In the blink of an eye, an injury or a sudden bout of ineffectiveness can happen and turn an organizational strength into a weakness. It is, in part, what makes bullpens so volatile and unpredictable from year to year.
The Cleveland Indians have had a knack of building strong bullpen committees over recent memory, powered by quality back end relievers and reliable fill-ins. But unlike in recent years, the bullpen seems much more up for grabs this spring as a dozen candidates fight to fill a few holes on the Indians roster as members of Terry Francona’s relief corps.
With some uncertainty as to who could win one of the spots up for grabs, the more contestants for the battle, the better. And the Indians front office certainly took that approach, adding a handful of players on low risk minor league invites to camp to compete against and/or push some of the young talent returning from years past. One such option is Craig Stammen, a right-handed reliever who is playing for his first new organization after spending his entire seven-year Major League career as a member of the Washington Nationals franchise.
Stammen, who turned 32 on Wednesday, was a roster casualty of the Nationals in December after being non-tendered. The club was said to have some concerns about his return from the flexor tendon surgery he had performed on his right wrist last season, despite Stammen stating that he felt strong and had already begun a throwing regimen at the time. He was set to make approximately $2.4 million in arbitration, despite playing in only five games during the 2015 season, which may have been another contributing factor as the two sides were reportedly not close in their discussions.
After a career of good health, Stammen landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career very early in the 2015 season and required surgery on a pair of flexor tendons in his right forearm that were almost completely torn. He had been fully cleared by the team’s medical staff in August but was not rushed back by the club.
Prior to his five scoreless outings in 2015, when he logged four innings and allowed two hits and three walks while striking out three, Stammen had been one of the more heavily-used relievers in the game and was reliable in the process.
The North Star, Ohio, native was drafted by Washington in the 12th round of the 2005 draft and began his Nationals career in 2009 as a starting pitcher. He remained in that capacity for the club through the trade deadline of the 2010 season, when continued struggles on the mound landed him in the bullpen.
He started the following season in the minors, working as a starter again, but was used in relief during two call-ups during the season with the Nationals. In a small seven-game sample, he was effective, earning a win and loss while allowing just one run on three hits with four walks and 12 strikeouts over ten and one-third innings.
He became a full-fledged member of the bullpen in 2012 and began a three-year stretch that ranked him the number one innings pitched reliever in that span, logging 242 2/3 innings for Washington on the mound as a middle reliever. He went 17-12 during those few seasons with a 2.93 ERA, his first career save, and 24 holds. He struck out a career-high 87 in 88 1/3 innings during his 6-1 campaign with a 2.34 ERA in 2012.
If he truly has returned to health, Stammen’s addition could be a significant one for the Indians bullpen. He would give the relief staff length that they are currently lacking, unless the club opts to bring the loser of the fifth starter battle back to Cleveland in a bullpen role. He has had success working multiple innings in an appearance – 24 of his 49 appearances in his last full season of work resulted in him pitching in parts of at least two different innings.
Stammen’s contract reportedly features an opt-out date of March 25th. In the event that he makes the roster, he will make a $1 million base salary, with opportunities for up to $2 million in additional performance incentives, mostly based on appearances, per The Washington Post.
That becomes a bit of a gray area now, as the team has already indicated that Stammen would not likely be ready in time for the opener.
“Craig probably won’t be ready to start the season on time,” said Francona on Thursday, February 17th, from the team’s complex in Goodyear, Arizona. “We told him that we need to monitor him because he has a career, not just a year. He understands that.
“I don’t want to remotely push,” Francona added in a March 3rd story on Cleveland.com. “We were really upfront with him. Opening Day is not the finish line. We don’t want to say every two days, ‘Hey man, you ready to pitch?’ We want him to come back, be 100 percent healthy, and then we’ll turn him loose.”
While the Indians wait to find out what, if any, contributions Stammen can make to their club over the course of the 2016 season, they will have to rely on the other dozen arms in camp competing for spots in the bullpen to provide Cleveland with some consistency at what has been one of the strengths of the team over the last several years.
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