Indians Search for Left-Handed Relief

Coming off a fantastic 2013 campaign, a season in which the Indians made the playoffs and turn from a 90 loss team to a 90 win team, it is difficulty to really look through the roster and find glaring holes. They do exist though, and one of the biggest is left handed relief pitching. The Indians bullpen ranked just 24 out of 30 Major League teams, and a large part of that was due to their lefty relief.

Rich Hill was the team’s primary lefty; he pitched in 63 games and threw 38.2 innings, the most of any lefty in the Indians bullpen. Unfortunately for Hill and the Indians, he was not always the most successful pitcher. In those 38.2 innings he struck out 51 batters for a total of 11.9K/9IN, a very good number. He also held left handed batters to a .238 batting average. On the bad side, he allowed left handed batters to get on base at a .375 clip, not very productive in terms of getting lefties out. He walks 29 batters on the season for a very poor 6.8BB/9IN. His 6.28 ERA is not a nice number to look at in a box score, and he didn’t help his team down the stretch posting a 7.71 ERA in September. All this being said, the Indians could easily find someone to replace Hill.

One pitcher that looked like he could turn into a very effective lefty was Nick Hagadone. When the Indians received Hagadone from the Red Sox in the Victor Martinez deal, he was a young, hard throwing lefty with a huge ceiling. He raced through the Indians Minor League system to reach the Majors in 2011, but that’s where the progress stopped. Hagadone was unable to keep himself out of trouble, and his inability to keep runners off the bases was crippling. In 2013 he pitched to a 5.46 ERA and 6.0BB/9IN in 31.1 innings pitched, hardly worthy of being the Indians go-to lefty.

For want of lefty handed relief, the Indians made a late season move to acquire Marc Rzepczynski from the St Louis Cardinals. He was a cast away, sent down to Triple-A because he was failing at the Major League level. The Indians found a gem. He pitched great for the Tribe down the stretch, with 20 strikeouts and only six walks in 20.1 innings with a miniscule 0.89 ERA. Right now Rzepczynski heads into the 2014 season as the only lefty with a nearly guaranteed shot at making the bullpen.

The Indians best chance to improve their lefty relievers is through free agency. They don’t have a lot of room to make trades to acquire bullpen help, and they can find some affordable lefties out there. Looking at the free agent market for left handers, there is no one guy that stands out as a must have. There are a few targets however that could be appealing to the Indians.

One of those is Scott Downs. On the down side (no pun intended), Downs will be 38 years old at the start of the 2014 season. This actually may make him more affordable for the Indians, so maybe it’s not such a down side. He has been solid every season since 2006, putting up ERA’s under 3.20 in every one of those years. In 2013 he split the season between the Los Angelis Angels and the Atlanta Braves, but in total he pitched to a 4-4 record and a 2.49 ERA. He has been used mostly as a LOOGY, and the Indians may want more than that out of a free agent lefty.

Another option would be Mike Gonzalez. He was a dominate lefty for the Pirates and the Braves from 2004-2009, but tough seasons in 2010 and 2011 brought his value down a bit. He bounced back with a very solid year in 2012, and finished with a respectable 2013. His ERA was a bit inflated due to some poor defensive play behind him, but he struck out 60 batters in 50 innings pitched. Gonzalez was also used mostly as a LOOGY, but his platoon splits suggest he can be much more. Over his career he has held right handed batters to a .229 batting average, and they have slugged only .367 against him. With that kind of track record, he could easily be used as much more than just a LOOGY.

J.P. Howell is a relatively young pitcher, and former starter, that are available. He pitched very well in 2013 for the Los Angelis Dodgers, going 4-1 with a 2.03 ERA. He has, as most lefty relievers have at one time or another, been used on and off as a LOOGY, but he certainly has the chops to pitch in any bullpen capacity. He held lefties to a slash line of .164/.256/.233, but faired very well against righties as well, allowing a slash of .207/.276/.276. His numbers were helped a bit by the pitcher friendly home park, but he still pitched to a 3-1 record and a 2.48 ERA on the road.

The 37 year old Matt Thornton may be a familiar name to Indians fans. He spent the majority of his career pitching for the Chicago White Sox. Last season he did a pedial wardrobe change, splitting the year between the White Sox and the Red Sox. His ERA was a bit high at 3.74, but he has been well below that every years but once since 2005. He could be a solid addition, and come very cheap to the Indians.

There are some other lefty options out there, guys like Boone Logan and Eric O’Flaherty, but they seem to be longshots for the Indians. The Tribe really needs to add another lefty to their pen, either by trade or free agency. Internal options like Giovanny Soto, Scott Barnes, or the newly acquired Colt Hynes, are a possibility, and the Indians have shown a track record of relying on their farm system to replenish the team. With the big season the Indians had in 2013, and the playoffs on the horizon again, I think the Tribe will look for an options with a little more reliability.

Photo: Getty Images

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