Last offseason, the Cleveland Indians made it clear their intent to lock up the young talent on the team. The moves, which inked left fielder Michael Brantley, catcher Yan Gomes, and second baseman Jason Kipnis to contract extensions that bought out several years of salary arbitration, secured three pieces of the Tribe’s future at club-friendly rates.
So far this offseason, the primary talk has revolved around doing the same with 2014 American League Cy Young winner and sudden and surprising staff ace Corey Kluber. A subsequent scenario involving right-handed closer Cody Allen has also become a whisper in the snowy winter winds of parts of northeast Ohio.
Is now the right time to lock up Allen long-term?
A case can certainly be made that Allen figures into the Indians’ plans in the backend of the bullpen for years to come.
In the Indians’ first year devoid of the Bullpen Mafia trio of Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith anchoring the final three frames, Allen cemented himself as a key arm in Terry Francona’s often-used bullpen bunch. Teamed with Bryan Shaw and Marc Rzepczynski, the new guys made the release of Perez, the return-to-Earth of Pestano, and the free agent departure of Smith afterthoughts as they became a surprising strength of the team as a whole.
Allen’s ascent to the ranks of a Major League reliever and now closer may have been a surprise to some, especially given his draft slot as a 23rd round pick out of the 2011 draft.
Cleveland actually drafted Allen a year earlier, selecting him in the 16th round of the 2010 draft, but he elected not to sign. A year later, the Indians called his name again.
He logged 23 minor league games in his first season in the organization. He made 14 appearances at Mahoning Valley, posting a 3-1 record in 33 2/3 innings with a 2.14 ERA and 42 strikeouts. He was promoted to Lake County in August, spending three scoreless weeks with the club, winning a pair of games in seven appearances while striking out 28 in 17 innings. He jumped to Akron for one September game before moving back to the Class-A level with the Kinston Indians, where he appeared in one game to close out his season.
Allen remained with his former club, who had become the Carolina Mudcats, to start the 2012 season. Four scoreless innings with just one hit allowed and eight strikeouts in a pair of games sent him packing for Akron again. He spent two weeks in the Rubber City, earning a 1.17 ERA and his first professional save in five appearances.
On the fast track, he moved south to Triple-A Columbus, where he spent just over two and a half months with the Clippers at the age of 23. He was credited with two saves in 24 games, earning a 3-2 record with a 2.27 ERA. In mid-July of that 2012 season, he was promoted to Cleveland and has not played another minor league game since.
Not a bad story for a 23rd round pick who had accumulated just one year and one month of professional playing experience. He was the first player in the AL from the 2011 draft class to reach the Majors and just the second in baseball, trailing the arrival of then-Arizona Diamondbacks starter, third overall pick, and current teammate Trevor Bauer, who debuted three weeks before him.
Allen was selected 695 players after Bauer.
Allen has been reliable and steady in the Indians bullpen. He was 0-1 with a 3.72 ERA in 27 appearances in his first season. He struck out 27 and walked 15 in 29 innings, compiling a 1.52 WHIP.
He became a workhorse for Francona in 2013, appearing in 77 games, second-most in the AL and third-most in all of baseball. He was 6-1 on the season, vulturing several late inning wins, with a 1.25 WHIP and 2.43 ERA while also earning his first two MLB saves. He finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year vote after filling the late inning voids in the seventh and eighth frames created by the ineffectiveness or injuries of Pestano and Perez, which created a bullpen shuffle.
Last season, Allen found himself in the role of the eighth inning setup man to John Axford, but as that experiment failed, Allen took the reins of the bullpen-by-committee in May. It was not without bumps while traversing the learning curves of the road, but he was largely consistent and got the job done for the club, allowing all of the other arms to fall into their respective roles.
He finished the season 6-4 with 24 saves in 76 games. His 2.07 ERA was a career-best, as was his 1.06 WHIP and 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Why should the Indians extend him?
He has proven he could handle the pressures of the ninth.
His numbers continue to improve and he will not turn 26 until this coming Thursday.
He has shown an ability to strike out batters and maintain a walk ratio consistent with other top relievers in the league.
