Coming off a huge turn around season in 2013, one in which the Indians refused to lose down the stretch and bulldozed their way into the playoffs, there are a lot of holes to be filled in the new Indians roster.
With the loss of the excellent Joe Smith, as well as arms like Matt Albers and Chris Perez, the Indians have a lot of innings to replace before the start of the 2014 season. Internal options will arise in players like Preston Guilmet and a hopeful return to dominance from Vinnie Pestano, but the free agent market cannot go untapped. Several solid right-handed arms can be acquired at bargain prices, an aspect that will appeal to a small market team like the Cleveland Indians.
Frank Francisco, at 34-years old, is a very viable and affordable option for the Tribe. He made a solid reputation for himself in the Rangers bullpen from 2004-2010. He pitched especially well from 2008-2010, putting up solid ERA’s, and striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings in each of those three seasons. He also impressed with his WAR numbers.
WAR is a statistic that is becoming increasingly popular on ESPN and MLBNetwork; it calculates the number of wins a player contributes in relation to a replacement level player. Replacement level is defined as a mid-season free agent, Triple-A player, or a player available on waivers. In terms of WAR, replacement level is 0. A good season for a relief pitcher would give him a WAR of 1 or more. Francisco surpassed that clip in each season from 2008-2010. He fell off a bit since joining the Mets in 2011, but who hasn’t? He suffered through an injury plagued two seasons in New York, but he will be ready for opening day. His groundball rate of 43.8% is very appealing, and he could be acquired for under $1.5MM.
A name that should be familiar to Indians fans in right hander Matt Guerrier. He pitched the first seven seasons of his career in Minnesota before heading off to the National League to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a very good reliever for the Twins, only once since his rookie year did he post an ERA over 3.39, and twice he led the American League in appearances. Once he made the move to LA, his struggles began. His ERA hovered around 4.00 for his first two seasons, then, after a tough season in 2013 he was shipped off to the Chicago Cubs where he seemed to find his groove again. In 15 games for the Cubs he posted a 2.13 ERA. He is not a strikeout pitcher, averaging only 6.0 K/9 over his career, but his 44.7% career ground ball rate fights right into Progressive Field.
He has had hefty contracts in the past, but given that he is coming off a couple tough seasons and he has not been worth more than $2.2MM since 2007, he could be affordable for the Indians. Add to that the fact that he was born in Cleveland and is a graduate of Shaker Heights High School and Tribe fans could enjoy a very nice reunion.
Another possible candidate to add some depth to the bullpen is Jamey Wright. A former starter, Wright has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen since 2008. He has bounced from team to team since then, including a brief 18 game stint with the Indians back in 2010. Again, Wright is not a strikeout pitcher, but an amazing ground ball pitcher with a ground ball rate of 55.9% for his career. He in fact has the third best ground ball rate of any free agent pitcher, reliever or starter. The lack of the exciting strikeout, but the benefit of the more overlooked ground ball rate makes relievers like Wright attainable to small market teams like Cleveland.
Ground ball rate measures the percentage of balls in play that are hit on the ground. Whether or not the ball is a hit is of no consequence, just that the ball be a ground ball. Pitchers with high ground ball rates tend to be more successful than pitchers with low ground ball rates. Not only does a high ground ball rate limit home run potential, but it increases the chance of recording an out provided the pitcher has at least an average defense behind him. Ground balls can also kill potential rallies as they induce double plays with runners on first.
Each year, the top pitchers in each league typically post very high ground ball rates. In the case of Ubaldo Jimenez, in his horrifying 2012 season, he posted a ground ball rate of just 38.4%. In his heyday in Colorado, Jimenez was routinely posting ground ball rates between 48-54%. Even in his successful 2013 campaign, he was inducing ground balls at a 44% clip. Pitchers that have low strikeout totals, but high ground ball rates are generally successful pitchers, and they come at a bargain.
Beyond this, there are a slew of players the Indians could sign to minor league deals with invites to spring training. These deals are no risk for the organization and they often work out in terms of depth, and sometimes a player resurrects his career on one of these deals. Players like Zach Miner and Henry Rodriguez are good candidates because of their high ground ball rates. Miner is trying to get his career back after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. Kameron Loe, David Aardsma, and Juan Carlos Oviedo are once solid bullpen arms that have fallen off for one reason or another. Hector Ambriz could be an option as well; he once pitched for the Indians back in 2010. Lesser known guys like Jeff Manship and Nick Masset could also be possibilities for the Tribe.
Whatever direction the Indians go, pitching needs to be a focus this off season. They have lost some good arms and they need to replace those innings somehow. If they are going to be back in the playoff hunt in 2014 pitching is going to be the key factor for the Indians and the bullpen is an area that can make or break a season down the stretch.
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