Bullpen Rebirth Necessary for Second Half Charge
By Craig Gifford
When Indians ace Justin Masterson struggled early in his Wednesday night start at Tampa Bay, the prevailing thought was, “uh-oh, here we go again!”
That is not meant to be an edict against the way Masterson was pitching. In fact, he has been pretty good of late. That thought was because there was one out in the fifth inning and Tribe manager Manny Acta was forced to go to the bullpen early.
Of course, Acta going to the bullpen late in games is no big deal. That’s where set up man Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez, arguably the best 1-2 back-end relievers in baseball, are waiting. Joe Smith, another stellar reliever, is also held for late innings.
It’s when the Cleveland skipper has to go to his bullpen any time before the seventh inning that thoughts of a long game start to formulate. All year, the Indians have been a three-headed monster in the pen and little else. Cleveland long and middle relievers have not been able to keep up with the opposition and things go bad in a hurry.
The relief struggles are largely because veteran lefthanders Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez, guys who performed so well over the past few years, have been hurt or struggled. Other reliever like Jeremy Accardo, Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes have had good moments, but none can be described as a go-to guy.
It’s not like last year when Acta could go to his relief corps and find at least five dependable arms to throw into a game at any point and feel like the opposition was going to be shut down, or at least close to it.
Well, things are changing. The bullpen is slowly starting to resemble that dominant one of 2011. Reason number one is a trade general manager Chris Antonetti made on June 12. At the time, the deal was met with a yawn and raised eyebrows from Tribe fans. Antonetti traded cash to the Colorado Rockies for Esmil Rogers. That is how eager the Rockies were to get something, anything for a player who had a world of talent but was not getting very many batters out.
When Rogers arrived in Cleveland, he had tossed 25.2 innings for the Rockies and was hit hard to the tune of an 8.06 ERA. The previous two seasons, the ERA was at 7.05 and 6.13. Still, Tribe brass saw something in the 26-year-old righty. What they saw and like was his pure ability. He is a flame thrower, who can hit the mid-to-high 90s on his fastball. He was simply not making guys miss with that heat in Colorado. Indians management, see how thin the bullpen was, decided to take a flier in hopes that a tweak or two could turn Rogers into a strong arm.
So far, Antonetti and company are looking very smart. Rogers has been all that Cleveland could have hoped for and more since he was acquired. In 14 outings, covering 17.2 innings – a decent sample size – Rogers has a 2.04 ERA. Acta is starting to have faith in the third-year Major Leaguer.
Wednesday night was a great example of just what Rogers has meant. With the Indians down 4-3, Tampa had the bases loaded with one out in the fifth. Masterson did not have his good stuff and could not be counted on to work out of the jam. Too early to go to one of the three stalwarts at the end of pen, Acta turned to Rogers. Instead of letting the Rays expand on their lead and take the wind out of the Tribe sails, Rogers slammed the door. It was a breath of fresh air for a fan base who has seen that situation implode into disaster so often this season.
Rogers is proving that a change of scenery – Colorado has never been an easy place to pitch – may be all that was needed to harness his natural talents and make him a reliable reliever. If Rogers can keep it going, he gives the Indians a fourth option.
Then there’s Sipp. For three seasons, Sipp was a mainstay in the pen and a solid contributor from the left side of the mound. This year has been a struggle. His ERA nearly reached 7.00 at one point. Over the last couple weeks, though, Sipp has started to look a lot more like the guy who carried a 3.00 ERA last season and never went over 4.12 any of the previous three.
Eight of Sipp’s last 10 appearances, covering eight innings, have been run-free. He has surrendered a pair of runs in that stretch. Batters are hitting a paltry .077 (2-for-26) in that time-frame. It’s a little too soon to say Sipp is back, but this is a nice start toward getting there. If he can keep up his recent run that would be huge for giving Acta a good left-handed option in relief.
Speaking of lefties, Rafael Perez is due back soon. Perez, a key reliever since 2007, has been out of action since going down with a strained side muscle on April 27. In eight outings, Perez had looked sharp, numbers-wise. He was at a 3.56 ERA. However, his velocity was a lot lower than usual. His fastball was only reaching the low 80s and it was clear something was wrong.
Raffy Perez is now on the comeback trail, pitching for Triple-A Columbus on a rehab assignment. He reportedly looked a lot stronger on Wednesday than he did in April, hitting the mid-to-high 80s on the radar gun. That is huge for the Tribe. If he can come back in a week or so, it takes the bullpen to an even greater height.
Today it is expected that the Indians will purchase the contract of hard-throwing, right-handed pitcher Cody Allen. Allen was drafted by the Indians in the 2011 Amateur Draft and has flown through the Tribe minor league system this season. He began 2012 in Carolina, with stops in Akron and Columbus, and will now be asked to join the group that will bridge the gap from the starters to the three back end relievers.
Just two weeks ago fans and media were panicking. The Indians certainly have a need to add a right-handed bat at the trade deadline and a starting pitcher could help, too. However, the need to strengthen the relief corps was screaming out. Chris Perez, Pestano and Smith are going to burn out if Acta has no one else to turn to in a tight spot. The team can’t let more close games slip away because the middle relief is suspect.
Now, it seems the pen is at least close to getting back to full strength and may not be something to worry about by July 31. That would be big for Cleveland to be able to focus on just the bat and/or starter in a trade.
It’s also big for Cleveland because the team is totally different with the bullpen going strong. The Tribe has the ability to pull out close games, late. If the middle reliever can keep a game close, the late-inning guys are a safe bet to do the same. Now, instead of seeing blowouts, you’ll have your Indians with a shot to win down the stretch of a lot of contests.
The bullpen is on the right track toward regaining its dominance of 2011. If it can get there, look out.
Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images