If baseball has learned anything about Indians manager Terry Francona in his two seasons as skipper in Cleveland, it is that Tito loves his bullpen.
Francona broke records last season with his use of the Indians relievers. Heading in to the 2015 season, he may pitch some of these men until their arms break or fall off altogether.
That is where a player like Austin Adams may fit in.
Adams was one of 18 players to appear on the mound for the Indians in relief during the 2014 season. While his time with the team was short and the results may have paled in comparison to his efforts at Triple-A Columbus during the season, he has become one of the next men up for the organization in an otherwise crowded bullpen bunch for Francona this season.
The relief corps in general is fairly well established. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw are locked into late inning work. Scott Atchison, coming off of 70 appearances of his own, was rewarded for his strong season with a contract extension during the season. Veteran southpaw Marc Rzepczynski anchors the main work from the left-handed options. Twenty-two-year-old rookie Kyle Crockett tallied a 1.80 ERA in 43 games in his debut season. Nick Hagadone looked as good on the mound as he had in any single body of work and would give Francona a second lefty to work with. And none of these six factor in Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister, who may occupy spots off of the bullpen bench because of the lack of rotation spots available on the starting pitching staff.
Francona has not shied away from the notion of a 13-man pitching staff in the past, using eight men out of the pen to supplement his starting rotation. Even with an expanded arsenal, spots are already limited.
The logjam in the starting rotation may make it difficult for guys like Adams to crack the opening day roster. But if history remains consistent, guys will tire, someone will get hurt and spend some time on the disabled list, and Adams will get an opportunity at some point over the season. He will be one of many options that may get that chance, including the returning C.C. Lee and offseason acquisitions Anthony Swarzak, Scott Downs, Jeff Manship, and Bruce Chen, among others.
Adams started last season in Columbus with the Clippers. His first six appearances included three rocky outings, but after that stretch to start the season, he locked in and was almost impossible to score upon. Working primarily as a late inning option for the Clippers, he went a 24-game span from April 22nd to July 8th where he allowed just three earned runs in 30 2/3 innings. His 0.88 ERA was matched by a .217 batting average allowed with a WHIP below one. He allowed 23 hits and walked six while striking out 29. After 13 consecutive outings without giving up a run, he got the call to Cleveland on July 11th to replace T.J. House, who was optioned out briefly to give the Indians more depth in an overworked bullpen.
The solid work did not translate to the Major League level for Adams.
Entering in the ninth inning of a 3-2 deficit in Cleveland against the Chicago White Sox on July 12th, Adams allowed three straight hits, including back-to-back doubles that expanded the Sox lead to 5-2, in his Major League debut. After a groundout, he was lifted and Rzepczynski allowed a sacrifice fly for a third run to be charged to Adams. The Indians lost, 6-2.
He did not appear again until July 20th in the seventh inning in Detroit against the Tigers. He allowed a run on a hit with a walk and a strikeout in a 5-1 loss. The next day, he was optioned back to Columbus to make room on the roster for House.
His stay in Columbus was short as he got the recall to Cleveland after just three appearances at AAA, but returned to the Clippers after an inning and a third of work on August 1st. He was filling in on the roster after the trades of Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera opened up spots on the 25-man roster. He worked nine more games at the minor league level, almost exclusively late in games, but he rejoined the club at the expansion of the Major League rosters on September 1st.
He was shelled again in his first game back, retiring the first batter he faced in the ninth inning in a mop-up role before consecutive singles and a home run cleared the deck in a 12-1 onslaught by the Tigers. He was a bit better in his latter two outings, working scoreless efforts on September 8th against the Los Angeles Angels and September 23rd against the Kansas City Royals, both in blowout losses.
Adams finished the season with a 3-2 record and a 2.50 ERA in 42 games in Columbus, but no record and a 9.00 ERA in seven innings of six games at the MLB level.
Adams has the stuff to make it in the Majors. During his small sample size during the season, he showcased a mid-90s fastball and a slider. He had previously thrown a curveball and changeup throughout his professional career, but relieving allows him to focus on his primary two pitches.
He is a reliever with some upside, and if he can continue to minimize the walk rate as he did throughout the 2014 season, he could become a potential option for Francona during the season. His strikeout rate dropped from 2013 to last season, but so did his walk rate. He struck out lefties in the minors at a better rate than righties, but the right-handed reliever walked left-handed hitters at more than double the rate of right-handed ones. Fastball command, especially keeping the ball down in the zone, was mentioned during the season as a point of emphasis for the reliever.
He may crack the bullpen as one of the final arms on the staff out of Spring Training or as one of the first arms up from Columbus during the season, where he would likely continue to get work in the late innings.
Last season was just the second of his career strictly as a reliever. He was 3-2 with a 2.62 ERA in 45 relief appearances in 2013 with Double-A Akron after missing the 2012 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Prior to his injury, the bulk of his work was as a starting pitcher.
Adams was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 27th round of the 2008 June Amateur Draft but did not sign. He was drafted the next season by the Indians in the 5th round and was 3-1 with a 4.86 ERA in 17 starts at short-season Mahoning Valley.
The next season, he split time between Lake County and Kinston of Class-A, working a combined 8-5 with a 2.49 ERA on the season. He was sharp in the Carolina League, posting a 6-1 record and a 1.53 ERA in 13 games, including one relief appearance. He was 11-10 in 2011 in his first season in Akron, throwing a career-high 136 innings and striking out 131 batters, but an elevated walk rate increased his WHIP to 1.54.
No longer a prospect, the 28-year-old Adams is an outsider looking in at the bullpen mix for the coming season, but his brief experience at the MLB level and his success at Triple-A make him a viable option for Francona’s staff at some point during the coming season. He has proven during his time in the minors that he has the stuff to make it at the Major League level. He now just awaits the opportunity to show it on a regular basis.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer