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 a roster battle to earn one of the Tribe’s last spots on the Opening Day roster.
Lee was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2008 after pitching for Chinese Taipei in the Beijing Olympics. He pitched nine innings, giving up just two runs during the games. In 2009, he pitched again for Chinese Taipei in the World Baseball Classic and began his professional career. After a successful 2009 at High-A Kinston and 2010 at Double-A Akron, Lee split time in 2011 between Akron and Triple-A Columbus. It appeared his assertion to the big league bullpen was just a matter of time.
However, the right-handed reliever could have been overused in 2011. He pitched 71.1 innings in 44 games between Akron and Columbus that season. Part of the overload was in part to the Clippers’ run to the Triple-A National Championship. Lee earned the save in the championship game. Shortly after beginning the 2012 season, Lee was shut down after just five appearances at Triple-A Columbus. He was forced to have Tommy John surgery and miss the remainder of the season.
Last year, Lee was not cleared to pitch until late May and worked himself back through the Indians system. Lee worked his way through the system quickly. He was activated in Low-A Lake County on May 29, but was back in Columbus by June 26 and promoted to the Indians on July 14. Lee appeared in eight games, pitching just 4.1 innings for the Indians between a quick July promotion and September call-up. The organization limited Lee to just 33 innings last season as they monitored his return.
But now Lee enters 2014 without restrictions and competing for a place in the Indians’ bullpen. The 27-years old, Lee no longer has the prospect status, but still has the ability to impact the Tribe’s roster. Baseball America still ranked Lee’s slider as the best in the Tribe’s minor league system for 2013. He’ll rely primarily on his fastball and slider to retire hitters.
With four bullpen spots already solidified (John Axford, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski) and two of the open spots pointed toward serious favorites (Vinnie Pestano and Josh Outman), just one bullpen spot remains. Lee will be competing with several candidates like Blake Wood, Frank Herrmann, Nick Hagadone, and more. Even pitchers like Carlos Carrasco or Josh Tomlin could be shuffled into the last bullpen spot if they lose the battle for the fifth starter’s position.
He had a rough first outing in his Cactus League debut this spring. On Feb. 26, Lee gave up two hits and two runs in an inning of work. His mistake resulted in a two-run home run from Chris Heisey of the Cincinnati Reds. Lee struggled with control and location at times last year as he worked his way back into form.
Lee is squarely in the competition for a bullpen spot, but could be at a deficit if the first six spots work out as they are projected. The final spot would likely go to a pitcher who could pitch in a long-relief role. Considering Lee’s rebound from Tommy John and toughness on right-handed hitters with his sidearm delivery, he is more suitable for a middle relief or match up role. If Lee loses out on the bullpen battle to more experienced pitchers like Pestano and Outman, he could be one of the first calls from Columbus when a pitcher falters or is injured.
After brief appearances at the big league level, Lee is ready to contribute to the Indians in 2014. He’s fully recovered and ready to make an impact. If that does not happen on Opening Day, it’s very likely to be quick this season.
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