The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who is in need of a bounce back season after a poor 2013.
It probably could have gone worse for Vinnie Pestano in 2013, but last season provided all the personal struggle and disappointment he needs on the baseball field. For Pestano, this spring is all about proving himself to the coaching staff all over again.
“With the way things ended last year and the new moves we have made this year I do feel like I have to prove myself once again,” Pestano said. “It’s a task I welcome though because, just like in 2011, I know I can help this team win games no matter the capacity. I look forward to showing our coaching staff the player they thought they were getting heading into last season.”
A year ago Pestano entered Indians’ spring training as one of the pieces new Indians manager Terry Francona was planning to build around. Pestano was the eighth inning set-up man in 2011 and 2012 for closer Chris Perez, making a solid back end of the bullpen. Along with Joe Smith, the trio often made Tribe games a six inning contest. If the Indians led heading into seventh inning, the game was likely over.
After going 3-3, with a 2.57 ERA in 2012, Pestano was selected to be a member of Team USA and participate in last spring’s World Baseball Classic. It was something Pestano had always dreamt of, but ended up being detrimental to his season. Soon after finishing the WBC and returning to the Indians, Pestano developed soreness in his right elbow—something he had experienced at other times and been able to work through. This time, he couldn’t.
“I would never hang my hat on the Classic for the reason of lack of success last year,” Pestano said. “The injury that occurred was pre-existing and something we had dealt with in years past and this time flared up more than usual and was unfortunately not able to play through it.”
Pestano was placed on the disabled list last May 1 with a sore right elbow. After trying to pitch through the soreness in April, he could no longer be effective on the mound with the injury. He spent just 17 days on the disabled list and was activated on May 17 after one rehabilitation appearances at Low-A Lake County. In hindsight, Pestano rushed himself back on to the field, an error that had an impact on the rest of his season.
“I had never been on the DL before and should have been more honest with myself in my own evaluation of where I was at,” Pestano said. “I had a little superman complex and thought as long as I was out there with the ball in my hand I could find a way to get guys out until I started to feel comfortable again.”
Upon returning from the disabled list, Pestano struggled in May before doing a good job of filling in for Perez as the closer for much of June. But as June became July, Pestano became inconsistent and his mechanics never really felt right after returning from the disabled list. The slump he was feeling started to become a hindrance to himself and the team when he was on the mound.
“Pitchers go through slumps much like hitters do and usually find way to snap yourself out of it,” Pestano said. “Last year nothing I tried worked and ended up waking up everyday wondering if that day was gonna be the day that everything clicked again. Unfortunately that day never came.”
After having a 4.91 ERA in eight appearances in July, Pestano had moved himself out of a set up role. By the end of the month Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway were looking to get Pestano innings in non-pressure situations. When the Indians acquired left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski at the July 31 trade deadline, they could no longer keep Pestano’s roster spot available to him. Pestano was optioned to Triple-A Columbus to make room for Rzepczynski, a move that would have been thought of just months earlier.
At Triple-A Pestano worked rigorously to reconnect with his mechanics and establish his release point again. Despite a low innings count from last season, Pestano did more side work and throwing than he has ever done. Much of that came in Columbus.
“Tony Arnold, our Triple-A pitching coach, and I worked almost everyday trying to find my release point,” Pestano said. “Whether it was taking ground balls at shortstop or just catching balls he would throw me from behind the mound and throwing them to a catcher. I had my lowest innings total last year but I threw more last year than any other season I have ever had before.”
Pestano was recalled in September when the roster expanded and hoped to contribute down the stretch to the Indians. However, after a Sept. 7 appearance against the New York Mets where he allowed two hits and a run while facing just two hitters, he was no longer trusted in tight situations. As the Indians tore off an exciting September—with a 10-game win streak—Pestano made just two more appearances for the season, working in mop-up duty.
For Pestano, a key member of both the 2011 and 2012 teams that contended in the first half of the season and fade in the second half, it was especially frustrating to be forced to the sidelines as the team was reaching the heights he had always dreamt about and worked for.
“September was tough to endure,” Pestano said. “I had worked so hard the past couple years to help our team get to this point and now in the season that was finally happening I was a complete non factor down the stretch. It became pretty clear that I wasn’t going to be throwing any meaningful innings and that was tough to swallow because rough year or not I always want the ball in my hand. After coming to terms with where I was at I just focused on being the best teammate I could, whether it was trying to keep things up beat in the clubhouse or trying to pick guys up after a rough game. I had good days and bad days but was thankful to be able to be around everyone for that and share in the excitement of the race and ultimately succeed in playing past 162.”
And while the Indians earned their first postseason appearance since 2007, Pestano was mostly a spectator. However, as he watched his teammates excel, he was finding growth in his own mechanics and development. As the Indians reached their peak for 2013, Pestano may have done the same. What he found at the end of last season he’s using to build upon this spring.
“I didn’t go into the off season still lost,” Pestano said. “Josh Tomlin, who I had inherited as a throwing partner down the stretch, was invaluable to me giving my feedback and helping me work on things.
“Little by little, in catch, things started clicking a little bit again. I threw in a simulated game the Monday before the Wildcard Game with Tampa and felt the best I had in months and was glad I had found something heading into the off season.”
Now, Pestano comes to spring training in 2014 trying to earn a spot in the Indians bullpen all over again. Gone are Perez and Smith, and Pestano’s role for this season is certainly undefined at this point. He does have a minor league option remaining, so he could return to Triple-A if he did not make the team out of Goodyear. New closer John Axford, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Rzepczynski all likely have bullpen spots solidified. Pestano, along with new left-hander Josh Outman, probably has the inside track on one of the remaining spots, but nothing is guaranteed.
“The front office has done a great job in building this team around the right type of players, players that are focused and hungry and expect more out of themselves than any one expects of them,” Pestano said. “Even after exceeding most peoples expectations last year I know the guys in that clubhouse felt like it still wasn’t enough and ended too soon. You have to be excited about being a part of a team like that.”
“The Bullpen Mafia may be no more with only two members left in Frank Herrmann and I, but new bullpens come with new personalities and hopefully new monickers.”
Pestano hopes to use his struggles from last season as motivation for 2014. Despite the pain and disappointment of a year ago, it isn’t something he would erase and definitely will not forget.
“In a lot of ways 2013 was a good year for me,” Pestano said. “I had a chance of a lifetime to play with USA on my chest and I was coached by now two hall of famers in Joe Torre and Greg Maddux. I got a chance to close out games at the big league level for a certain amount of time and with the exception of a little help from KC in one particular game was successful in doing so. One of my best friends was an All Star and the team I care most about made the playoffs.”
Photo: Jordan Bastian/MLB.com