External Options for the Cleveland Indians Bullpen: Part One

Bullpen Decisions Key to Indians Offseason

With the departure of Chris Perez there will be a lot of discussion on who will be the Indians “closer” in 2014. Will it be someone in-house like Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw or will the Indians go out on the open market and sign a closer.

Steve Kinsella and I see the investment in bullpen arms differently and have hashed it out over the last few winters. Rather than have a back and forth on philosophy, Steve and I are going to present a few bullpen options for the Indians and explain why they fit. First, in today’s post, I will lay out my criteria for what I’m looking for the Indians to spend/trade for and why the player makes sense to me. Steve will do the same and lay out what his criteria is and who he believes the Indians should target.

Next, we will post our lists of relievers to target, and then we will each have “blind” responses to the other’s list – Steve doesn’t know what I’m going to say about his and I won’t know his opinion on my list until we publish them right here. We’d also love to hear from you, and what you think the Indians should do this offseason. Feel free to leave a comment or four below, and we also love getting electronic mail at [email protected].

Steve: For many, the word closer is a four letter word that should never ever be uttered or written about. Although I am a believer in having a dedicated 9th inning arm to get those last three outs, I do not believe this person should be the teams best reliever nor do I believe a team should feel the need to commit multi-years to a free agent to check that “closer’ box off the to-do list.

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Sep 3, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona (left) and relief pitcher Chris Perez (54) celebrate a 4-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When looking to sign or trade for a person to complete the back end of my bullpen I borrow a term from Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon who calls this guy a “reliever extraordinaire” which I’ll abbreviate with RE. (Note – Ed will do the same throughout this series)

Many Maddonisms are mocked and discounted as Merlot Joe must have tipped the bottle back a little too much but the “reliever extraordinaire” (RE) makes a lot of sense to an organization. The organization can certainly go out and sign or trade for a reliever but that’s only half the battle. Maybe a better strategy is to add arms that can be back end relievers and if one of them ends up being the closer great – in the meantime they are reliever extraordinaire’s.

When the Rays front office felt they had a competitive team, a team capable of making noise in the AL East, they didn’t sit back and play the field. They approached the Atlanta Braves about soon to be arbitration eligible Rafael Soriano. When the winter meetings were being discussed in the local media Rays owner Stu Sternberg said not to expect a $7M closer coming to the team. Then at the meetings GM Andrew Friedman went out and traded for Soriano and signed him to a 1-year, $7.25M contract.

The point of the Soriano story is that the Indians, like the Rays were, are in a position to challenge the Detroit Tigers. One area that the team should be keeping an eye out on all fronts is the back end reliever – both in trade or free agency. The ceiling for the reliever may press the payroll a little bit in 2014 but it should not be an inhibitor for multiple years like the Kerry Wood signing.

The Rays have found value in arms on the free agent/trade market over the last several years. Some have worked out in setup roles and others have found their way into the closers role. Joel Peralta, Joaquin Benoit, and Juan Cruz all filled roles in the later inning for the bullpen while Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney both ended up as the teams closer. The one common thread that all the aforementioned relievers shared is that none of them were named as the teams closer in the winter and none of their salaries were high enough to have to avoid putting them into set up roles.

For me the role of RE will have a live arm and will be able to strike batters out. Nothing better than being able to get out of a jam with the K rather than pitching to contact and hoping. The RE that is signed/traded does not have to be anointed the 9th inning guy before spring training (although a few on either list may get that distinction), and the RE should not be an in-house option that has not reached arbitration yet. The Indians should do whatever they can to make sure they don’t run into an escalating salary via arbitration on a young arm.

Ed: If you follow me on Twitter, or have ever interacted with me, you probably know my final conclusion: I really don’t like paying significant amounts of money to a reliever. While “significant amounts of money” can mean different things to different people, I feel one first needs to understand two simple, yet significant concepts. First, while there may be a major difference between a bad reliever and an elite reliever, there simply isn’t a massive difference, at least in terms of wins, between a so-so reliever and a good or even great reliever. Secondly, the list of elite relievers can probably be counted on your one hand and you’d probably only need about four hands for the list of great relievers.

I agree with Steve that the term “closer” should be a four-letter word – there’s no mention of a “closer” anywhere in the rulebook, and it’s a silly role which has risen to prominence thanks to lazy managers and (especially) the now-retired Mariano Rivera. It’s a bit snarky, but I’m not the only one to have said this – 29 teams have been trying to build their bullpens around a guy that’s been on the New York Yankees since 1996 (yeah, I know he pitched for them before this, but he wasn’t their “closer”).

Personally, I still haven’t found a great metric to evaluate relievers, namely because a reliever is a walking small sample size. The most durable and dependable relievers seem to max out at around 70 IP, which seems like a lot, but when you look at how many innings a team pitches in the course of a season, you realize how minuscule it actually is. In 2013, the Indians had two relievers cross the 70 IP threshold – Bryan Shaw had 75 IP and Cody Allen had 70.1 IP – and not surprisingly, they seem to be the names mentioned most often to replace Perez in the “closer” role. In total, though, Indians pitchers threw 1441.1 IP in 2013. This means Shaw, the Indians most-used reliever, pitched in about 5% of the team’s innings, and Allen pitched in about 4%. Now for comparison’s sake, the Indians’ innings-leader was Justin Masterson, who pitched in 193 innings, or approximately 13% of the team’s innings (note – this includes Masterson’s relief appearances). So many statistics, like ERA, WAR and even to an extent, WHIP are completely useless for telling us just how effective a guy really is at his job.

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Sep 17, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Bryan Shaw (27) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals in the sixth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

I’m sure there’s a reader out there saying, “But Ed, they’ve already come up for a solution for this! There are saves!” But these stats really aren’t a solution to anything except for the question “how can baseball help relievers make more money?”. The “save” statistic is a terrible statistic. It does not tell you anything about how effective or valuable a pitcher is, and really only tells you who finished the game on the winning side (and, admittedly, this isn’t even always true, which is another reason why I hate the save). Ever notice how elite “closers” seem to change, year in and year out? This isn’t a fluke – the save really just tells you that team played in a lot of close games, as you can’t “earn” a save without a lead of three runs or less (again, I know this isn’t entirely true, but for the majority of cases, it is).

So this really comes down to math. Why on earth would a cost-conscious team like the Indians spend any sort of significant money on a player who in all likelihood, will pitch in maybe 5% of your team’s total innings? And, if you are willing to spend money on this reliever, shouldn’t you at least make sure he’s great or elite? And if you can’t determine WHO is elite or great (and I’m sure most MLB teams CAN, but most common fans CAN’T), why gamble with the money? Sure, an elite closer like Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves is worth 3.3 WAR, and he did lead the league in saves (50), but these are exceptions, not the norm (and a lot of good Kimbrel did Atlanta in their first-round exit against the Los Angeles Dodgers). By comparison, Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles was tied for the saves lead as well, but only had a 1.5 WAR – and he made $6.5 million compared to Kimbrel’s $665,000. They both had the same amount of saves, yet one was worth a LOT more to his team in wins – and made a ton less.

I completely agree with Steve that to put either Shaw or Allen in this role would be a foolish move on the Indians’ part. They are both pre-arbitration, and saves will rack up the cost of a reliever in arbitration. For an example, Jim Johnson became the Orioles “closer” in 2012, after a great 2011 season (2.7 WAR), and made $2.625 million, a raise from his $975,000 salary in 2011. Johnson was admittedly great in 2012, posting a 2.4 WAR, but he made almost a $4 million dollar raise between 2012 and 2013, and you can point squarely to those saves as the reason. Shaw and (especially) Allen are under team control for awhile now, and why would you want to inflate their costs when you can get just as much production out of them in the 7th and 8th innings as the 9th? Despite what anyone tries to tell you, the 7th/8th innings matter just as much as that last one.

So now that you know my position on the “closer,” what do I want to do about this? Well, I acknowledge that Terry Francona wants a dedicated guy in the ninth inning, and likes his bullpen to have and know their roles. Francona won me over last year, so I won’t quibble too much with what he wants. But just because he likes having a dedicated ninth inning guy doesn’t mean a “closer” is a good idea.

I agree with Maddon (and Steve), and love the reliever extraordinaire. What I want in a RE is also a live arm – strikeouts are a very good thing, but I’m also willing to look at fastball velocity and if the guy is known to have a “plus pitch,” which usually indicates he’s got an effective pitch. As I pointed out earlier, there’s not a ton of differences between a good reliever and a so-so one, so I’m looking heavily at the money aspect here. I like guys who may have had experience “closing” before, but that’s not necessarily a pre-requisite – it simply tells me the guy has faced some adversity before and usually can bounce back. I find the idea of a “closing mentality” hilarious, and it’s usually spewed by people who don’t know what they’re talking about – you can stick almost any pitcher in the ninth inning and he will WANT to finish that game out. But they will mess up here and there and the key to an effective RE for me is no prolonged slumps or ineffectiveness. Not paying a RE a lot of money makes it easier to move on from an ineffective guy.

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Oct 4, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) throws against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the ninth inning of game two of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game at Turner Field. The Braves won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

My limit for a RE, assuming this is a one-year deal, is $5 million, but that’s my ABSOLUTE limit, and I can tell you right now, the only guys I’d be willing to give that to won’t come to Cleveland (and therefore, aren’t on my list). I’d much prefer to remain in the $1-2 million range (and, hopefully, have some backup options ready at the big-league level). In a trade, I’m willing to give up relievers or C-level and below prospects to get a guy, but in that instance the salary of the guy acquired factors heavily. One-year deals work best for me, but I am always open to team options, or even creative vesting options (provided these vesting options don’t pay guys lots of money for saves because, well, see above).

I’d also REALLY like to avoid the whole “quirky closer” thing (looking at you, Brian Wilson). Kinda tired of that (thanks, Perez), but willing to be flexible here, as the production matters most to me.

Please check back tomorrow for lists of relievers Steve and I think the Indians should target, and then later this week for our responses to the list. Feel free to leave comments below with any potential targets.

Topics: Bullpen, Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians, Craig Kimbrel, Jim Johnson, Rafael Soriano

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