The Tribe’s bullpen has arguably been one of the team’s better assets in recent seasons, although at times that didn’t take much. So when Esmil Rogers was traded to the Blue Jays for yet another utility infielder, it seemed as if the Indians were damaging the only part of the team that should have been left alone, for no apparent reason.
Since then, they’ve added two new pen arms in Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers, and although Tony Sipp was lost in the process, it seems like the bullpen is still strong for next season. It’s important, then, to keep from trading off any more key pieces—including Chris Perez. With the signing of Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher, the Indians have signaled that they plan to contend next season, not just restock the farm system with prospects and suffer through 2013.
Perez was a hot topic heading into the off-season, but hasn’t garnered much attention since then. There seems to be little or no interest in him from other teams, presumably due to the projected $7.2 million he’ll earn to pitch between 60-70 innings next year. His penchant for annoying the fans and the front office with his off-field comments probably isn’t helping the situation. It seems likely that if the Indians were to trade Perez, they would have to cover a portion of his salary—and if they have to pay him anyway, it certainly shouldn’t be to play against them.
Instead, the Indians need to hang on to their trio of late-inning right-handed relievers. Perez, along with Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano, have been excellent almost every time that they’ve been handed the ball. For example, Pestano was sixth among American League pitchers in WPA last season, with 3.5, falling just beneath Justin Verlander and Cy Young winner David Price. He had a 152 ERA+ and a strikeout rate over 26 percent—and this wasn’t even his best year.
Smith regressed in 2012 after having a career-high 196 ERA+ last year, dropping to 132. However, he has proven himself to be one of the relievers that the team can count on most, and his groundball tendencies and above-average strikeout rate make him a necessity in close games. Indians Baseball Insider projects Smith to make $2.7 million next season, and he is worth the price until the Indians are able to find another equally effective option.
There are a lot of interesting bullpen arms, such as Trey Haley and Chen Lee, who will be candidates to replace the more-expensive options in the near future. In the meantime, the Indians need to keep their three main late-inning relievers. Doing so leaves a collection of lesser pitchers to compete for the remaining spots, add depth or be traded.
Right-hander Cody Allen proved last season that he has what it takes to play at the major league level, and he should begin the year in Cleveland. After being called up in July, Allen went twelve games before giving up his first earned run, in the form of a two-run home run to future teammate Nick Swisher. He seemed to lose some of his confidence after that, finishing with an ERA+ of 106, but he also struck out over 21 percent of batters faced. If he can improve his walk rate, which climbed to nearly 12 percent, he could potentially take over Joe Smith’s job in the seventh inning, or become the new setup man if Pestano is promoted to closer.
Former Diamondbacks pitcher Matt Albers is the best candidate to be traded. In six previous seasons, he had an ERA+ above 100 only once but earned a 181 last year. There’s no pattern of improvement so it was likely just an outlier season, but some team might be willing to take a chance on his recent success as part of a package deal if the Indians want to trade for a designated hitter. If not, the team should take a good look at him in spring training before finally giving the bullpen spot to Bryan Shaw. Shaw has had a better ERA+ (129 over the past two years) and a slightly better SO/BB rate (career 2.03 compared to Albers’ 1.57). He has much more potential and should be kept, hopefully as the fifth right-handed member of the bullpen.
Despite Frank Herrmann’s success last season, it seems unlikely that there will be room for another right-hander. He is in the same situation as Albers—in 2012, he had a 170 ERA+ through 19 innings, but his career ERA+ is 93. His low walk rate is nice, but he just doesn’t offer as much upside as Allen or Shaw.
If Perez, Pestano, Smith, Allen and Shaw are all on the 25-man roster this April, that will leave two spots for left-handers. This is where the Indians struggle most. Left-handed pitching is an even bigger issue than right-handed bats were last season. There are three lefty relievers on the 40-man roster: Nick Hagadone, David Huff and Scott Barnes.
Out of the three, Barnes is the most deserving of the opportunity. He had one bad outing in June, allowing five earned runs, but posted mostly good numbers outside of that. His strikeout to walk ratio is 2.29, and if that disastrous game is excluded, his ERA drops from 4.26 to under 2.00.
On the other hand, Hagadone may have shone in the minor leagues, but he hasn’t been a star in Cleveland. He pitched well this season until June, when he suddenly fell apart. His 2.20 ERA shot up to 6.30, and his season ended abruptly a month later when he accidentally fractured his left radius after losing his temper following a bad outing. Hagadone has been inconsistent and should probably not be on the Opening Day roster, although his strong start in 2012 means that he at least deserves the chance to prove himself in spring training.
Huff has appeared in parts of four seasons as a starting pitcher and, more recently, as a reliever. He has struggled to be a starter, but his experience makes him well suited to become the team’s long-relief man. Although his career 5.30 ERA is difficult to get excited about, if he has any value to the team at all, it is out of the bullpen. Huff doesn’t strike out many batters, but he also doesn’t allow a lot of walks. The Indians have waited on him to turn his game around for four years, and it hasn’t happened. While they should definitely use the rest of the winter to seek out some higher-quality lefty relievers, Huff will probably find a spot on the team if no better pitcher can be found. He is also out of minor league options, so he will need to clear waivers if he does not make the cut.
The Tribe has a lot of right-handed help, but needs to find a way to improve their selection of left-handed relievers. If players with 5.30 ERA’s are being considered as a viable bullpen solution, the team needs to do something about it before the season arrives.