Is it Closing Time for Cody Allen?

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?

If someone had said, before the start of the 2013 season, that Vinnie Pestano would spend a month in Triple-A Columbus and Chris Perez would become Cleveland’s newest addition to the city’s hated athlete list, the average fan would have thought the Indians would be in for a very long year.

Instead of allowing the collapse of the backend of the bullpen destroy the team, the Tribe found other arms to get the job done. Pestano’s fall from setup man to the minor leagues and Perez’s off-field issues combined with blowing leads in important games were not enough to disintegrate a season that ended with 92 victories and the club’s first playoff appearance in six years.

While Cleveland’s top two relievers struggled, a young pitcher, in his second big league season, shined. Cody Allen, who shot through the bush league ranks, continued to surprise after a good rookie-year showing in 2012. As the team’s most consistent relief pitcher this past season, he is now embedded as a late-inning hurler and could well be on his way as a future closer.

A 23rd round draft choice in 2011, Allen was not heralded as a bullpen star to be. At this point, however, he has changed quite a few perceptions. He found his way to the majors within a year of being selected by the Indians. In 2012, he was a shocking revelation with a 3.72 ERA in 29 big league innings.

Heading into this past spring training, nothing was guaranteed, though Allen was considered to be a strong candidate to break camp in the Cleveland relief corps. He followed his first-year campaign with a quality Cactus League effort and did indeed head to Cleveland to start the year.

When the 2013 regular season started, the Tribe had a certain Big Three in the back of the bullpen. Perez was an All-Star closer, Pestano was a standout setup man who had earned a spot on the United States roster in the World Baseball Classic. Joe Smith was considered to be a co-setup guy, as he had been superb in late-inning situations the last couple years.

As the season, unfolded, however, only Smith continued to perform anywhere near his past numbers. Pestano struggled to get into any consistent rhythm. By the time the final two months and playoff push arrived, the former setup man was in Columbus to work on mechanical problems. Perez was injured for a month, in June. While on the disabled list, he was arrested for having marijuana delivered to his home. When he returned, he still closed out many more games than he blew. However, it was his penchant of coughing up leads in key games that truly led to his hearing a chorus of boos by season’s end.

Meanwhile, Allen was consistently entering games and getting big outs. In May, he earned his first career save. He earned a second one later in the year. His final numbers were sterling for a reliever, at 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA. By August, he had become Pestano’s replacement for seventh and eighth inning holds. Despite being 24-years-old and just two seasons removed from playing college ball, Allen was throwing like a seasoned veteran in big moments of a pennant race.

Where nothing was a given for Allen entering this past season, a lot will be guaranteed when the 2014 Grapefruit League opens. Unless something goes horribly wrong, Allen will be a guarantee for the Major League bullpen next year. He will likely maintain the role of late-game reliever he earned in 2013.

Smith is a free agent this year and Perez is eligible for arbitration. Pestano is a huge question mark after his disappointing 2013 campaign.  Given Perez’s off-field issues and pariah standing with the fans, odds are probably less than 50/50 he will be retained.

With three saves, a 2.29 ERA, and five years of excellent pitching for the Indians, Smith could enter 2014 as the favorite to take over the closer’s role–if he is resigned. It is something he can do. In the meantime, Allen should be the squad’s setup man with an eye toward grooming him as a future closer. He should be the new Pestano. Even if Pestano can get back his stuff that made him a dominant late-game reliever, it would take things back the way they were in 2011 and 2012 with the Big Three now being Smith, Pestano and Allen, if Perez is let go. If Smith chooses to sign elsewhere, Allen could become the closer at the beginning of 2014 with Pestano resuming a setup role with Bryan Shaw.

No matter what, though, Allen will be in the Tribe bullpen in 2014, barring injury or major collapse in Arizona. Allen should be a big part of Cleveland’s future. He will likely be a late-inning reliever for quite some time with the Indians. The biggest question will be whether or not he can close games. He has answered all other questions thrown his way with flying colors and blazing speed. It would seem he could and should be finishing games, possibly sooner than later.

Photo: Duane Burleson/Getty Images

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