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 will be in a new role this season than they were in 2013.
As the 2013 season closed, Bryan Shaw was one of the Indians most valuable and most reliable relievers as they made their September playoff push.
While Indians closer Chris Perez faltered and set-up man Vinnie Pestano had already pitched his way out of meaningful innings, Shaw—along with Cody Allen—asserted himself as one of the go-to relievers. In September, Shaw did not allow a run in 13 games and 15.1 innings. While the Indians played close and come-from-behind games, it was Shaw holding other teams in check in the late innings. His ability to hold other teams while the Tribe came from behind was reflected in his 5-0 record in September.
Now, as the Indians re-tool their bullpen with Perez jettisoned and Joe Smith signing with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Shaw and Allen will each be expected to move into key set-up roles in front of new closer, John Axford. Currently, Allen is perceived to be slated for eighth inning duty, while Shaw may be more of a seventh inning asset. Both Allen and Shaw match-up well against both right-handed and left-handed hitters, making it easier to slot them into an order leading to the closer when the Indians have the lead.
However, Shaw was not always the reliable reliever he was last September. After beginning 2013 just as hot as he finished it, Shaw struggled throughout much of the summer months. Last April, Shaw appeared in nine games, pitching 10 innings and building a 0.87 ERA. However, his season took a major turn for the worse once the May flowers sprung. Shaw had a 5.06 ERA in 16 innings in May, followed by 4.63 in June, 5.14 in July and 4.30 in August. During the summer months, Shaw had pitched himself from a set-up role to pitching primarily when the Tribe was behind and in non-pressure situations.
But as players like Perez struggled in September, Shaw came alive and took advantage of the innings left available. He quickly pitched his way back into pitching in pressure situations and key roles, evidenced by his 13 appearances in the final month of the season. Shaw and Allen became the combination that led to Smith and Justin Masterson in the late innings.
As 2014 opens, the Indians seem convinced that the Shaw that pitched in September is the one they’ll have to start the season. Now slotted in a key set-up role, if Shaw demonstrates the same dominance as he did at the end of last year, he could be a key member to a new, powerful bullpen. Shaw’s success could make the bullpen a team strength. However, if Shaw struggles—like he did throughout the summer in 2013—the bridge from the starting pitchers to Allen and Axford could become a big wobbly.
Despite success against both right-handed and left-handed hitters, Shaw could still be used primarily against right-handed hitters. He had just a .184 batting average against right-handed hitters, as opposed to a .252 batting average against left-handed hitters. Shaw could work well in the seventh inning with the help of lefty specialist, Marc Rzepczynski.
If Shaw does struggle and pitches himself out of a set-up role, it’s possible Pestano could be waiting to quickly replace him. Pestano was the eighth inning set-up man in both 2011 and 2012 to Perez before having a disappointing 2013. Pestano seems to have a clean bill of health and re-worked mechanics this spring. While it seems Pestano has solidified his place again in the Tribe’s bullpen, his role is not so clear. Pestano could still win a set-up role from Shaw in spring training, or take the role early in the season if he shines and Shaw struggles.
In the Indians new-look bullpen, Shaw could be the catalyst between the Tribe being an elite group or just an average late-inning cast. Which version of the 2013 Shaw emerges in 2014 may be the difference.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer