Bolstering the Bullpen

Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians’ 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.

Despite all their struggles this season, the Indians had one thing working for them — their bullpen. Even when starting pitchers were shaky to start the season, there was always hope that the Indians’ relief pitchers would be able to enter the game and finish the task that had been started for them, as they boasted strong performances throughout the season.

There was juggling in the bullpen, to be sure, as pitchers who were once part of the starting rotation made their way to the later innings once they were shown to not be as strong in the early half of games. Terry Francona, it was proven, thrives on a deep bullpen, and this season was no different.

The season started with the bullpen taking a bit different shape than seasons past, as the Indians’ regular closer, Chris Perez, was released and went to the Los Angeles Dodgers, opening the role for a new closer to step in and fill. The Indians signed relievers Josh Outman and John Axford during the offseason, though neither performed up to their potential and did not finish the season in an Indians uniform; Axford was traded to Pittsburgh in August and Outman, who was DFAed in June and accepted an assignment to Triple-A Columbus, was traded to the New York Yankees for either cash or a player later to be named.

Neither proved to be the answer to the Indians pitching questions, and their departures did not prove to be detrimental to the Indians’ bullpen. Throughout the season, the Tribe was able to excel in late innings thanks to the frequent appearances of Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Marc Rzepczynski, and Scott Atchison. To be truthful, their appearances were more than frequent — Shaw led the American League with 80 appearances on the season, followed by Allen with 76. Rzepczynski followed closely with 73, while Atchison was not far behind with 70 appearances in 2014.

Their frequent appearances in games speaks not only to Francona’s reliance on his bullpen, but also the skill level of these players. Shaw, who appeared in 70 games in 2013 with a 3.24 ERA, went 5-5 with a 2.59 ERA in 2014, with two saves in 76.1 innings pitched. He struck out 64 batters and walked 22. At nearly 27-years old, Shaw will become a free agent in 2018 and finds himself arbitration eligible in 2015, and seems to be a player that the Indians would be smart to work with in the near future. He ability to appear in a high number of games is promising, though it does stand to reason that he is not getting any younger and may not be able to keep the momentum up forever.

With his 76 appearances on the year, Allen quickly solidified himself in the role of closer following the departures of Perez and Axford. He posted a 6-4 record and 2.07 ERA, striking out 91 batters on the season. However, despite his 24 saves this year, Allen also suffered from a number of blown saves, giving up seven home runs in the late innings of games. While he has the potential to be a solid closer for the team, his shakiness in must-win situations is a bit disturbing.

Rzepczynski and Atchison are also both pitchers to watch for signs of fatigue in the coming year. Rzepczynski, a left-handed reliever, posted a 2.74 and 0-3 record in the season that included one save and 46 strikeouts. While he is positioned to be a left-handed weapon, he cannot pitch every day in situations in which a leftie is necessary; he needs rest, as well.

Atchison, similarly, cannot be expected to pitch as much as he did this past season due mainly to his age. The reliever will be 39 at the start of next season, meaning his strongest days are likely behind him and his consistent performances cannot be relied on as heavily as the years go on. He went 6-0 in 2014 with a 2.75 ERA (hardly bad numbers for Father Time), though that same performance cannot be expected every year until his retirement. Atchison is not getting younger, which unfortunately means that his that his time as the Indians go-to reliever is limited. What is the team to do?

Francona’s love of a deep bullpen means that there are a number of individuals who could make their mark on the 2015 season. Should he be able to overcome his inconsistencies of 2014, C.C. Lee could prove to be a more regular addition in late inning appearances, as could Nick Hagadone. Hagadone has had his challenges in years past, both on and off the field, though he posted a 2.70 ERA in 2014, much improved from his 5.46 in 2013. Austin Adams made his Major League debut in 2014, going 0-0 with a 9.00 ERA in six games, though he went 3-2 and 2.50 in Triple-A Columbus to start the year. His strong track record of success in the minor leagues bode well for the Indians future, though he will have to prove himself on a regular basis if he wants a fighting chance to break into the veteran pen.

Perhaps one of the strongest assets for the Indians bullpen, however, compliments veteran status of Atchison and comes in the form of youngster Kyle Crockett. Crockett, who was drafted in the first year player draft in 2013, was 22 years old when he made his big league debut early in 2014. He had a 4-1 record and 1.80 ERA in 43 games, including 28 strikeouts and eight walks. Being so young, Crockett is poised for only more success in future seasons. However, they cannot rely on Crockett alone to bolster their bullpen once veterans like Atchison call it quits.

The Indians have too many other needs on the field — their starting pitching is strong but could benefit from one more starter, and their offense is incredibly weak and would not hurt if another bat was added to the lineup. While this means that signing a veteran reliever is likely out of the question, the Indians can rest easy knowing that their younger members of the bullpen have the potential to give equally as strong performances in future season.

Former starters Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister even have chances at becoming regular members of the relief staff, after their stints as starters fell flat. With little room in the rotation for experimentation with struggling starters like these two, the bullpen seems to be the perfect place for them. Further, perhaps they would even benefit from the same success the bullpen held for starters like Carlos Carrasco — his tenure in the bullpen resulted in his most dominant starting performances at the end of the season.

The Indians also have reliever Shawn Armstrong in Columbus, who has been one of the strongest relief prospects in the system. Upon his drafting, he was rumored to have a Cody Allen-esque rise through the system, though injury in 2013 derailed his season and left him back a few steps. However, he came back in 2014 and pitched in Akron and Columbus, posting an overall 6-2 record and 2.12 ERA in 44 games.

The bullpen has been one of the Indians most valuable assets for two years now, though the success may be waning as the main players grow older and the ability to appear nearly every day becomes slimmer. Should the younger members of the staff rise to the challenge, however, there’s little question that the bullpen of future may be comparable in success to the Indians’ bullpen of the past.

Photo: Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

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