Who Will Be Tito’s Lefties in the Bullpen in 2016?

It is no big secret that Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona loves his bullpen.

This past season, the Tribe called upon its relief corps 476 times, the sixth lowest number of appearances in all of baseball. It was a welcomed relief to the previous season, when Francona used his relievers a Major League leading 574 times, 31 more times than the next closest American League club.

While the right side of the mix is fairly settled with Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Zach McAllister, Austin Adams, and Jeff Manship, the left side is a mystery and will likely be a potential upgrade destination for the front office before the team hits Goodyear, Arizona, to start the 2016 spring camp.

The Indians do have a few internal options, but those arms are either coming off of down years, are unproven on the Major League level, or ended the year badly injured.

Kyle Crockett may have the leg up on the three southpaws returning from the recently completed season.

The “little” lefty, all 6’2”, 175 pounds of him, started the season slow and after some command issues found himself back in Columbus on the roster of the Triple-A Clippers after the first week of the MLB season. He was recalled several times over the course of the year, making a three-day trip in June and a two-week return in July before he was brought back up for good in the beginning of August. He worked as the key matchup lefty through the second half of the season. He finished the year with no decisions at the MLB level in 31 games, working in 17 2/3 innings while earning a 4.08 ERA with a 1.36 WHIP and allowing a .266 batting average against.

After walking three batters in his first three appearances, he walked just four more over his remaining 28 outings. He remained steady against right-handed hitters, who hit .286 off of him after hitting .283 in his first season in the Bigs. His most notable area of decline was against the lefties – something that is problematic when working as the LOOGY of the ‘pen – as he allowed them to hit .256 in 48 plate appearances after giving up a .206 average to them in 71 plate appearances the season before. His command issues remained visible in his strikeout-to-walk rate, which dropped from 6.67 in his rookie season to 2.25 in year two.

Crockett will turn 24 in mid-December. He was a fourth round pick by the club in the 2013 June amateur draft and was fast-tracked through the minor league system.

Giovanni Soto, like Crockett, will begin the 2016 season 24 years old and will celebrate his birthday in mid-May either in the Indians bullpen or that of the Clippers. He was a 21st round pick by the Detroit Tigers in the 2009 draft and was acquired by the Indians the following July in the Jhonny Peralta trade.

He was a September call-up this season and made his debut against the same Tigers club that drafted him. He worked exclusively against the AL Central, facing 13 batters in total against Detroit, Chicago, and Kansas City in six games. He did not allow a run, walked nobody, struck nobody out, and gave up just three singles.

Strangely enough, two of those three hits were by lefties (Chicago’s Adam Eaton, Detroit’s Alex Avila) and the other was by KC switch hitter Kendrys Morales.

Soto worked in 46 games, including one start, for the Clippers in his first season at the Triple-A level, posting a 2-1 record with two saves, a 2.68 ERA, and 1.19 WHIP in 53 2/3 innings of work. He spent all of his 2014 season at Double-A Akron while converting to a reliever. As a starter, he notably threw a no-hitter on July 15th, 2012, for the Aeros against the Altoona Curve. He struck out six, walked three, and gave up one run in the 2-1 win at Canal Park.

Soto may get more of a look as an option for Francona’s staff because of the injury to Nick Hagadone.

The 6’5” veteran lefty will turn 30 on New Year’s Day. He has been a part of the Indians roster for each of the last five seasons and has appeared in 27 or more games in each of the last four. He is eligible for arbitration this offseason.

His 2015 season was a bit rocky at times and he finished the year prematurely with multiple injuries, the latter to his throwing arm which required surgery. At the time of his setback, he was 0-1 in a career-high tying 36 appearances with a 4.28 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. He was averaging just over one strikeout per inning pitched.

Like the rest of the lefties in Tito’s ‘pen, Hagadone struggled against left-handed batters, ruining the matchup advantage used. In each of his first four seasons in the Majors, he had been a much more effective and even dominant pitcher against lefties, allowing them to hit .193 in his career. Last season in a comparable number of appearances, that average jumped to .264 despite a career-best strikeout-to-walk rate (4.00) against them for the season. Righties, who had historically better numbers against him, topped their average with a .281 mark and his SO/W rate was just 1.50, below his already low 1.69 career average at the start of the year.

Compounding problems for Hagadone moving forward is the recovery and rehabilitation timetable he may need. He was placed on the disabled list at the beginning of July with a lower back strain and was removed from a rehab start for Mahoning Valley after fracturing the medial epicondyle bone in his left elbow. He did dodge a feared second Tommy John surgery, but the procedure to stabilize the elbow done at the end of July generally has a six- to nine-month absence attached to it. He is on pace to resume light throwing in a few weeks, but there is no indication that he will be ready to pitch by the time the club comes together for Spring Training.

The void in the bullpen is more pronounced now after the club dealt struggling southpaw Marc Rzepczynski to the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline. He was 2-3 with a 4.43 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in 45 games (20 1/3 innings) for the Indians and 0-1 with a 7.36 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 27 games (14 2/3 innings) in his return to the National League with the Padres.

Even with the mixed results from the left side of the bullpen this past season, the bullpen staff as a whole allowed just 28% of inherited runners to score, the ninth-best mark in all of baseball and the fifth in the AL. In 2014, the staff limited just 20% of those runners to score, the second-best mark in baseball behind the New York Mets and the top mark in the AL. The team’s 3.12 bullpen ERA trailed just Kansas City (2.72) in the AL, while the staff had the fourth-best relief WHIP (1.25) in the league and allowed an MLB-low 38 homers.

The club, given the questionable internal options on the roster, may have to look outside of the organization for new contributors. While it is difficult to gauge any potential left-handed trade targets, several free agents could be considered, including veterans Neal Cotts, Brian Duensing, Oliver Perez, Matt Thornton, and former Indian Tony Sipp, all of whom appeared in at least 55 games last season and made between $2.4 and $3.5 million.

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

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