He has logged just two and a half seasons in the Majors and, if he were to continue as the closer and rack up saves at or near the same rate as he is at, he will become a potentially pricey reliever through the arbitration process and, slightly further off in the distance, in free agency.
Closers in baseball come at a ridiculous price. David Robertson, the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera in New York this past season, finished 4-5 with a 3.08 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 39 saves in 63 games. He struck out 96 batters and walked 23 in 64 1/3 innings.
The 29-year-old Robertson, who will turn 30 a week into the 2015 season, was tagged with a qualifying offer by the Yankees, who were willing to give him the highest closer salary for one season in the history of the MLB. Instead, he is looking to turn his one season into “Papelbon money”, which to the casual fan should mean “insane high-risk expenditure”.
Allen appeared in 13 more games than Robertson with 14 fewer saves, affected by his first month and a half out of the closer’s role. Allen worked five and one-third more innings, struck out just five fewer batters, and walked three more men than Robertson. They both posted WHIP’s of 1.06, while Allen’s ERA was more than one full run better.
Allen is three and a half years younger. Allen may not be what Robertson is. But he might be. And Robertson’s about to become a very rich man.
There are risks, especially any time you are dealing with the volatility of a Major League bullpen. History has shown us that the mighty can and will fall.
Perez went from a hard-throwing reliable righty out of the bullpen from 2010 to 2012, to an off-the-field distraction in 2013, to a middle reliever with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014.
Pestano, who was a solid setup man and seemed to be getting fitted to wear the closer’s shoes when Perez became too pricey to keep, saw his professional career hanging in the balance as he struggled with control, was frequently suspected of pitching hurt, and found himself back in the minor leagues. After falling out of favor in Francona’s fray last season, he was dealt home to California, joining the Los Angeles Angels.
Kerry Wood was an All-Star for Chicago in his first full season in their bullpen, saving 34 of 65 games appeared in for the Cubs in 2008. The next season, the 31-year-old signed a free agent deal in Cleveland and his ERA jumped nearly one full run while saving 14 fewer games and blowing six other opportunities. In 2010, he blew three of his first eleven chances and was shipped to the Yankees.
Joe Borowski saved 36 for the Florida Marlins in 2006. He came to Cleveland and led the league in saves with 45 in 2007, but his ERA jumped over five. He lost the job in 2008 after saving just six of ten opportunities and was subsequently released midseason. Borowski was ten years older than Allen during his closer time with the Indians, to be fair.
Other names will be omitted to spare readers of any traumatic side effects. Just think 1997.
Allen has worked a lot of games and a lot of innings very early on in his professional career. He did not have a lot of seasoning in the minor leagues, which is acceptable if his arm can withstand the pressures and strain of the Major League workload.
Francona has not shied away from Allen at all, working him 153 games and 140 innings over the last two seasons. He worked just 54 2/3 innings in his first season of pro ball before jumping to 72 1/3 innings combined in 58 games scattered over four levels of baseball the following year. His 2013 output of 70 1/3 innings was just two outs more than the 69 2/3 innings assigned to his 2014 stats.
At some point, all of the innings could take a costly toll. The bright lights and high intensity of save situations on a generally inexperienced closer could also do the same.
As it stands, Allen is locked up with the Tribe through the completion of the 2018 season and is currently pre-arbitration eligible. He will be arbitration eligible for the first time following the 2015 season and will undoubtedly see a substantial raise over the $515,400 that he made holding the Cleveland bullpen together this past season.
If the Indians front office has the faith that Allen can both withstand the significant work he has seen early in his career while handling the stress of being the last man to take the ball in high stakes games, Allen will get locked up.
The risk, however, is if Allen suffers some sort of a setback, whether it be ineffectiveness or an injury, that makes the money tied up in him a bad investment. This club, after the poor returns thus far on past free agent signings Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and previous extension recipients Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and Jake Westbrook, has to be extremely careful with how it spends its money.
Like any long-term contract extension, it comes with a risk, but at the right price, Allen may be a name to secure. Time will tell if the Indians elect to close a deal with their closer of the future soon or if they allow Allen to prove his worth at the cost of more money later.
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