If someone had told you before this baseball season began that the Cleveland Indians bullpen would have some issues and be the weakest part of the ball club, you might have though the team was going to in bad shape by the campaign’s midway point.
By the same token, if someone had told you in March that the Tribe’s offense would be nearly as responsible for a strong first half as the team’s vaunted rotation, you might have though you were being lied to. Especially if it was added that Michael Brantley would miss most of the season’s first 100 games and Yan Gomes would have one of the lowest batting averages in the game. Those two have been key pieces to Cleveland’s batting order over the last few years.
However, here we are as the post All-Star break portion of the schedule has just gotten under way. The bullpen has been average at best and suspect at various times in the season. Closer Cody Allen has not been lights out, but has at least gotten the job done a lot more times than not. After that, most of the rest of the relievers have either performed below expectations, not pitched enough to gauge, or are young and/or inexperienced in their role.
The offense, even with minimal contributions from Brantley and Gomes, has performed better than most lineups in the American League. The team batting average heading into play Saturday is middle of the road at 8th, compared to other offensive units in the A.L. Meanwhile, the Indians are 5th in runs scored and 6th in home runs hit.
Two of the driving forces behind the offense humming along better than expected have been Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli. Santana is one of the longer-tenured players on the Indians, having debuted in 2010. Napoli was a veteran free agent, the club took a flyer on with a one-year contract. Both are on pace for more than 30 home runs. While both have shown power in the past, neither was coming off a particularly strong 2015 showing. Both are exceeding expectations.
The Tribe has also gotten more than it could have bargained for from veteran offseason addition Rajai Davis, rookie Tyler Naquin and utility man Jose Ramirez, who has been Mr. Clutch for the Indians, one year after looking completely lost against Major League pitching.
Players performing better than hoped for is a big reason Cleveland’s offense has done so well without the usual contributions from Brantley and Gomes. Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis, the only two guys in the lineup meeting their career numbers, have not been stuck shouldering the load.
On the flip side, the bullpen has been below expectations. Thankfully, for the Indians, a starting rotation billed as one of the game’s best and living up to that has made it so manager Terry Francona has not had to overuse the ‘pen and expose a unit that is weaker than it’s been in years.
The good news in the relief corps is that closer Allen has been solid. He has 19 saves and a good 2.72 ERA. He has not been unhittable, getting into jams on more than one occasion, but has usually gotten the outs when he has needed them.
Along with Allen, Dan Otero has been an excellent free agent find. He has a 1.27 ERA, tops among any pitcher that has spent most of the season in Cleveland. Last year’s veteran diamond in the rough, Jeff Manship, has continued to impress with a 2.05 ERA. The problem is, both are middle relievers. Neither pitches in high-impact situations; neither one really has in their careers. Otero has five saves in five seasons, Manship has never saved a game in seven years.
Late-inning relief work, aside from Allen, has been spotty for the Indians and the team’s Achilles heel to this point. It has improved of late, however. After setup man Bryan Shaw labored through a horrendous April and difficult stretch to start June, fans and media were wondering if the Tribe needed to seek out a new eighth-inning specialist. It got to the point in early June where manager Francona had to defend his setup guy, who had been one of the team’s better relievers since 2013.
However, Shaw has turned a corner since then and seems to be back to his old, slam-the-doors, late-in-games self. His ERA is down to 3.72 after two scoreless innings Saturday. That is a far cry from the 5.68 it was at on June 14 when he had given up at least one run in three straight games and chatter about his job security grew to a fever pitch. In 13 outings since, Shaw has not allowed a single run.
Talk has calmed about the need for a new setup man. However, talk has not ceased that the Tribe could use another late-inning relief specialist. While Allen and Shaw have been excellent, especially lately, having just those two for Francona to trust is an issue. The ‘pen is clearly not deep enough.
Converted starer Zach McAllister appeared to be a possible late-inning answer last year with a successful first full season of relief work. However, this year the wheels seem to have come off and he has not been the same. He is now injured, but was having issues finding his form of 2015 before that.
The Indians seem to have four guys right now who can get outs regularly out of the ‘pen. None of them are lefties. Cleveland could use another reliable arm in the ‘pen and could really use a lefty.
Needs currently are greater in the ‘pen than the batting lineup. Few, if anyone, would have guessed that before this season began. It is a little surprising, however, as the signs of this coming did seem to be there during the winter free agency period.
During the offseason, Cleveland management signed anyone and everyone who was available and could throw a baseball reasonably well. When it came to shoring up the everyday lineup it was with solid veterans who had had previous track records of success, even if that was not last year.
It seemed the Indians’ deep thinkers were more concerned with having reliable arms behind Allen and Shaw than adding to a young lineup that may have just needed time to grown and gel to become a strong unit.
Sure, the Indians could perhaps use another dependable bat before the deadline to protect against a guy or two having a career year from falling off. However, the need for the Tribe is more glaring in the bullpen. That is a true statement. So, too, is that the Indians carried the best record in the American League into Saturday night’s game. If you had told someone that was possible with the relief pitching being suspect, you may have thought you were being lied to.
You were not.
Photo: Aaron Josefczyk/Associated Press