Opening the Door on the Closer Void

The Indians will have a new look to their bullpen when the 2014 season opens. Gone are the days of the Bullpen Mafia. A mostly new cast of characters will reside in the center field bullpen since that moniker was first originated.

With former closer Chris Perez released and eighth inning set up man Joe Smith currently a free agent the Indians will need to rebuild their bullpen from the ninth inning forward. Strong teams—pennant contenders—normally have clear defined roles in their bullpen. Currently, those roles are a little undefined for the Indians and with the organization committed to approximately $75 million in salaries already, finding a high-priced, free agent closer doesn’t seem likely.

The Indians will most likely enter spring training without a true closer, select one in camp and then begin defining roles for their other bullpen pitchers. The Tribe has many in-house options to consider for the ninth inning. Their various options are another reason the Indians will probably not look to the free agent market to fill the closer spot.

Despite a disappointing season in 2013, the favorite in the closer derby is probably Vinnie Pestano. After two straight seasons in the eighth inning set up role in 2011 and 2012, Pestano started strong before spending 15 days on the disabled list. Upon his return, the hard-throwing, right-hander was not himself. He struggled in May, lost his set up role to Smith in June and was optioned to Triple-A Columbus at the end of July.

However, even though Pestano struggled in 2013 he has limited closing experience at the big league level, which is more than all of his competition. Previously, Pestano closed in 2011 and 2012 when Perez was unavailable and when his grandmother passed away. He has always handled closing situations well, never appearing intimidated by the pressure of the last inning. If his mechanics and confidence are rebuilt, he has the stuff and make-up to hold down the ninth inning for the next couple years.

The next potential closer possibility is Cody Allen. Allen had a fantastic, first, full season in the big leagues, going 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA. When Pestano became unreliable it was Allen who assumed a larger role in the back end of the bullpen during the second half of the season. Based solely on 2013, Allen would be the most likely selection and his dominant fastball lends to the necessary tools to be a closer.

But Allen appeared in 77 games in 2013 and was probably the Indians’ most valuable reliever. Indians manager Terry Francona often went to him in close, late-inning situations to match up against some of the best right-handed hitters in the league. Allen didn’t record the last three outs in 2013, but he often recorded the most important outs. And while Allen appears to have the make-up and stuff to close, he has never closed at any level in his career. In college Allen was a starting pitcher and his quick rise through the Indians minor league system did not afford him a closer’s role.

An added wrinkle to consider with Allen is that if he were made the closer with just over a year’s worth of MLB service time, by the time he reached salary arbitration after the 2015 season, he would be due several seasons of a big pay day at a closer’s rate. Cleveland did this with Perez and found them paying him $7.3 million in 2013. If the Indians had offered him arbitration this winter, he would have likely made over $9 million. Giving Allen a high dollar role early in his career could impede the Indians’ finances in 2015 or 2016.

The final in-house closer contender is Bryan Shaw. At a glance, his 7-3 record and 3.24 ERA in 70 appearances looks like a solid season. He, like Allen, absorbed more of the burden when Pestano struggled. In September, Shaw seemed to pitch and pitch well in every close game the Indians played. In the final month he didn’t allow a run in 13 games and 15.1 innings.

But, after Shaw started strong in April he floundered most of the middle of the season. May, June and July were not kind to him and at one point he seemed to lose the confidence of Francona. Had Pestano not been optioned to Triple-A to make room for Marc Rzepczynski, it probably would have been Shaw. While Shaw was lights out when he was at his best, he was very unstable at his worst. Inconsistency is not what you want in your closer.

Francona will not settle the closer question soon, but the in-house contenders seem plentiful. Being the player’s manager that he is, it seems very feasible that he give the most veteran of the three in Pestano the first chance to take over the closer’s role. And despite his allegiance to players, he’ll make what’s the right decision for on field success to the 2014 Indians.

Regardless, the door to the back end of the bullpen is wide open.

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

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