Nearly half of the roles in the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen are up for grabs this spring, further emphasizing the volatility of relievers in Major League Baseball today.
While the Indians’ relief staff put together a solid year overall last season, the club still devoted a significant amount of time to acquiring extra relievers to battle for the handful of spots available in their ‘pen. Most were brought in on minor league deals, like veterans Joba Chamberlain, Craig Stammen, and Joe Thatcher, while another (Dan Otero) was a cash swap with the Philadelphia Phillies. Several others are young internal candidates who have climbed the organizational ranks but have minimal experience and consistent results at the MLB level to speak of.
Then there is Tommy Hunter, a former starter who has found success in recent years in a right-handed relief role after struggling in the rotation. He was added to the roster earlier this month when he inked a one-year, $2 million Major League contract with the Tribe, with another $1 million possible through incentives.
The problem is that Hunter can’t contribute, at least not yet.
Hunter underwent surgery twice this offseason to address a core muscle injury and will not be ready by the start of the season. The Indians knew that there was said risk with Hunter, but banked on his previous success to make the partial season signing a worthwhile one.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported a week ago that the Yankees had come to an agreement with Hunter earlier this offseason. The free agent reliever and New York, notably quiet this winter on the free agent market, were believed to have agreed upon a two-year deal around $12 million, but the Yankees “backed out because they were uncomfortable with the results of Hunter’s physical.” The Mets had also kicked the tires on the reliever, who was said in mid-January to be looking for a multi-year deal.
“Prior to signing Tommy, we did a complete physical and we were comfortable moving forward with the agreed-upon terms,” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti was quoted in the February 18th story. “We realize [Hunter] is going to be delayed because of the offseason core surgery, but we think he will be back in the first part of the season and impact our team when he returns.”
Hunter, now 29, began his career in the Texas Rangers’ organization, the club’s first round pick (54th overall) in the 2007 draft out of the University of Alabama. Less than 13 months after signing, he was center stage in a start against Toronto at the age of 22. He was 0-2 in three starts that season and 9-6 with a 4.10 ERA in 19 games the following season. His best season as a starter was in 2010, when he was 13-4 with a 3.73 ERA for the Rangers in 23 games, but was 0-2 in three postseason starts with a 6.10 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.
The Rangers moved him to the bullpen in 2011, but after eight outings, he was shipped with Chris Davis to Baltimore for reliever Koji Uehara the day before the trade deadline. The Orioles used him as a starter for parts of two seasons, but with mixed results.
Late in the 2012 season after giving up eight runs to the Rangers, the O’s moved him back into the bullpen for good. He performed well, going 3-0 in ten outings with a 0.71 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while throwing 72% of his pitches for strikes. Pleased with the results, the Orioles used him in a career-high 68 games in 2013 out of the bullpen, where he was 6-5 with a 2.81 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while earning four saves.
Positive results in relief continued for the new Hunter, as he was 3-2 with a 2.97 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 60 appearances in 2014, earning eleven saves. He began 2015 with the club, going 2-2 in 39 appearances with a 3.63 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, but was traded at the deadline to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Junior Lake. He was 2-0 in 19 outings for the Cubs, saving one game and earning a hold in another.
He hit 99 on the radar gun in his first outing for Chicago on the way to the save, but did not see much work in the Windy City and was left off of their playoff rosters. He had a couple of bad outings to end August and start September and pitched just five games in the final month-plus of the season while dealing with the core issue.
The deadline deal of Hunter was confusing to some in Baltimore, as Lake was a prospect who had never lived up to the hype, while Hunter had been having another good season at an affordable price and was liked on the club. His ERA was higher than normal, but it was largely due to six runs allowed over two innings in a tough series with the Yankees early in the year. In his other 37 outings for the O’s in 2015, he had a 2.53 ERA.
Lake was claimed off of waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays in December.
When Hunter is ready to take the ball on the mound for the Indians this season, he will bring a mid-90s fastball, a cutter, and a curveball with him. He has always performed better against right-handed batters than left, limiting righties to a .247 average in his career with a 3.85 strikeout-to-walk rate, while lefties have hit .289 with a 2.13 strikeout-to-walk rate. He has a career 3.28 ERA as a reliever (compared to 4.88 as a starter) and averages more than a strikeout and a half more per walk in the bullpen compared to the rotation.
He would seemingly be a sixth or seventh inning candidate for manager Terry Francona and could even work in the eighth if Bryan Shaw is ineffective or overworked. With the list of candidates for open spots in the bullpen being a combination of veterans coming off of bad seasons and other inexperienced and unproven arms at the Major League level, getting someone in the fold with success against MLB opposition in the past is a move that could make the Indians bullpen stronger in 2016.
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