Like in any career, in baseball, promotions come through excellent production.
Two years ago Marc Rzepczynski was stuck in a logjam in the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen. Asked to pitch in a long relief role, Rzepczynski struggled and found himself battling to stay at the big league level when the Cardinals dealt him to the Indians at the July 2013 trade deadline.
A new location and new role welcomed Rzepczynski in Cleveland. Settling in as a match up left-handed reliever, focused on facing left-handed hitters, Rzepczynski shined. In 27 games in 2013, Rzepczynski pitched 20.1 innings, allowing just two earned runs and a 0.836 WHIP. He helped solidify the Tribe’s bullpen from the left side and catapult them into their first playoff appearance in six years.
But 2013 was no late-season, fluke. Rzepczynski followed 2013 with a strong 2014 campaign. He had a 2.74 ERA in 46 innings and 73 games. Rzepczynski settled in as the Indians’ late-inning, left-handed matchup reliever. And when he faced left-handed hitters he was very effective, holding hitters to just a .180 batting average over 108 plate appearances. He did struggle against right-handed hitters, allowing a .338 clip in 88 plate appearances.
When Rzepczynski arrived in Cleveland the left side of the bullpen was a weakness, but as 2014 materialized, it became a point of strength. Rzepczynski is the matchup left-hander in late inning situations, but Nick Hagadone has finally settled in as a formidable reliever and youngster Kyle Crockett emerged in early May as a mainstay.
Now, Rzepczynski, Hagadone and Crockett will head up a bullpen that is very strong from the left side. For Rzepczynski, he’ll have to continue to have success against left-handed hitters, but improve upon his performance against right-handed hitters. Now the seasoned veteran, and earning $2.4 million in 2015, Rzepczynski needs to be more than a pitcher who is restricted to just left-handed hitters. He may never be very strong versus right-handers, but he can no longer be a detriment.
Always on a tight budget, 2015 will be a big season for Rzepczynski and the Indians. A successful year for Rzepczynski could help keep the bullpen solid and the Tribe in playoff contention. With only an average offense, the Indians will rely on the bullpen to protect many tight leads all season. If healthy and productive, Rzepczynski should expect to see a similar workload, appearing in 76 games a season ago. If he remains successful, the Indians may be saddled with a decision to offer a left-handed specialist another season of arbitration. Paying in excess of $3 million for a reliever who can’t retire right-handers, may force the Tribe’s hand to an expanded role for Crockett and Hagadone in the future.
But in the present, Rzepczynski is destined to be in the back of the bullpen with right-hander Bryan Shaw, setting up closer Cody Allen. Shaw and Rzepczynski’s ability to get the game from the starters to Allen, and keep the lead in tact, will be a major factor in the Tribe’s success.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer