael Perez come back would give Cleveland insurance in case Hagadone doesn’t work out in the setup role—he will be a part of the Indians in 2013, but it could be as either a great setup man or a middling mop-up guy. He nibbles when he doesn’t have to, so we have to expect he’ll get more comfortable with more innings pitched. Again, he has the stuff, he’s just not confident. Perez is more of a sure thing.
For the long man, I’d nominate Josh Tomlin. Tomlin will probably try to weasel his way back into the rotation this spring, and that’s probably not a problem if that elbow surgery he got works out. He suffered a velocity drop in 2012 and walked over two men per nine innings for the first time in his career, and if he comes back strong the swingman job is proper for Tomlin. Obviously we’re talking about the Indians and they’re not exactly stacked with pitching talent, but if the rotation shakes out right Tomlin should be the odd man out. His first time through a lineup guys have a .711 OPS off him and the second time it’s only .758; the problem is that it leaps up to .802 the third time through. Pitching like that is not conducive to a successful starter and it puts a strain on the bullpen, so Tomlin should be first man out.
The Indians’ rotation can turn ugly at any given time. We’re kind of stuck with the guys we have there, so I suggest plugging in another long relief guy, someone who can come in when Ubaldo Jimenez is being miserable in the fourth inning and tidy up. What the Indians need is a Chad Durbin-type player who isn’t, you know, Chad Durbin. Maybe Dan Wheeler could brought back, but used properly and not counted on in high-leverage situations. Or perhaps the Tribe could take a flier on Chad Qualls a shot after he got blasted by the AL East for a season.
It’s a tough choice made tougher because of how important this second longman might be and the lack of real talent the Tribe has to fill it. Perhaps a young gun like Cody Allen will grab it with a big spring. Corey Kluber could be an option if he doesn’t make the rotation, and this would be a great role for Jeanmar Gomez, too—hitters figured him out too quickly when he started. Someone’s going to have to start, though.
The best part about this is that it trading Chris Perez would trim payroll and the Indians wouldn’t have to add any big, expensive arms through free agency. The key is Hagadone (I’m not worried about Pestano), but like I said there’s a contingency plan if that doesn’t work out and he can slide back behind Rafael Perez. Even if the Indians do deal their close, this could be a strong bullpen—it’ll have to be if they want to have any chance in 2013.