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2013 Indians Player Preview: Vinnie Pestano

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we kick off our look at the bullpen with the Indians’ 2013 eighth-inning man (and possible Opening Day closer): Vinnie Pestano.

Background: The Indians took Pestano, now 27, out of California State University Fullerton in the 20th round of the 2012 MLB amateur draft—just four picks after onetime top prospect Domonic Brown. Pestano blew through the minors, posting a 2.55 ERA and 9.6 K/9 in 173 MiLB innings. He made his MLB debut in September 2010.

Last year: Pestano wasn’t quite the unstoppable strikeout machine we saw in 2011, but he followed up his breakout rookie campaign with a very solid sophomore season in 2012. The second-in-command in the Bullpen Mafia through 70 innings with a 2.57 ERA (152 ERA+) and a 1.10 WHIP, going 3-3 and picking up two saves along the way. Gone were the days of his gaudy double-digit K/9 rates, but he still struck out more than a batter an inning (9.8 K/9) while cutting back a bit on the walks (3.1 BB/9). The DIPS stats were less charitable to Pestano than they were a year ago, with estimates of his true talent ranging from 3.00 (SIERA) to 3.74 (xFIP).

FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus both valued Pestano’s 2012 performance at 1.0 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference had him as the best pitcher on the staff at an impressive 2.1 WAR.

Key factor: Can he close? Chris Perez might not be back for Opening Day, in which case Pestano will get the chance to step into the closer’s role. If he succeeds, he could be there for a while—Perez is getting expensive as he goes through his arbitration years, and he could fetch a strong return from a contender in need of bullpen help at midseason. If the Indians were truly shopping Perez he’d presumably be gone already, but that doesn’t mean they won’t listen to offers in the coming months.

The biggest storyline in the Tribe’s bullpen this year could well be whether Pestano can handle the ninth inning. Common sense says he can—he’s got probably the best stuff on the staff and he’s used to handling high-leverage situations—but you never really know how a guy will work out as a closer until you give him the chance to prove himself.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

So the question for Pestano is: Will he be great or will he merely be very good?

Best-case scenario: The 2011 Pestano reappears by Opening Day, just in time to fill in for a still-injured Chris Perez. It takes Perez longer than expected to return, and by the time he does Pestano has already established himself as a legitimate fireman. Perez is traded before the deadline and by the end of the season Pestano is recognized as one of the best closers in the game.

Worst-case scenario: Again, Perez misses Opening Day and Pestano steps into the closer’s role—but in this instance he isn’t ready for it. Call it nerves, the league figuring him out, or just a few rough outings, but the story is that he can’t handle the ninth inning. He’ll still have a solid season as a setup man (even the most skeptical projection systems see him as a very good pitcher) but most will remember his 2013 year first and foremost for his perceived failure in the ninth inning.

What to expect: Look for some regression to mean as the league sees him a little more again, but he’ll still be a very good pitcher—somewhere around the Oliver projections. As for his role, Pestano will probably be a great closer someday, but for now the Indians seem to like him as an elite setup man. If he’s pitching the ninth inning by the end of the season it’s probably because something went wrong.

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