Nearly every baseball team that finds success in any given season can point to unexpected contributions from a player or two along the way. The Cleveland Indians had several of those during their 2016 run to Game 7 of the World Series.
Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez certainly fit that bill. However, both of those players are young and were hoped to eventually become solid Major League contributors at some point in their careers. It just happened that that point came this past season.
For last year’s Indians, the most unexpected important contributor to the success of the team was a guy who was on three rosters in a span of a month and a half.
Reliever Dan Otero bounced from Oakland to Philadelphia to Cleveland between November 3 and December 18. The Phillies claimed Otero off waivers from the Athletics shortly after the 2015 baseball season ended. He never pitched a game for the Phils as he was put back on waivers and claimed in mid-December by an Indians team that spent last offseason adding any available veteran arm to what they felt was a short supply of relievers.
Such is life for a pitcher who had a miserable go of things for the A’s two seasons ago. In 2015, Otero had a rough season with an ERA that imploded to 6.75. After two very good years in Oakland, it seemed Otero might be one of those flash-in-the-pan type guys who would spend a career bouncing between the Majors and Triple-A. Perhaps if he were lucky he could stick somewhere in a team’s back of the bullpen.
He joined a whole host of relief pitchers (who went to the Tribe’s spring training camp a year ago on minor league deals) hoping to emerge with a Major League roster spot. Otero did just that, breaking camp with the Indians.
Otero earned the trust of Tribe manager Terry Francona pretty quickly. The 31-year-old was untouchable in April, not allowing a run in six appearances. He was something of a godsend for Cleveland, which suffered from a shallow ‘pen in 2015. Heading into last winter, the only sure things were closer Cody Allen, setup man Bryan Shaw, and 2015’s shocking performer, Jeff Manship.
The veteran right-hander gave up a couple of runs in May. However, the successes opposing team had against Otero were few and far between. It wasn’t until Otero’s 28th outing on July 2 that a team scored more than one run off arguably the team’s most surprising player in 2016 and it took the big bats of the Blue Jays to do it. He surrendered two runs two other times all season. That means in 59 of 62 games pitched, Otero allowed either one run or zero and typically, it was zero. Add it all up and the veteran completely wiped out any memories of his porous 2015 with a sterling 1.53 ERA in Year 1 with the Indians.
Last year’s newcomer proved himself to be very valuable. If a starter had a bad outing, he could pitch well early in a game, helping the Indians stay in a contest that may have otherwise gotten away or allowing the club to not waste too many relievers in one day. Otero also became a trusted late-game reliever for Francona. If Allen, Shaw, or trade-deadline addition and star reliever Andrew Miller needed a breather for a game, the Tribe skipper was not afraid to use Otero in a tight spot with a game on the line.
Even in a postseason dominated by Miller and Allen, Otero became one of the four relievers (with Shaw rounding out the group) that Francona was willing to use in a close game. He allowed two runs in six and two-thirds playoff innings, proving he could maintain a strong level of success under some of the brightest lights.
Allen, Miller, and Shaw got a lot of the publicity, and rightly so, out of Cleveland’s ‘pen last year. The trio may be the best of any relief corps in the big leagues. Add in the success of Otero and the Indians had four arms that they could truly trust out of the ‘pen last season. Almost any team in baseball would love to have that, especially when you throw in the fact that Cleveland’s vaunted rotation will pitch deep into a lot of games, thus making it so that Francona does not need to dig too deep into his group of bullpen arms on many nights.
As the calendar now flips to 2017 and spring training is less than two months from starting, the Indians know what to expect from its top three relievers. Allen and Shaw have been Francona’s two most trusted relievers since the two-time World Series-winning manager took over the squad in 2013. Miller should continue to be one of the top five relievers in the game. The question is whether Otero can continue to make the ‘pen four elite relievers deep.
The Athletics thought that they had a relief pitching specialist in their ‘pen as Otero terrorized MLB hitting in 2013 and 2014 with ERAs of 1.38 and 2.28 in those campaigns. The cliff that he fell from in his third Oakland season was sudden and unexpected.
It was that final season was the A’s that made Otero’s dominant performance in 2016 equally unexpected on the other side of the ledger. Of course, the fact that he was able to rebound so nicely from a miserable year says 2015 may have been a blip on the radar. In three of four seasons, Otero pitched at a high level in relief.
Unlike a year ago, Otero is going to go to Goodyear, Arizona, with a spot in the bullpen locked down. He will not be competing with a host of veterans hoping to earn a roster spot and resurrect a career on life support. Otero has earned an important place at the top of the Tribe’s ‘pen. Along with Zach McAllister, he is one of five relievers who can rest pretty easily about joining the Indians for the first series of the regular season in Arlington, Texas.
Last year, Otero needed the Indians to jump start his career and get it back on track. He was able to do just that. Now, the Tribe needs Otero to stay on that track and continue to make its relief pitching among the deepest in the game, a far cry from two years ago. While Miller and Allen get the most praise, it is the likes of Otero that help to take the ‘pen from very good to quite possibly elite.
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