For those paying any attention to the Cleveland Indians this offseason, it is obvious that one of the primary areas of focus for the front office has been on addressing the bullpen.
The relief corps of the Tribe was once one of its greatest assets, but in true predictability, that string of success was just temporary. Those around the game of baseball know that bullpens are a volatile creature, one that will quickly turn on its owner and bite the hand that feeds.
Finding the right pieces to trust and build around is complicated with the long list of options available to fill seven to eight emergency arms for late inning action. When an arm has proven reliable, a team generally wants to hold onto it for as long as it can, which generally coincides with a time frame just after the cannon attached to the shoulder has backfired and no longer is serviceable.
The Indians, through all of their ups and downs over the last several seasons, have such a trustworthy arm in their bullpen. It is the man that they have entrusted in the ninth inning (and quite a few times in the eighth inning!) to close the door on opposing teams to secure the much needed victory. Cody Allen is that man and he is underpaid, underappreciated, and quietly one of the better closers around the American League.
When rumor spread that one of the potential pieces that the Cincinnati Reds looked to acquire from the Indians in a discussed Todd Frazier deal was Allen, it was hard to be surprised. The Reds already possess one of the top hard-throwing relievers in the game of baseball in Aroldis Chapman, who is entering the final season of his contract and was set to cash in on a major payday until off-the-field concerns checkered his future. The Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers reportedly had a deal in place to send the flame-throwing southpaw to the west coast before the reports of the incident surrounding Chapman’s poor anger management hit the press and the deal fizzled out.
Allen would have been a solid and affordable addition for the Reds, which is one of the reasons that he remains on the roster of the Indians as their bullpen anchor.
The Indians hold the cards in the financial poker game with Allen, who is entering his first season of arbitration eligibility this winter. Cleveland is under no obligation to pay him what he deserves, which would seem to be a figure well north of the $547,100 he made last season while in pre-arbitration status. Tribe brass, however, has made it a priority to keep the core pieces of the ballclub together for the future and has inked many players to long-term deals that are friendly to the club, in terms of affordability and possibly saving money against future arbitration results, but are also friendly to the player, who gets a boost to his wallet compared to what he might earn in pre-arbitration or arbitration years while getting a sense of security by the monetary commitment from the team.
Last offseason, the Indians extended the contracts of pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber after their 2014 efforts. The previous offseason, the team signed extensions with Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, and Jason Kipnis. Similarly, Carlos Santana was signed to a five-year, $21 million extension at the beginning of the 2012 season that runs through 2016, with a club option for 2017.
“There’s risk on both sides. Some deals have worked out better than others,” team chairman and CEO Paul Dolan shared with the media following the announcement of Santana’s deal in April of 2012 regarding offering young players long term contracts. “Both sides are looking for something and hopefully both sides get it – the player gets the security, the team gets the certainty.”
The 27-year-old Allen has notched four years of MLB experience in his time in an Indians uniform, dating back to his debut season in 2012. That season, the former 23rd round pick of the 2011 draft and a 16th round pick of the season before completed his rapid ascent through Cleveland’s farm system and took the mound on July 20th, 2012, just one year, one month, and five days after signing with the Tribe.
He had a solid campaign in that first year, going 0-1 in 27 games with a 3.72 ERA, then finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year tally after a 6-1 effort with two saves and a 2.43 ERA in 77 games in 2013.
He started as a setup option for manager Terry Francona in 2014 before moving into the role of closer on a regular basis after free agent acquisition John Axford struggled and was ultimately let go. Allen finished the year with 24 saves in 28 opportunities and was 6-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 76 total games.
Last season, the right-hander was 2-5 in 70 games, saving 34 of 38 chances while earning a 2.99 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP. His 58 games finished led the AL.
Allen has seen a steady and healthy progression in his strikeout rate throughout his career, utilizing a four-seamer and spiked curveball that he began throwing after 2010 Tommy John surgery, while also using a changeup and slider in the past. After an 8.4 strikeout per nine innings rate in his debut year, that number jumped to 11.3 in 2013, 11.8 in 2014, and 12.9 last season. His strikeout totals have been among the best for relievers in the game, as he fell just one strikeout short of hitting the century mark in 2015 while throwing 69 1/3 innings. He had 91 Ks in 69 2/3 innings in 2014 and 88 in 70 1/3 innings in 2013.
He has been a workhorse for Francona during his brief career. He was second in the AL in games pitched in 2013 and 2014 before falling to ninth this past season, despite notching his third consecutive 70-appearance season. His 34 saves were sixth-best in the AL.
The Indians have five pitchers (Bryan Shaw, Zach McAllister, Jeff Manship, Josh Tomlin, and Allen) eligible for arbitration this offseason after the release of Nick Hagadone in the fall. Of those candidates, Allen is easily the most trusted, reliable, and essential of the bunch and the one that the club should want to keep the happiest. With as much attention as the club has given the bullpen this offseason, it is tough to imagine the Indians at least not having an internal discussion about locking up one of the more durable and integral arms on the bullpen staff and building the rest of the group around him. They have already added a pair of right-handed relievers to the 40-man roster in Kirby Yates and Dan Otero and have signed several relievers, regardless of arm preference, to the growing list of minor league additions with attached spring training non-roster invites.
According to MLBTradeRumors.com and their reliable arbitration predictor, Allen already projects to earn $3.5 million through the process in his first arb year. Similar production from him over the next few seasons could send that figure into an area even higher, potentially to a cost that the club might not be willing to commit to.
“With relievers, it can be more challenging. You just don’t see those contracts out there quite as much in the industry,” Indians General Manager Mike Chernoff was quoted on Cleveland.com on October 8th. “It’s a bit easier to project out a starting pitcher’s role moving forward or a position player’s role moving forward. That’s harder to do in the bullpen. I think that volatility often leads to the challenge of both sides meeting on what a potential value could be.”
While the Indians may have been trying to avoid his salary surge when they opted to sign Axford to close in 2014 instead of keeping the job in house with Allen, the ball eventually came his way and he has racked up a nice save total with few misses along the way. Saves seem to have a positive impact in arbitration hearings, at least for the pitcher when comparing reliever to fellow reliever, and Allen has put himself in a good position for a nice little raise in his offseason performance review.
Locking up Allen now is the right choice to make, even knowing the lack of predictability provided by relievers. Allen has been a consistent force for the club and looks to only get better as he heads into the 2016 spring camps for just the second time as the Indians’ closer. It gives Allen the confidence and the long-term vote of support from the organization and allows the Indians to further project their future payroll while knowing that they do not have to overpay a future closer through the free agency process.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer