Bullpen Battle a Big Question for Cleveland Heading into Spring Camp

With spring training now underway and pitchers and catchers in camp in Goodyear, Arizona, the battle for bullpen spots begins in one of the primary camp competitions this spring for the Cleveland Indians. The team will be seeking an answer to the pressing question: who will be manager Terry Francona’s relievers in 2016?

It seemed as though no inexpensive stone was left unturned by the Indians front office, who made several cash exchanges with clubs and signed another half dozen to minor league contracts with invitations to sunny Arizona.

One of the biggest contributing factors to how many positions are up for grabs may actually depend more on the health of the club’s starting left fielder Michael Brantley.

The 2014 All-Star and third place finisher in the AL MVP voting that season, Brantley is working his way back from offseason surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder to correct an injury sustained late in the season. While early non-Peter Gammons estimates put one of the Tribe’s top players on the shelf through the first month of the season, he was already able to put together non-contact swings with Indians staff at their Arizona complex, giving some hope that one of the key offensive pieces of the club would not miss as much time as expected.

If Brantley does, in fact, miss time to start the year, the Indians may elect to go with a smaller seven-man bullpen instead of the eight that they carried for much of 2015. The extra roster spot would presumably go towards keeping an additional outfielder on the roster to help bridge the gap until Brantley is able to return.

With that said, there are a handful of spots that would appear to be taken in Tito’s relief corps. Some of the group returning helped contribute to a bullpen staff who finished with the second-best ERA and fourth-best WHIP in the American League last season while giving up the third-fewest walks and the fewest home runs over the year.

Cody Allen will return as closer. He has very quietly solidified the spot in the ‘pen and become one of the better closers in the game. His 99 strikeouts put him in some elite company in the AL, joining much more established and expensive back-end relievers in the league. He saved a career-high 34 games in 2015.

While Bryan Shaw did not appear to be as sharp as he had been in previous seasons, he would slot in as Allen’s setup man, barring a horrific spring. He was 3-3 with a 2.95 ERA in 2015, making 74 appearances, earning 23 holds, and saving a pair of games. His strikeout and walk rates were right on pace with his numbers from the season before, arguably his best in his five-year career, but he gave up two more home runs in 12 fewer innings pitched and saw his WHIP climb from 1.09 in 2014 to 1.22 in 2015. He was still a workhorse for Francona, one year after leading baseball with his 80 appearances.

Zach McAllister may have prolonged his Major League career with a successful in-season transition to relief work. After one ugly start (five runs, 13 hits allowed in four innings) in the Indians home opener, he went 4-3 in 60 games in the bullpen, had 13 holds, and earned his first career save. He posted an ERA of 2.49 and WHIP of 1.22 while striking out 10.9 batters per nine innings. Unlike Carlos Carrasco, who earned a return to the starting rotation after turning around his results in the bullpen during the 2014 season, the same is not to be said for McAllister, who like Shaw has five years of MLB experience under his belt.

Jeff Manship was one of the surprises of last season for the club. Signed to a minor league contract and deserving of a spot at the end of last spring, he bided his time in Triple-A Columbus and got his call to the MLB club in June. He did not disappoint, finishing the year with a 1-0 record in 32 appearances. Far more impressive, he had a 0.92 ERA for the season and a 0.76 WHIP. While his track record previously does not have the positive career numbers that the prior three pitchers have seen, his relocation on the pitching rubber breathed new life into his professional career and he will head into camp with a strong hold on a fourth spot as a middle reliever.

After these guys, the picture gets a bit murky. A proverbial shaking of the Magic 8 Ball would likely reveal one of several neutral answers – “Reply hazy try again”, “Ask again later”, and/or “Cannot predict now”.

Depending on how the bullpen takes shape, three to four spots should be available for nearly a dozen possible options. It would be reasonable to assume that the Indians staff would like to see at least one lefty emerge from the competition, if not two, but that may be more dependant on an eight-man staff than the likely seven-man variety to start the season.

The team returns several inexperienced internal options – Austin Adams and Shawn Armstrong from the right side, and Kyle Crockett and Giovanni Soto from the left.

Adams made 28 appearances with a 2-0 record, 3.78 ERA, and 1.50 WHIP last season while averaging 6.2 strikeouts and 3.5 walks per nine innings. He spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth to Columbus and, at 29, is looking at a make-or-break season ahead of him.

Armstrong, 25, debuted in early August and made eight appearances. The results were nice – 2.25 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings, but he too spent the bulk of the year in Columbus in his first extensive look there. His eight outings for the Indians may not have been enough to get him a job, but could keep him in line as one of the first men up when reinforcements are needed.

Crockett just turned 24 in December and may stand the best chance of the internal guys, having logged 74 appearances over the last two seasons with the Indians while spending time at Columbus. He impressed in his rookie season, going 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 43 games in 2014, but some early control problems sank him back into the Triple-A pool, where he waded and waited until returning for good to Cleveland in August.

Soto will turn 25 in May and made his MLB debut in September last season, working six scoreless outings. A converted starter, he was reliable in Columbus in his second trip to the Clippers roster, having last pitched for the club in 2013 before injury derailed his career path slightly.

Eight additional roster additions this offseason would appear to be focused as bullpen options heading into spring training.

Dan Otero, once a solid contributor to the Oakland A’s bullpen, was hit around in 2015 and was claimed off of waivers following the season by the Philadelphila Phillies, who in turn sold his rights to Cleveland six weeks later. He turns 31 today, so a Happy Birthday and good luck to him as he looks towards a fifth season in the Majors.

Joba Chamberlain has not been the force that he was early in his career with the New York Yankees, but he is only 30 years old and the most veteran of the righties coming to camp. The reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever had a tough go in 2015, splitting time between Detroit and Kansas City while working a 4.88 ERA and 1.70 WHIP over 36 games.

Craig Stammen and Tommy Hunter are both returning from injury. Stammen had spent his entire career in the Washington Nationals organization before being non-tendered following last season. He had missed the majority of the year after having surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right forearm in what was his first disabled list trip of his career. He will be in camp on a minor league deal with a non-roster invite, like Chamberlain. Hunter signed recently on a one-year Major League deal, so it would certainly appear that he would slot into the bullpen once healthy enough to contribute, but he is still recovering from offseason surgery on his core muscles.

Felipe Paulino may be in camp as a starter, but the Indians have plenty of depth there at the Major League level and will have a tough decision to make sorting out the Columbus rotation with plenty of young arms deserving of a promotion for 2016. He has worked in the past as a reliever, although he spent last season starting at Triple-A Iowa for the Chicago Cubs. A similar fate may befall Jarrett Grube, who returns to the Indians organization on a similar pact after a strong half-season starting in Columbus in 2015.

Joe Thatcher, Tom Gorzelanny, and Ross Detwiler joined the club on minor league deals with non-roster invites as well, giving the Indians three additional veteran southpaw options to consider. All three signed similar deals in December.

Thatcher, 34, is far more the traditional LOOGY of the bunch, only once working more games than innings pitched in his career. His numbers were the best of the trio last season, but he struggled briefly in his first year in Houston and was off of the roster before returning for the playoff push. He was 1-3 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.54 WHIP on the year with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. His walk rate against lefties was plump and righties hit him hard in half as many opportunities against him.

Gorzelanny and Detwiler are both former starters, with the latter actually starting seven games with Texas last season before he was released midseason and signed with Atlanta. Gorzelanny, the 33-year-old eleven-year vet, was in Detroit last season and went 2-2 with a 5.95 ERA and 1.73 WHIP in 48 games. He averaged more than five walks per nine innings and struggled to retire right-handers. Detwiler, who will turn 30 during the first week of March, is a former sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft by Washington and has eight years of experience under his belt, including 97 appearances out of the bullpen.

There is no sense in making predictions based on last season’s results and before any pitches under pressure have been thrown this spring, but the bullpen was clearly a significant focal point of the Indians front office this winter. The bullpen battle will be one of the bigger ones to watch over the coming weeks, as it is well established that Francona utilizes his relievers plenty over the course of the year. It may all be a moot point, however, if the Indians starting pitching staff lives up to the heavy hype being placed on them heading into this new campaign.

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

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