Smith the Bridge to Bullpen Success and Maybe More
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players that are difference makers in how successful the Indians season will be.
By Mike Brandyberry
In many travels, a bridge is necessary to smoothly venture through rugged terrain. In the journey of a nine inning baseball game, Joe Smith has become that bridge for the Cleveland Indians.
Two seasons ago, Smith worked his way toward the back of the Tribe’s bullpen. Now, he’s comfortably settled in as a set up man in front of eighth inning man Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez. Since 2011, Smith has become the pitcher to get the game from the starting rotation or front end of the bullpen to the back end guys.
“Our bullpen is going to be deep. I’ve said it all along since we started signing guys, but I think we are going to have the best bullpen you’ve seen in a few years back here,” Smith said on STO’s Spring Training Daily. “We’ve got some guys who’ve been around for a little while with this organization and we brought in some really good guys, so it should be exciting.”
Smith and his back end counterparts have each been in their roles since 2011. Smith was acquired via trade on Dec. 11, 2008 in a three-team deal with the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets. Smith came from the Mets in a deal that saw Franklin Gutierrez dealt from the Tribe to the Mariners. The Cincinnati native and Wright State University alum begins his fifth season with the Tribe in 2013.
Smith has now been with the Tribe the longest of any bullpen pitcher with the off-season departure of Rafael Perez. He’ll likely take the ball from newcomers Matt Albers and Rich Hill and young fireballers Cody Allen and Nick Hagadone. In former Tribe Manager Manny Acta’s bullpen, he did not hesitate to give Smith the seventh inning, regardless of the right-handed or left-handed matchups. It appears new Manager Terry Francona will have the same approach.
“Joe Smith has always been nasty on righties, but now he has figured out how to get out lefties,” Francona said this spring.
In 2012, right-handed hitters hit only .209 against Smith, but left-handers were only slightly better hitting .218 against the side-winder. His side-arm deliver creates movement on the ball that is difficult for any hitter to handle.
Smith’s Spring Training was slightly delayed due to an early oblique injury suffered in a bullpen prior to formal workouts for pitchers and catchers. After a couple weeks of rest and rehabilitation, Smith was able to retake the mound in early March and has been healthy since. He pitched in back-to-back games for the first time Mar. 21 and 22 and had no side effects or discomfort.
Being the bridge from the middle innings to the back end of the bullpen could hold even greater importance this season. With lofty expectations, set by themselves, it will be necessary for the bullpen to thrive in order to compensate for a starting rotation that is deemed to be the question mark of the roster.
“Our goal is the playoffs. There’s no doubt about it,” Smith said. “We beat Detroit last year in our overall series against them, so for us, it’s really taking care of the teams we’re supposed to beat.”
A bullpen that can maintain leads, or hold the opponent so that the offense can muster a comeback will be important in beating division favorite Detroit and those other divisional opponents the Indians feel they should be able to beat.
Smith’s ability to continue to bridge the gap from the front of the bullpen to Pestano and Perez will help determine how smooth the ride is toward a playoff run.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer