Tribe Bullpen Promising, but Has Much to Prove

In the past couple of weeks it has been reported that the Cleveland Indians may be interested in adding one more proven arm to their bullpen. Such a move would certainly be helpful, and perhaps even necessary. However, standing pat with where the bullpen is right now may not hurt, either.

The trouble with projecting a team’s bullpen is that so many relievers go through up and down seasons. A lot of them are inconsistent. Other than closers and top-notch relief pitchers, many hardly ever have consecutive good or great years. It is why there are still a lot of known relievers on the open market teams tend to shy away from giving a lot of money or years to relief pitching.

As for the Tribe, the team has a number of worthy arms, in-house, to round out a potentially formidable relief corps. The bullpen was a strength for Cleveland last year. However, other than closer Cody Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw, there are not a lot of long track records among the players who will report to Arizona with a shot to be a part of the Indians Opening Day bullpen.

Allen, who had 24 saves in 2014, will enter his second season as the club’s full-time bullpen ace. He has had two full seasons in the Majors with ERAs below 3.00 in each. It was a spectacular 2.07 last year. The only question about him is whether or not the Tribe should lock him up to a long-term deal.

It is likewise with Shaw. The 27-year-old right-hander enters his fifth season. He has enjoyed two excellent years with the Indians, preceded by two very good campains with Arizona. In four years, Shaw has solidified his standing as a go-to reliever.

Other than those two, however, there are more questions than answers. Can Nick Hagadone and Kyle Crockett replicate the years they had in 2014? Can Marc Rzepczynski continue to put the disastrous start he had to the 2013 season further into the rearview mirror? Can Scott Atchison remain effective in his age 39 campaign? Can Josh Tomlin and/or Zach McAllister revive their careers with moves to the bullpen, a la 2014 Carlos Carrasco?

These are all questions and unknowns that may well be answered sooner rather than later in 2015.

The oddest thing of all is that Rzepczynski, Hagadone and Crockett are the three currently on the roster with the best odds of opening the year in the Tribe pen. The oddity is that all three are lefties. Teams so often have a hard time finding one left-handed specialist and the Indians have three coming off solid seasons. One could be trade bait. One could open the year in Columbus. It is unusual for a team to carry three southpaws on the relief staff. However, it is also unusual for a team to have eight relievers on the roster, as Tribe manager Terry Francona so often likes to have.

All three lefties come with question marks. Rzepczysnki probably stands as the most likely of the trio to be on the Opening Day roster. He has the longest track record of success, having pitched well in Toronto and St. Louis, prior to coming to Cleveland. He seemed to be having issues in getting off to a rough start in 2013 with the Cardinals. However, a midseason trade to the Tribe has seemingly revitalized the 29-year-old as he has been splendid with the Indians in the last two-and-a-half seasons.

Crockett, 23, appears to be on the same career arc as Allen. Drafted in 2013, he shot through the minor leagues to be with the Indians for the second half of last season. He could not have done much better for himself in giving up a scant six runs in 43 games, throwing 30 innings. That was good for a spectacular 1.80 ERA. It will be interesting to see whether Crockett continues to improve or if the fourth-round pick proves to need a little more minor league seasoning before the Tribe is ready to break camp with him.

As for Hagadone, he has been around Cleveland for what seems an eternity. He came to Cleveland from Boston in 2009 as part of the Victor Martinez trade. With Justin Masterson now gone, Hagadone is now all the Indians have to show for that deal.

Up to last season, it seemed Hagadone would not fulfill the great promise that he has. Then, at 28, it appeared he finally figured out how to pitch at the Major League level. In 2014, Hagadone enjoyed, by far, his best season. He tossed 23.1 frames in 35 games and had a 2.70 ERA. He has all the potential in the world and is perhaps on the verge of realizing it. However, after several seasons in which Hagadone could not get anyone out in the big leagues, he will have to have another season like last year before many fans truly have faith in him entering a close ballgame.

On the right-handed side of the mound are C.C. Lee and Atchison. Atchison will be 39 when the season starts. He is a journeyman, with his fifth team. His 2.75 ERA in 72 innings, 70 appearances were enough for Cleveland to retain him for this season. He has a club option for 2016. Atchison has been solid in his career. The question will be whether he can continue to stay strong in big situations as he gets closer to the big 4-0.

Lee is 28 and had his first extended look in the Majors last year. It was a roller coaster of a ride as he looked very good at times and very bad at others, as a pedestrian 4.50 ERA would attest. He will enter spring training with a lot to prove as he is no lock to make the roster.

Finally, there are a pair of starters in Tomlin and McAllister who are out of minor league options and appear to be odd-men-out of the rotation that has six guys in front of them. Both pitchers struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness the last two years. Each has had moments of success with the Tribe. Last year, Cleveland took struggling starter Carrasco and put him in the pen. Carrasco was lights-out as a reliever and came back to the starting five better than ever. Perhaps the same could happen for one or both of Tomlin and McAllister. Maybe one of the two even finds they have a nitch in the pen and can go on to have long, successful careers as a reliever.

Clearly there is a lot of potential with the pitchers who make up the list of biggest hopefuls for the Tribe bullpen. There are also enough question marks, however, where no one would blink if the Indias added a reliever or two in the next couple weeks who have more of a track record than some of the guys currently on the roster. There are still many of notable names still out there on the open market. Guys like Rafael Soriano, Brian Wilson, Francisco Rodriguez, Jesse Crain and Matt Lindstrom are among the many still look for work and have gotten the job done in relief roles in the past.

The Indians may be wise to add depth to a bullpen with talented, yet unknown arms. If they do not, the pen could still be strong in 2015. However, it may be nice to go into the year with a few less questions than currently in existence.

Photo: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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This Post Has 5 Comments

    1. Larry, Tomlin does have a remaining option for this season. Crain also did re-sign with the Chicago White Sox on Jan. 23.

  1. I think the Indians should go with the guys they have instead of bringing in overpriced vets to pitch over them. Time to show some faith in guys like Lee and Armstrong.

  2. I think in MLB ppl get caught up in being mediocre vets rather than talented young players. Just because you’re a vet, doesn’t make you a good. Go with the talented guys who just need the opportunity over the overpriced vet players who other than being a vet, might not offer you much more than the rookie

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