Unrest In the Bullpen Mafia Creates Shaky Situations
By Craig Gifford
The 2011 Cleveland Indians bullpen, also known as The Bullpen Mafia, was widely considered one of the best, if not the best in Major League Baseball.
That group sported five go-to relievers who were hard for the opposition to score runs off of. Closer Chris Perez was the head of the group. Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith shut down bats from the right side of the mound, while lefties Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp did the same from the other side. The quintet gave manager Manny Acta numerous match-up options. They could also hold most leads or keep a bad day by a starter from getting out of hand.
What a difference a year makes. Chris Perez, with 23 consecutive saves, is as good or better than he was last year. He should be an All-Star for a second straight year. Pestano and Smith have also remained strong options in the bullpen, picking up where they left off last season.
However, the left side of the pen has collapsed like the Berlin Wall. Raffy Perez, a key contributor since 2006, was put on the 60-day disabled list with a side lat strain in April. He was just eight appearances into the season. There is no timetable for his return and he should not be counted on to be a significant contributor in a possible late-season pennant race.
Sipp, too, has seen his 2012 season go south. Unlike Perez, Sipp has been healthy all year. His numbers have been anything but. In 2011, Sipp carried a solid 3.03 ERA in 69 outings. That ERA has more than doubled this year to 6.66 in 29 games. There seems to be no thought that injury is affecting him. He does have minor league options left, but the Tribe would be better served to get Sipp righted at the big league level.
Sipp needs to get back to the pitcher of old in the majors because any other southpaw option is not a good one. Rookies Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes have both shown flashes of the brilliance they can have. Both have also been rocked hard. Each carries an ERA over 6.00.
The drop-off in left-handed relief production has critically hamstrung Acta and the team. With three relievers going well, the Tribe skipper has to hold them for close-game situations. Perez, obviously has his role in the ninth inning. Pestano and Smith are the only two relievers who can be relied on to hold leads in earlier innings. They are used in close games and later innings, only.
It is what has given the Indians, a team one game over .500, such an odd run differential. A -46 run difference, is usually reserved for bottom-feeding teams, not ones that are 2.5 games out of first place. However, the Indians have no extra pitchers in the pen who can shut a team down if a starter has rough day.
Say, for example, Josh Tomlin struggles with command and gives up five runs in five innings. Let’s say the Indians trail 5-3. It is not an unwinnable game. However, it is much too soon for any of the top three relievers to enter the fray. So, the Tribe must turn to one of the rookies, the just-as-shaky Jeremy Accardo or unproven righty Esmil Rogers, he of the plus-eight ERA in Colorado the first two months of the season. Quickly, the 5-3 deficit turns into a 7-3, or worse.
With a late lead, the Indians are in great shape. If they can have a lead in the seventh and go to Smith, Pestano and Chris Perez, the lead is typically safe.
This is why, despite all the screaming for Cleveland to add a right-handed bat by the July 31 trade deadline, a left-handed relief pitcher may be just as important. The Indians need more than three plausible go-to guys in the pen. Rogers could be a first step toward expanding. He has looked good in six appearances and 7.1 innings. He has a solid 2.45 ERA since joining Cleveland on June 12. He is another right-hander, but perhaps Rogers could be like the 2011 Pestano – a guy who comes out of nowhere to be key cog in the bullpen. That would help.
A reliable lefty would also help a lot. It’s hard to say what relievers will be available for trades, but if a left-handed one comes up, Indians management should pounce. It likely wouldn’t take selling the farm, as Cleveland did with the Ubaldo Jimenez trade last year. Getting mid-to-late inning lefty wouldn’t cost too much and shouldn’t eat into the ammunition for gaining that much-needed hitter.
While the Indians thought, in preseason, that the bullpen was all set with the first five guys, question marks have ensued. Cleveland needs to create answers and add to what has become a depleted relief corps, once a strength.
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