With all of the turnover in the Cleveland Indians bullpen, there were plenty of questions about how the relief corps would look as the team entered the 2014 season.
The concerns were clearly elevated after losing two-fifths of the successful 2013 starting rotation in the offseason free agency period. Looming questions about the potential growth of Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister post-finger injuries, the development of young flame thrower Danny Salazar, the unknown potential of Carlos Carrasco, and Justin Masterson in a contract year all spelled the need for a strong bullpen to complement the rotation arms.
Gone were a pair of mainstays from the “Bullpen Mafia” of years’ past. Closer Chris Perez struggled through injuries and off the field concerns throughout 2013 and ultimately lost his role as the ninth inning shutdown pitcher as the team was racing towards the postseason. He was let go by the Tribe in late October. Late inning righty Joe Smith exited via free agency after a 6-2 record with three saves and a 2.29 ERA in 70 games for Cleveland, his third straight season of 70 games or more.
The team also said goodbye to right-hander Matt Albers, who signed a contract with the Houston Astros, and inconsistent left-hander Rich Hill, whose problems in 2013 forced the team to look into acquiring Marc Rzepczynski at the trade deadline last season to stabilize the situational pitching problems that plagued the team throughout the early portions of the campaign.
Returning in 2014 were Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw, paired up to setup the closer. The team added a pair of new righties, including rebounding closer John Axford from St. Louis and Scott Atchison from the New York Mets, and traded extra outfielder Drew Stubbs for lefty Josh Outman from Colorado.
Two other returning bullpen arms, Vinnie Pestano and Blake Wood, were looked to add some depth and late inning dominance to the corps, but their ineffectiveness early on found both men packing for Columbus to work on their mechanics on the mound.
Pestano appeared in just three games before his demotion to Triple-A. He allowed earned runs in each appearance. He logged two and two-thirds innings and allowed six total runs on eight hits with a walk and a home run. He has an 0-1 record in Columbus, giving up one run on three hits with a pair of walks and nine strikeouts in five innings of work in five games.
Wood was the next pen arm to fall after two successful outings to open his season. He allowed three earned runs in a loss to Minnesota on April 6, then earned runs in each of his next two games. He walked four in the latter in just an inning of work. After two more appearances, he was sent down to make room for Jason Giambi on the roster. He walked a pair and gave up a hit in a scoreless inning in his first game for the Clippers.
Besides those two, the rest of the bunch has been consistent and reliable.
Setup man Allen leads the pack. The 25-year-old right-hander, in his second full season in the Major Leagues, has started strong earning a pair of wins while leading the bullpen in appearances with a dozen. He has pitched nine and one-third innings, allowed eight hits with four walks, and struck out 14. He has allowed a .229 batting average against him and has yet to be charged with an earned run. While right-handers have hit .353 against him in the early going, he has limited lefties to a .111 average. Last season, he was 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA in 77 games, the third-most games played by a pitcher in 2013.
Shaw has been just as utilized as Allen and just as consistent. The 27-year-old has appeared in twelve games and has logged eleven and two-thirds innings. Like Allen, he has allowed eight hits, but he has issued a bullpen-low one walk. His ten strikeouts are second-best of the nine men to relieve for the Tribe this season. He has a .190 batting average against him. He has shut down right-handed hitters, posting a .043 batting average against them, but lefties have hit .368. He appeared in 70 games last year for Cleveland, posting a 7-3 record with one save and a 3.24 ERA in 75 innings.
Axford has stabilized the ninth inning role, converting eight of his first nine save opportunities to begin the campaign in his first season in Cleveland after being non-tendered by the St. Louis Cardinals in December. He has pitched in nine and two-thirds innings in eleven total games. Command has been a slight issue, as he is tied for the bullpen lead in walks with seven, but he has allowed just six hits and a .176 opponent batting average. Right-handers are hitting .091 against him. He has not allowed a run in a night game. His save situations are not always going to be lights out, but he will get the job done more often than not.
The lefties have been solid in their matchup roles.
Rzepczynski has been dealt with a loss but has allowed just one run on the season, good for a 0.96 ERA, second best on the staff. He has appeared in eleven games and pitched nine and one-third innings. He has allowed a team-low four hits, good for a team-best .138 batting average against him. He has been equally as effective regardless of which side of the plate the batter he faces is on, as lefties have hit .133 and righties have hit .143 on the young season. He has struck out eight.
The 29-year-old Outman has been the winning pitcher in three different decisions already this season. He has taken the mound eleven times and logged eight and one-third innings. He has struck out ten, allowed eight hits, and walked seven. Lefties are hitting just .188 off of him. He is tied for the team lead in wins (McAllister – three) and leads all AL relievers in the category.
Atchison, who was signed by the club to a minor league contract, has history with manager Terry Francona from their time in Boston. Atchison has proved to be worth the gamble in the early going, appearing in nine games and working ten innings of relief. He has allowed just three runs on five hits, walked two, and struck out eight, leading the pitching staff in WHIP (0.70) and posting the second-best batting average against him (.143).
C.C. Lee joined the club to replace Pestano on the roster and has appeared in seven games, allowing four runs (three earned) on six hits in six and two-thirds innings.
Entering Friday’s contest, the Indians bullpen had allowed just three of 35 inherited runners to cross the plate, the best mark in the Major Leagues. Having stepped into many ball games in precarious situations after starting pitching failed to last deep into the game, this contribution has been invaluable. They added to that league-leading percentage on Friday night, when Lee stranded an Outman runner at first in the seventh inning.
During the team’s last six games prior to their West Coast trip, they posted a 1.93 ERA and .212 batting average against, allowing just four earned runs in 18 2/3 innings of work.
As a team, the bullpen has a 6-3 record with a 2.80 ERA this season. The ERA mark is good for seventh-best in all of baseball and second-best in the American League. Their save total is second to the New York Yankees in the AL and fifth-best overall. The bullpen has allowed the fifth fewest home runs (four) in the MLB and second fewest in the AL.
Their batting average allowed (.211) is second to Oakland’s .208 in the AL and fourth-best in baseball. They have allowed just 57 hits, second in the AL to the bullpen of the Kansas City Royals, generally regarded as one of the better staffs in the game, while Cleveland’s 76 strikeouts and 1.26 WHIP are the fourth-best in the AL.
Subtracting out the poor efforts from Pestano and Wood (0-1 record, nine earned runs and eleven runs total in nine innings pitched), the numbers look even better. The team is 6-2 without the two righties with a 1.94 ERA.
Some members of the starting rotation are showing signs of reliability. Kluber threw a complete game gem against the Kansas City Royals on Thursday. McAllister, even with a five run fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants on Saturday, has allowed just ten earned runs in five starts this season and has won three of his five decisions. Masterson has put together back-to-back quality starts after a pair of five earned run efforts.
While the Indians are off to just an 11-13 start to the 2014 season, they remain right in the mix in the AL Central standings, just two and a half games behind the Detroit Tigers. They have done so with mixed results from their rotation and a lineup that has yet to play on all cylinders while completely healthy. With the return of Michael Bourn to the lineup and Giambi to the bench and several starting pitchers appearing to find their grooves on the mound, the team will have to rely on the offense to gel and for the fourth and fifth starters to reach their potential in the center of the diamond.
In the meantime, the Indians bullpen, filled with more question marks than certainties at the start of the season, has begun to take shape and looks as though it can be consistent and reliable as the team presses forward into the next five months of the baseball season.
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan