2013 Indians in Review: The Bullpen

ChickenThe Indians wild ride has come to an end. The 2013 season was one that nobody expected. A 96 loss team turned into a 92 win club that advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. GM Chris Antonetti and Manager Terry Francona helped changed the culture of the organization and has our baseball team on the rise. There is a buzz in the city about the Indians again. It was a season to remember with so many great moments and the arrival of some new fan favorites.  

Each day this week, we will look back at a different portion of the club and see where we are today, a plan for 2014, and so on. We began with the starting rotation, and now we move onto the relievers.

Chris Perez – 54 appearances/54 IP/5-3/25 saves/4.33 ERA/1.43 WHIP/54 K/21 BB/11 HR/9.00 K per 9/.229 vs. righties/.291 vs. lefties

Joe Smith – 70 appearances/63 IP/25 holds/6-2/2.29 ERA/1.22 WHIP/54 K/23 BB/5 HR/7.71 K per 9/.242 vs. righties/.227 vs. lefties

Cody Allen – 77 appearances/70.1 IP/11 holds/6-1/2.43 ERA/1.25 WHIP/88 K/26 BB/7 HR/11.26 K per 9/.236 vs. righties/.236 vs. lefties

Bryan Shaw – 70 appearances/75 IP/12 holds/7-3/3.24 ERA/1.17 WHIP/73 K/28 BB/4 HR/8.76 K per 9/.182 vs/ righties/.254 vs. lefties

Marc Rzepcynski – 27 appearances/20.1 IP/6 holds/0-0/0.89 ERA/0.80 WHIP/20 K/ 6 BB/0 HR/8.85 K per 9/.179 vs. lefties/.298 vs. righties

Matt Albers – 56 appearances/63 IP/1 hold/3-1/3.14 ERA/1.27 WHIP/35 K/23 BB/2 HR/5.00 K per 9/.226 vs. righties/.262 vs. righties

Rich Hill – 63 appearances/38.2 IP/13 holds/1-2/6.28 ERA/1.73 WHIP/51 K/29 BB/3 HR/11.87 K per 9/.238 vs. lefties/.281 vs. righties

Vinne Pestano – 37 appearances/35.1 IP/6 holds/1-2/4.08 ERA/1.64 WHIP/37 K/21 BB/6 HR/9.42 K per 9/.254 vs. righties/.292 vs. lefties

CC Lee – 8 appearances/4.1 IP/1 hold/0-0/4.15 ERA/1.62 WHIP/4 K/3 BB/8.31 K per 9/.273 vs. righties/.200 vs. lefties

Nick Hagadone – 36 appearances/31.1 IP/2 holds/0-1/5.46 ERA/1.44 WHIP/30 K/21 BB/ 4 HR/.211 vs. lefties/.231 vs. righties

Preston Guilmet – 4 appearances/5.1 IP/0-0/10.13 ERA/2.06 WHIP/1 K/3 BB/Columbus – 20 saves 1.68 ERA/0.89 WHIP

If the starting rotation was the biggest question mark heading into 2013, the bullpen was thought to be the team’s unquestioned strength. You had an All Star closer in Chris Perez, a future closer and one of the best set up men in baseball, Vinnie Pestano, pitching the eighth in front of him. Side-winding Joe Smith would take the seventh with young Cody Allen in the mix. From the left side veteran Rich Hill, a Terry Francona favorite, would be the matchup lefty with Nick Hagadone hopefully taking that next step up. Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw would provide more options from the right side.

That is the thing about bullpens. They are can be volatile and you never know which way they may go. Just when you think you have a loaded pen with defined roles, things change at the drop of a hat. With the 2013 Indians, the changes begin at the back end.

Everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Perez, had an interesting season both on and off the field to say the least. We had epic blown saves, shoulder problems, dominant stretches, a drug arrest, and an untimely on-field meltdown that nearly cost the Indians a playoff berth. Yes, CP saved 25 games and had a stretch from June 28-July 31 where he allowed just one run in 17 innings, but nobody is going to remember that. The lasting impressions from the end of the Chris Perez era in Cleveland will be his dog Brody Baum and a couple of ill-timed blown saves against the Tigers and the White Sox, the latter coming in the last week of the season. His bacon was saved on Jason Giambi’s walk-off homer, but the damage was done. Francona took the closer’s role away from him and we never saw CP pitch again.

And you won’t see a return either. Perez is arbitration eligible and will command upwards of $8 million. The Indians can and should non-tender him, making Chris a free agent. With Allen looking like a ready made in-house closer of the future making peanuts compared to Perez, it is a no-brainer to let the Tribe’s deposed closer walk. His act has worn thin here in Cleveland and a new home for Perez is best for all parties.

The man who was set to take the mantle from Perez was supposed to be Pestano. Unfortunately, he will have to pitch his way onto the roster in 2014. Now who could have seen that coming? For two seasons, Vinnie was arguably the best set up man in the game. He was so highly thought of that he was named to the USA World Baseball Classic team this past spring. I said it then and I stick by it; the experience hurt Pestano in more ways then one. His velocity was down right from the jump and he never recovered. Pestano’s two-week DL stint in May with elbow problems did him no good. He came back and still was not right, despite saving six games filling in for an injured Perez. But things got so bad for Vinnie that he was demoted to AAA in late July, only to return on a September call up. Even then, he pitched just three times, all in mop up duty and had a hard time hitting 90.

