Tribe Bullpen as Strong as Ever
Craig Gifford | On 29, Aug 2014
In 2011 and 2012 the Cleveland Indians had a bullpen that was good enough to develop a nickname. The 2014 Tribe bullpen does not have any special monikers but may well be better than those pens that were the backbone of struggling baseball teams.
After a 2013 season of bullpen question marks and implosions, the Indians are enjoying a fantastic relief season this year. The pen is again arguably the strongest and deepest part of the club, this time a club that will go into September with playoff aspirations still alive.
Cleveland’s relief corps of 2011 and ’12 called themselves the Bullpen Mafia. Both seasons saw five relievers put up strong numbers. Those groups were headed by closer Chris Perez and setup men Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith. For two seasons, that trio was as good as any late-game group in the game. In 2011, Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez put up good numbers to complement the group. In 2012, it was Frank Herrmann and Esmil Rogers.
Last year, even in a season that saw the Indians finally get back to the postseason, the bullpen had is share of issues. Pestano fell apart and was in Triple-A by August. Perez could not keep his mouth shut and struggled both on and off the field. The pen saw young arms like Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw emerge as viable relief options, but the fearsome Big 3 was no more.
This past offseason, Perez and Smith departed via free agency. Pestano was dealt two weeks ago to the Los Angeles Angels. He made a few appearances with the Tribe this year, but spent the majority of the season in Columbus. He is not close to being the Grade-A setup man he once was.
Rather, than completely imploding in the wake of losing its once sterling late-game gems, Cleveland’s bullpen has rebounded this season in amazing fashion. By all accounts, there is again a Big 3 when it comes to late-game relief. Allen has emerged as one of the better closers in the Majors, while Shaw has proven to be a strong eigth-inning guy. Free agent pickup and veteran journeyman Scott Atchison has proven to be quite the find and has given manager Terry Francona a third dependable arm for late-game situations. Allen has 17 saves and a sterling 1.75 ERA. Shaw and Atchison are toting fine ERAs of 2.44 and 2.82, respectively. They are about as good a late-game trio as there is in baseball.
Where things are most different behind this season’s top three relievers and those of years past is in the bullpen’s overall depth. Francona can look down the left field line and see not two, but four more quality pitchers he can put in the game and breath easily.
The worst of the lot is C.C. Lee. His 3.66 ERA is proof of the pen’s quality in that it is the worst of the group that has become the current and likely core relief unit. Lee, like Atchison and Shaw, is a right hander.
Cleveland’s final three relievers are all lefties. While most teams, as the Indians did last year, struggle and scramble just to have two dependable southpaws in bullpen, the Tribe has several. Kyle Crockett, Nick Hagadone and Marc Rzepczynski have baffled hitters from the left side. All three have come from vastly different places, but have now combined to help give Cleveland one of MLB’s deepest relief pitching staffs.
Crockett and Hagadone are the most surprising arms of this group and for different reasons.
Hagadone, whom the Indians received in 2010 from the Boston Red Sox, as part of the Victor Martinez trade, had struggled big time in his big league stint’s before this season. He had shown flashes of what made him a 2007 first round pick, but could never put it all together. This year, at 28, he seems to have finally figured things out as his miniscule 1.37 ERA would attest.
Crockett, on the other hand, has taken no time to figure things out. Cleveland’s 2013 fourth-round draft selection rockets through the minors and has been a sensation as a rookie. His ERA is 1.88. He and Hagadone have given the Indians an unexpected jolt in the bullpen.
Rzepczynski was the “old hand” of the group. When the Indians were struggling to find left-handed relief last year, they pulled off a minor trade with the St. Louis Cardinals to pick up Rzepczynski, who had regressed with his former team. He did well in the push for the Wild Card last August and September and came into this year as Cleveland’s only proven left-handed reliever. He has not been as good as Hagadone and Crockett, but has not been bad. Rzepczynski owns a 3.07 ERA.
In all, there is no one reliever in the bullpen that makes a Tribe fan cringe when he enters a game. This is new for the Tribe. It is also a rare thing to have for any team. Francona has plenty of dependable arms to turn to when a starter exits a game. This means the Indians are never really out of any contest.
If a starter does poorly and is out of a game early, there is plenty of relief in the pen to keep things from getting really out of hand. Likewise, if the Indians are in a tight game, the pen is likely to keep it there. There are no, “uh-oh, he’s in the game?” arms in the pen.
A strong bullpen, top-to-bottom, may well be what keeps the Indians in the playoff hunt longer than expected. The offense is spotty and sometimes has off nights. The pen helps, in these cases, to keep games within reach until someone can come through with a big late-inning hit. The starting pitching, while strong since in August 1, is young and largely unproven. The pen can provide depth and keep a game from getting away if one of those young arms falters in a big September affair.
After a year of uncertainty and flux in the relief corps, the Tribe bullpen is back as a strength and may be even better than ever. It might even be the main reason the Indians appear poised to play meaningful games in the season’s final month.
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images