Wheeler Could Provide Veteran Leadership To Bullpen
Each week through Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and break down the players in camp for the Indians at Goodyear, Arizona and examine their potential roles for the season to come. This week, we kick off our Goodyear coverage by breaking down some of the 22 spring invitees invited to big league camp by the Tribe.
By Craig Gifford
Last season, as the Cleveland Indians were fading in the heat of an August pennant race, the bullpen lacked one major element, the presence of a veteran leader with postseason experience. They really could have used a strong voice to help guide a young, mostly playoff unproven club.
Chad Durbin was to be the player in 2011. The veteran reliever with two World Series trips and one ring was to be that guy. However, he struggled early and often and was really a non factor by mid-season, taking away any influence he could have had with the young team and bullpen.
This year, the Indians have brought in Dan Wheeler to try and fill that void. Wheeler has spent 12, mostly productive seasons as a reliever for four different teams. Most of the Tribe’s bullpen for 2012 is set in stone with closer Chris Perez, set-up men Rafael Perez and Vinnie Pestano and key relievers Tony Sipp and Joe Smith coming off strong 2011 campaigns. That likely leaves two spots for a host of young guys and veteran journeymen, such as Wheeler.
Wheeler’s experience, especially in big postseason games, would seem to boost his chances as one of the favorites to grab an available spot in the bullpen. He has enjoyed four trips to baseball’s second season. In 2005, with Houston, and 2008, with Tampa Bay, Wheeler played in the World Series (losing both times). He was with Houston’s 2004 NLCS club and Tampa’s 2010 playoff qualifier. In all, Wheeler has tossed 26.2 postseason innings, with a fine 3.38 ERA.
No one else on the Cleveland roster, other than fellow veteran pick up Derek Lowe, has anywhere near that postseason resume. Rafael Perez, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera are the lone holdovers from Cleveland’s run to the 2007 ALCS and Shelley Duncan played four games for the Yankees in the same postseason.
That breaks down to five players with one year of playoff baseball and another with a wealth of it, who have essentially guaranteed spots on the Opening Day roster. Wheeler’s experience in games that it counts could be beneficial to an inexperienced squad. He can also benefit the five aforementioned relievers, all of whom will be under 30 when the season starts and four of which have never played in truly meaningful games at the Major League level. If Wheeler could bring the success to the team that Durbin could not, he could stabilize an already strong relief corps while being a guiding influence outside of the coaching staff.
Along with the playoff resume, Wheeler has pitched well in the regular season. He has posted a career 3.88 ERA with 43 saves. A middle reliever, for the most part, since making his debut in 1999, the 34-year-old has been durable and dependable. He has made no less than 35 appearances every year since becoming a mainstay in the majors in 2003.
Last season with Boston was actually a down year for Wheeler and he still maintained a decent 4.38 ERA in 47 games.
Where Wheeler is hurt is that he is not currently on the 40-man active roster. If he makes the big league club out of spring training, the Tribe would have to knock someone off the roster to make room for Wheeler. The Indians also have in-house candidates who performed in the majors last season. Frank Herrmann and Nick Hagadone both filled out the Tribe pen at times. Herrmann was in his second big league season, while Hagadone made his debut.
One would have to look at Hagadone as a strong candidate to make the Tribe roster out of spring ball. He was one of the key components to the 2009 Victor Martinez trade with Boston. The 26-year-old would also give manager Manny Acta another left-handed option out of the bullpen. He could play match-ups all night with three lefties and three righties in the pen, leading to closer Chris Perez.
That means Wheeler’s biggest competition for a spot in the bullpen will likely come from Herrmann. Herrmann has pitched two years in the majors, with largely mixed results. He appeared in 40 games in both 2010 and 2011. His ERA in 2010 was a respectable 4.03. However, that slipped to 5.11 last year as he struggled at times, especially later in the year. Still, if he can come to spring training and show that he is closer to or better than his 2010 form, the Indians may like to stick with a guy already on the 40-man roster, who is younger than Wheeler.
Wheeler will have to pitch well in spring training to knock out an incumbent on the roster, but his veteran presence and experience in big games should be enough to get him over the top and sitting with the other relievers in Progressive Field on April 5.
Photo: J. Meric/Getty Images