Luckily for the Indians brass, they were blessed with three other high quality right-handed arms which would stabilize the late innings. Smith assumed the eighth inning and for the fourth consecutive year, was a rock. He’s improved against left-handed hitters and is no longer a liability against them. When it was time to clutch up, Smitty was at the top of his game, allowing just two earned runs in his last 24.2 innings of work in August and September. While I love praising what Joe has done for the Indians, he is a free agent and will command a nice contract. With young arms like Allen, Shaw, and even CC Lee in the fold on low priced deals, will the Indians be willing to give Smith say $12 million over three years? He is certainly worth it and a valuable piece to this puzzle.

Speaking of Allen, the soon to be 25 year old turned himself into perhaps the most indispensable member of the pen going forward. The hard-throwing righty is a K machine, striking out over 11 batters per nine innings, easily the best of any of the bullpen guys. Francona used him heavily this season as Allen made 77 appearances. With Perez all but gone and Smith potentially leaving via free agency, Allen will either become the closer or the top set up man in 2014.

Should Allen take over as closer and if Smith walks to another team, Shaw would assume the eighth. And yes, he has earned it and then some. The 25-year old came over in the three-team Shin-Soo Choo deal as kind of an afterthought. But GM Chris Antonetti knew he had something nice in Shaw. Before the All Star break, the right-hander was up and down, but down the stretch, he was Francona’s go to arm to get to the back end of the pen. In 31 post-break appearances Shaw posted an ERA of 1.89 and held opponents to a .168 batting average. In September, he peaked, making 13 scoreless appearances, striking out 15, walking two, and winning five games. The later the season got, the more Francona leaned on Shaw. It paid off. Best of all Shaw is under team control until 2018.

The other reliever that came over with Shaw from Arizona was Matt Albers. He arrived with little fanfare but spent the entire season doing a quality job in the most thankless spot in the pen; middle relief. Albers was perfect for what he was asked to do – come in and eat some middle innings, most of the time with his team trailing. But when he was called upon in big spots, he usually delivered. Take September for example – Albers posted an 0.82 ERA in 11 innings. Matt doesn’t do anything overly great, but he is a solid performer who was well liked in the clubhouse. The media loved talking to him as well; Albers is a straight shooter and as nice of a guy as you will want to meet. I for one would love to see him return in 2014, but Albers is a free agent. He knew his role and handled it well.

From the left side in 2013, we essentially saw a lot of three different relievers. Two of them were not so great, one was an afterthought trade deadline acquisition who turned out to be a stud. Rich Hill pitched for Francona for one season in Boston and was signed to a minor league deal this winter. He pitched well in early Spring and with the trust of Tito, made the team as the top lefty reliever. Nick Hagadone, the hard-throwing but command challenged lefty would be in the mix as well. The hope for the last two seasons was that Hagadone would become that late inning power armed lefty that the team so desperately needed. Instead, he walked 21 in 31 innings and allowed a couple of big left on left late inning home runs (the one to Joey Votto in Cincinnati on May 27th was memorable to say the least). He was sent back down to Columbus in early July and did not return until a September callup where he allowed four earned runs in six innings while walking seven.

Hill somehow survived the entire season, despite shoddy control, a penchant for walks, and overall average relief work. He did have his moments, but overall Hill gave the Indians brass a good enough look to know they needed to find someone better. He’s 33, a free agent, and was a guy who’s best month as an Indian was April. You will not be seeing a return of Hill in 2014.

The reason Hill won’t even get a sniff of a chance to come back is because of the stabilizing force that is Marc Rzepcynski. He was brought over from St. Louis for a minor league non-prospect. His numbers with the Cardinals and in AAA Memphis were far from impressive, but the Indians saw something in him and thought a change of scenery would do him good. With the Indians, he made 27 appearances spanning 20.1 innings and allowed just two earned runs (0.89 ERA). It took Francona about three weeks to move Marc into the key late inning lefty spot. The best part about the 28-year old Rzepcynski finding himself is that the Indians have him under club control until 2016.

Rookies CC Lee and Preston Guilmet got a few chances with the big club this year and returned in September. Lee was once the Tribe’s top relief prospect before Tommy John surgery put a hitch in the Tribe’s plans. I think the brass is still high on him and will give Lee every chance he can to make the team coming out of Spring. A lot of what happens to both Lee and Guilmet – the Columbus closer in 2013 – depends on which route the Indians front office takes with Smith and to a lesser extent Albers.

There will be a new closer in 2014 as there is almost no chance Antonetti brings back Perez. I think they will try and re-sign Smith as he is a key part to that back end success. If Smith does come back, I think he stays as the set up man in front of Allen who should close. Shaw should pick up the seventh inning and Rzepcynski will be the top lefty. What happens with Pestano is anybody’s guess. The other wild card is Carlos Carrasco who will be given a chance to make the rotation but is out of options. I see him as a guy who has a chance to be a big contributor in the pen. With all of that said, bullpens change from year to year and the best laid plans don’t always play out the way the team wants them to. After all, Perez and Pestano were supposed to be the back end duo in 2013. How did that all work out?

  • Kildawg

    Assuming we only use guys under contract control, the bullpen could look something like this:
    Closer: Allen
    Setup: Shaw, Rzepcynski
    Others: mix of Pestano, Guilmet, Lee, Hagadone, Barnes, an potentially Carrasco.
    Basically there’s 3 locks and the rest is in flux. Maybe Pestano regains his 8th inning role next year, leaving Shaw for the 7th (hurray bullpen depth!)
    I wouldn’t discount the fact that a Spring Training invite or 2 wins a spot in the pen like Hill did last year.