Indians Finding Good Options, Tough Decisions For Lone Open Bullpen Spot

A lot of years it seems as though the Cleveland Indians go into spring training with countless veteran and minor league pitchers looking to fill the void of several open bullpen spots.

This 2017 spring camp is not exactly like a lot of years.

As in past offseasons, the Tribe did invite a good number of veterans looking for work, as well as young hurlers, to Goodyear, Arizona, for spring training. Part of the infusion of a large number of arms was due to the recently ended World Baseball Classic and the need to fill the void left behind by players going off to represent their countries in the event that goes on every four years.

Unlike past Februaries and Marches in the Arizona sun, there is not much of a void for the Indians to fill in a loaded bullpen that rates among the best in the game. There are a lot pitchers in camp looking for a job, but that opportunity is very elusive.

There is likely just one open spot available in the 2017 Cleveland Indians relief corps. There could be two. However, with injury concerns and the need to juggle players in the outfield, it seems close to certain that the Indians will opt to carry four bench players and a seven member pen. Manager Terry Francona has been known to bump the amount of relievers to eight, but that would seem unnecessary early in the season when pitchers should not be tired and there are a steady number of off days.

There is only one bullpen vacancy sign because Cleveland came into this year’s spring training with an abundance of talented bullpen arms. It is a rarity to open training camp knowing six relief spots are essentially filled, but that is where the Tribe currently stands.

The Indians have one of the best relievers in all of baseball in the left-handed Andrew Miller. While he can close games, Francona prefers to pick his spot with his best bullpen arm and use him in any tight, late-game situation. The closing duties go to Cody Allen, who is among the most reliable ninth-inning workers in the game. The right-handed Bryan Shaw has been a consistent setup man over the last four seasons. Dan Otero had the lowest ERA on the Tribe’s pitching staff last season. Zach McAllister is a proven veteran arm out of the pen. Lefty Boone Logan was a free agent addition to give the Indians a second quality southpaw in the pen. That is six pitchers that are essentially assured of breaking camp in Cleveland’s bullpen when spring training ends Friday and final decisions have to be made by next weekend.

With six spots spoken for, there is but one spot, one golden ticket, to the big leagues available to a bevvy of relievers that have been working hard to open eyes in camp. Three names have really stood out this spring and those are your likely leaders in the clubhouse to nab that last pitching job on Cleveland’s strong roster of throwers.

Shawn Armstrong is the most recognizable name for Indians fans. He has been up and down with the Tribe for a couple seasons now. He has been pretty good in his limited opportunities with the Indians in 2015 and 2016. In 18 Major League games, covering 18.2 innings, he has a 2.41 ERA. The hard thrower has struck out 18 batters – an impressive number of nearly one per inning. However, he has also issued seven walks. He has had some command issues and Cleveland management has not viewed him as a finished product the last couple years. The 26-year-old has been a closer for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers the last couple years. It is likely Cleveland did not want to take him from those duties if he was not going to stick or make a major impact at the Major League level.

Cleveland’s 2011 18th-round amateur draft selection may be hard to keep off the big league roster when final decisions on the 25-man roster are made in the coming week. He has had an impressive go so far in Goodyear. He has appeared in eight Cactus League contests, working 9.2 innings. He has yet to cede an earned run. He has fanned nine batters and walked two. This may be the year Armstrong puts it all together and enjoys a fruitful season in Cleveland.

However, others have shown well for themselves in Arizona. Nick Goody spent the last two seasons shuttling between Triple-A and the big leagues with the New York Yankees. The 25-year-old appeared in 27 games last year with the Bronx Bombers. A 4.66 ERA is likely why they were willing to let him go.

This spring, Goody is showing that maybe all he needed was some time to blossom. He has tossed nine frames, surrendering just one earned run. He has been nearly as good at Armstrong. The race for the seventh and perhaps final bullpen spot could very well come down to them.

However, there is one other name. Carlos Frias is a 27-year-old who appeared in 33 games with the Dodgers over the last three seasons. He has an unimpressive 4.50 ERA in those appearances, yet has acquitted himself nicely with the Indians during spring training. A 3.60 ERA in five innings may not put him on the Opening Day roster, but should at least put him on the map as a guy who could help at some point this summer.

Another familiar name to Indians fans is in a similar boat as Frias. The left-handed Kyle Crockett probably will not be in the bullpen when the regular season opens a week from tomorrow. Yet, he has served up a reminder in Arizona that he could still be a solid situational lefty should Logan not get over his Cactus League struggles.

The 25-year-old Crockett has had some issues the last two seasons after an impressive rookie campaign in 2014. He had an amazing 1.80 ERA in 43 outings during his debut season and looked to be the future go-to relief left-hander for years to come for Francona and the Tribe. Unfortunately, the ERA jumped to 4.08 in 31 games his second season and continued to rise last year to 5.06 over 29 2016 affairs. This spring, though, he has allowed just three runs in nine innings and looks to maybe still be on the radar as a guy the Tribe could still count on at some point over the course of the season.

Those four pitchers are probably the most important relievers to know after the Tribe’s top six. That last bullpen spot is more than likely going to come down to Armstrong or Goody, barring a final week of training camp shocker. With one earned run in 18.2 frames between the two, it is hard to go wrong with either selection.

Both Armstrong and Goody are on Cleveland’s 40-man roster, so a spot would not have to be open for either one. The difference could very well come down to the fact that Armstrong has been in the Indians organization for nearly six years. The team has spent time and money developing him, where it has not in Goody’s case.

No matter who opens the year in Cleveland, the other will be waiting to follow. The Indians are finding that they are going to have some talented arms down in Columbus. Depth in the bullpen is not a bad thing. You never know when a guy on the big league roster could falter or get hurt.

Armstrong and Goody are showing the Indians may actually have eight viable relievers on the roster. Frias and Crockett would argue that it is ten. Even Francona, who loves using relievers, knows that is too many for a 25-man roster. However, the bullpen may be even more loaded than one may think when simply looking at the club’s top six.

Photo: Duane Burleson/Getty Images

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