Francona Not Ready to Change Setup Man, Though May Be Time to Consider it

On Friday night, Cleveland Indians setup man Bryan Shaw did what he has done so many times before in his tenure with the Tribe, now in its fourth season. He threw a shutout inning in a close game to help preserve what would become a much-needed 3-2 victory for the Indians over the Chicago White Sox.

This is nothing Tribe fans have not seen countless times before. The hard-throwing Shaw has made a living up carving up opposing offenses late in games. He has been manager Terry Francona‘s most trusted relief pitcher, perhaps outside of closer Cody Allen, since Tito took the reins as Cleveland’s skipper in 2013.

That fact is probably why Francona now is sticking with Shaw as his setup man as the late-inning specialist has struggled more than he has at any point in his six-year big league career.

Shaw gave the Indians a glimpse of the shutdown arm he has been in prior seasons with a splendid month of May. However, he book-ended that with a miserable April to start this season and what is now turning into a June to forget.

Even in tossing Friday’s scoreless frame (something Shaw had not done in his previous three outings), there was drama and the worry that the veteran reliever would allow the other team to again tie a game or take a lead.

On Tuesday night, Shaw had been inserted into the game as the Indians clung to a 2-1 edge over the Royals. The Tribe was looking to even up the three-game series at a game apiece and ensure itself of a .500 record on its ten-game road trip. Shaw ended up surrendering a two-run homer to Salvador Perez and Cleveland lost 3-2.

Three days before that, Saturday the 11th, the Indians had shocked the Angels with a three-run top of the ninth against closer Huston Street. The Tribe had tied the game at 3-3 and turned the bottom of the ninth duties over the Shaw. Shaw faced four batters in the stanza, the final one being Yunel Escobar, who knocked in the game-winning run with a base hit.

On June 9, Shaw entered a contest in Seattle with the Tribe holding a 5-2 edge. He coughed up a Robinson Cano solo home run to make the score closer. He then put Indians fans on the edge of their seats when he allowed two of the next three batters to reach, giving the Mariners a chance with two on and two out. Allen relieved to end the threat and earned a four-out save.

Those three outings are the reason Tribe faithful began to worry on Friday when Tim Anderson opened the eighth with a single and then stole second as Adam Eaton struck out. It put a runner in scoring position with one out. He was but 90 feet from knotting the game at even when Jose Abreu grounded out. An intentional walk to Melky Cabrera put Shaw in a dicey situation with the slugging Todd Frazier at the plate and two aboard. Shaw reared back and summoned his past success in fanning Frazier to end the threat. It kept Cleveland’s one-run lead in tact. Even though the Tribe would lose the lead in the ninth, the Indians were able to come back and win in their last at bat and Shaw’s ability to wriggle out of a late-game jam was a big reason why.

One who looks at the glass as half full could say Shaw pitched brilliantly against the White Sox’s best hitters. He was only in a messy situation because of a steal and the intentional walk. Otherwise, he made very good hitters in Eaton, Abreu, and Frazier look feeble.

One who looks at the glass as half empty could say Shaw was one bad pitch away from what would have been a fourth straight disappointing outing.

Francona, for one, is on the glass half full side. He is sticking by his setup man. He said after Friday’s game that Shaw’s stuff has actually been as good as it has ever been. That is strong praise for a guy who posted a 2.95 ERA last year and a 2.59 ERA in 2014. In 2013, Shaw’s first year with Cleveland, it was 3.24. That makes three very good relief seasons in a row for the Wahoo Warriors. It was much of the same in his first two Major League seasons, as he was a trusted arm for the Arizona Diamondbacks. There are not a lot of relief pitchers who have five straight seasons of sub-4.00 ERAs like Shaw had coming into this campaign. The ones who do are generally the cream of the crop.

Shaw has been as good a late-inning reliever as anyone in the majors over the last few seasons. It is understandable that Francona wants that magic to return and wants Shaw to remain as the Tribe’s setup man, despite his tendencies to get hit this season.

It is hard to look past Shaw’s April in which he was 0-1 with a 9.64 ERA. It is getting increasingly difficult to ignore a June in which he is 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA. In May, Shaw was great as he had a 1.54 ERA in 13 appearances. That makes for just one outstanding month versus two that have been hard to watch.

Francona does not think his 28-year-old right-hander is far off, as he has simply hung some pitches he should not have. Perhaps, however, it is time for Cleveland’s manager, who has few flaws but is notorious for sticking by his trusted veterans a little too long at times, to put the baseball in someone else’s hands in late-game scenarios for a little while.

The Indians have the relievers to give a chance. Joba Chamberlain and Dan Otero have both been veteran surprises this year. They have both worked well in late-inning situations through their careers. Zach McAllister could also be a trusted late-inning worker. However, the converted starter is a commodity as someone who can be a long reliever when a Tribe starter has rough outing.

If Francona is correct and Shaw is not far off from being the trusted reliever he once was, maybe having him find his more electric and consistent stuff in less pressure-packed situations would be something to consider. He could pitch more in games that are not close or in the sixth or seventh innings, where mistakes are not nearly as magnified as they are in the eighth and ninth.

Whatever the case, the Indians really need Shaw to be the workhorse he has been over the years. A bullpen can make or break a season. Allen, despite his second blown save of the season on Friday, has been his mostly solid self. He and the Indians need Shaw to be able to get him the lead in the ninth as he has so many times before. It would be great if he could flip a switch and just get it done now. If a temporary demotion to earlier innings needs to happen, it would be a tough call for Francona, but one that may unfortunately be the correct one at this point.

The Indians, in a close race for the American League Central Division, cannot afford to lose close late leads. Shaw used to be the guy to keep those in tact. He may still be able to again. Indians fans have seen it time and again, but now they are seeing rough outings pile up. Giving someone else a chance to bridge the gap from middle innings to closer should be a strong consideration.

Photo: Tony Dejak/Associated Press

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