After a surprising 2013 Cleveland Indians season the organization has higher expectations for 2014 than any season dating back to 2008. The Indians and their fans will expect a playoff team and World Series contender. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians became a contender, but most importantly, How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?
Occasionally, the pending free agency of a player will have a negative effect on his results on the field.
That did not seem to be the case this season for Cleveland Indians reliever Joe Smith.
Smith wore several different hats as one of the returning members of the Bullpen Mafia in 2013 and stepped up large on multiple occasions to fill key roles in the back end of the bullpen when mainstays, like setup man Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez, buckled under injury and ineffectiveness.
A player with the versatility that Smith showed this past season had to have given manager Terry Francona some slight relief while other key members of the bullpen corps struggled to perform at a level the team was accustomed to.
Smith wrapped up his fifth season as a member of the Indians after being acquired in the offseason after the 2008 season in a three-team trade with the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners. Twelve different players relocated as a result of the trade. Smith came to Cleveland from New York. The Indians also acquired Luis Valbuena from the Mariners. Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez was sent by Cleveland to Seattle to complete the trade.
The side-arming right-hander completed his third consecutive season in 2013 with 70 appearances or more, 63 innings pitched or more, and an ERA under three. He finished with a 6-2 record out of the pen and earned his first three saves of his Major League career. His 2.29 ERA was the second-lowest of his seven year career.
Smith entered each of his 70 games in the seventh inning or later. He earned a hold in 25 ball games.
Smith was charged with earned runs in 13 appearances. Three times he was hit for multiple earned runs and was charged with blown saves in each, but did earn the win in one of those games. He had five blown saves in total, but just once in the ninth inning that ended a ball game (May 26th in Boston in relief of an injured Perez).
When the Indians needed him the most, he stepped up admirably. In the final two months of the season with the team entrenched in a playoff push, Smith allowed just two earned runs (0.73 ERA). He struck out 24 batters in 24 2/3 innings on the mound in 26 games. He earned holds in half of those outings in addition to his 2-1 record with two saves.
This came immediately following a rocky month of July, when he posted a 0-1 record, appeared in eleven games, and threw eight innings. He gave up eight runs (seven earned), allowed 16 base runners for a 2.00 WHIP, and struck out just one of the 40 batters he faced.
Right-handed batters hit .242 off of Smith during 2013 and reached base 30% of the time. He induced six double plays against them.
Lefties reached base at a better clip (.325) than righties, but batted .227. Fourteen of Smith’s 23 unintentional walks on the season came to left-handed batters, emphasizing why he was previously used as a right-handed specialist out of the Indians bullpen.
Smith did his best work on the mound when ahead in the count. Batters hit just .169 against him when they trailed in an at bat and struck out in 31 of 90 plate appearances. He walked just one batter after getting ahead 0-2 in an at bat and struck out 24 of the 57 batters who found themselves in that hole.
The Indians seemed better with him on the mound than not this season – Cleveland was 52-18 when Smith appeared in a game.
At this stage of his career, Smith, who will be 30 at the start of the 2014 season, is likely looking for the stability of a multiyear contract this offseason. Some teams may be apprehensive about committing the number of years or the potential dollar amount it may require to bring Smith to their bullpens, especially without significant closer experience or consistent work as a setup man.
He will see a nice raise this offseason though, not just because of his efforts on the diamond this season for the Indians, but for his endeavors in each of the last few.
Smith made a name for himself as part of the trio at the back end of the Indians bullpen with Pestano and Perez over the last several years.
His best season may have been in 2011. He finished with three wins and three losses, but posted an ERA of 2.01 in 71 appearances, tied for the second most games pitched in the American League with teammate Rafael Perez. His earned run average was fourth in the AL among relievers. He pitched 67 innings and allowed 52 hits and 21 walks, good for a career-best 1.09 WHIP. Opponents hit just .217 off of him and lefties hit just .152. While his strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, his improved control on the mound limited base runners. He aided his cause by allowing just one home run on the season.
With offseason arbitration looming for Smith, the Indians bumped his contract from $870,000 in 2011 to $1.75 million for the 2012 season.
In 2012, the Ohio native earned a career-high seven wins in relief and added a 2.96 ERA. His WHIP of 1.16 was the second-best mark of his career. His strikeout rate jumped a full strikeout over the previous seasons mark and he walked four more batters in the same number of innings pitched as 2011. All 72 appearances he made throughout the season came from the sixth inning or later, and all but ten were in the seventh inning or beyond. His games pitched total led the Indians pitching staff.
The Indians once again avoided arbitration with the reliever in the offseason. His consistency and his solid effort as the seventh inning reliever helped to plump his contract up to $3.15 million for the 2013 season.
Once the perceived strength of the team, the Cleveland bullpen will get some drastic attention this offseason. Perez could see his arbitration figures for 2013 increase his salary beyond the $8 million mark based on his entire body of work, not just his lackluster efforts last season, which could lead to the closer being non-tendered. Former setup man Pestano is an unknown for 2014 as he looks to reclaim some of the success he had on the mound previously with the Indians. Left-hander Rich Hill ($1 million in 2013) is a free agent, as is Matt Albers ($1.75 million).
Some returning relievers, including Allen and Bryan Shaw, may have their roles drastically changed for 2014. Smith could return as a veteran leader and mainstay in a bullpen that could look substantially different. If Smith in fact re-signs with the Indians, he could be the last man standing from the original collection of Bullpen Mafia members, established during the 2011 season, even though he no longer abides by one of the core criteria of being a member by not having an active Twitter account.
The Indians bullpen will have a new look and a new feel for next season, but the return of a loyal and reliable member like Smith could make the transition far less worrisome.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer