How much money are the Cleveland Indians willing to put toward their vaunted bullpen?
That is something Tribe fans may find out this offseason. Arguably the best relief corps in baseball, the team has two key free agents in Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith. The bullpen would definitely have a different feel to it without Shaw, but to what lengths should the Tribe actually go to keep a reliever who is not one of its top two pitchers?
Shaw has been an absolute workhorse out of the bullpen for the Indians over the last five seasons. In three of those campaigns, he led the league in appearances, and in two of those, he led all of baseball. That includes this past season, when he threw in relief 79 times. He established a new career high with 80 outings in 2014. His low output was 70 games pitched in 2013, when he was new to the Tribe and manager Terry Francona was figuring out just what he had in what was then still a young arm.
Shaw has pitched nearly every other game for the Indians for five years and has been pretty good. At times, he has been great. However, the pitching-rich Indians will need to decide how much they are willing to spend on a reliever who, while very good, was their third or fourth best arm out of the bullpen at times during the 2017 season.
Cleveland already has more than $16 million tied up in its best two relievers. All-Star and bullpen ace Andrew Miller is due to make $9 million in 2018, the final year of his contract. Closer Cody Allen has one more arbitration-eligible season. He made $7.3 million this past year and did nothing to make you think that bill would be lower. His salary will surely go up a chunk (MLB Trade Rumors projects a figure of $10.8 million) and could be in line for a long-term contract this spring from the Tribe.
The Indians will need to decide just how much they want to break the bank on their bullpen. Shaw made $4.6 million last season. He will be 30 at the start of the new year. This is the first time he has been a free agent and you can be sure he is seeking a multi-year deal. Three or four years in the $6-$7 million range per season is probably about what it will take to ink a contract for a player who has been amazingly consistent for a reliever.
Many relief pitchers are prone to up and down years. They are rarely good every year. That is what makes Shaw so intriguing on the open market. In seven years in the Majors (including his first two with the Diamondbacks), Shaw has not had a bad year. He has had very good years and decent years, but no bad ones. A manager can put Shaw into the ‘pen and be sure of 70-80 appearances, with a certainty that most will end well. That really is all you can ask of any relief pitcher, especially one who usually pitches in tight spots with games on the line.
Some Cleveland fans have soured on Shaw over the year. That, however, is because he pitches so often and is not afraid to take the ball when it matters most. Because of that, Shaw has memorably lost some late games. People always remember when a set-up guy or late-inning reliever lets a game get away, rather than when he pitches a ho-hum, 1-2-3 frame to keep his team ahead, tied, or in striking distance, as Shaw has done many more times than not.
Shaw’s worst season out of his seven big league campaigns was actually this year. His 3.52 ERA was not great, but hardly alarming (consider a couple of really bad outings can truly skew a reliever’s numbers). However, if there is one cause for concern with the Tribe’s workhorse, it is that his numbers have declined over the past few years.
Shaw’s ERA in 2014 was a very good 2.59. It was his best since his 2.54 of his rookie year in 2011. It has risen each year since. In 2015 it was 2.95, then 3.24 in 2016, and then the 3.52 of this past summer. Whether all of the appearances logged and innings pitched have cause some wear and tear is unknown, but it is certainly a possibility. It could be the one thing that causes interested suitors to lower the relief specialist’s asking price.
If there is a team out there willing to give Shaw several years and $6 million or more per season, the Indians may have to think long and hard about bringing him back. That would be a lot of money to give three relievers. Consider, on the Indians, Shaw is at best the third bullpen option. Another team may view him as a No. 2 or even a lesser expensive No. 1 option, with the potential to slide into the closer’s role.
Cleveland may also lean toward bringing back Smith over Shaw. Smith was added by the Tribe in July as a trade-deadline deal. It was a bit of an unheralded move, but Smith has been a quality reliever since his debut in 2007. It was a homecoming for Smitty, who had been with the Indians from 2010-2013. Oddly enough, he was deemed expendable after the 2013 season because the Indians had learned that year that Shaw could be an effective and cheaper replacement. It could go the other way this winter.
While Smith has been a very good reliever and amazingly consistent for 11 years, he is almost essentially an older version of Shaw. Smith’s 3.83 ERA in 2010 was the worst of his career. Again, for a reliever to go that long without a truly bad season is pretty special.
Smith had a 3.33 ERA in 59 outings between Toronto and Cleveland. It was 3.44 in 21 games with the Tribe. His career ERA is 2.97. While Shaw has had very good years in the past, Smith has had some elite relief seasons. He topped out at a 1.81 ERA in 76 games for the 2014 Angels. He had a 2.01 ERA in 2011 and 2.29 ERA in 2013, both with the Tribe. Those are outstanding campaigns out of the ‘pen.
Where Smith could come cheaper than Shaw is due to age. Smith is about four years older than Shaw, who will turn 30 in less than two weeks. Smith will be 34 when the first pitch of 2018 is tossed. His days of getting a long-term deal are probably over, as teams tend to shy away from giving relievers long, hefty contracts when they are in their mid 30s. At most, he would perhaps garner two seasons around the $10 million mark in total (he played for $3 million last season after making more than $5 million in each of the three previous years). That would be affordable for the Tribe.
Smith’s price tag may be even lower considering he has not hit 60 appearances in either of the last two years. In his prime, from 2011-2015, Smith hit 70 or more for relief outings. That is coming down with age, as it naturally would.
Even considering that, Smith could still slide right into Shaw’s role as the Tribe’s No. 3 reliever and a key go-to guy in the seventh or eighth inning, with an ability to close on occasions that Allen and/or Miller need a night off.
The Tribe’s ‘pen is deep, beyond the big arms. Guys like Zach McAllister, Nick Goody, and Dan Otero give the Indians a plethora of trusted arms to count on out of the ‘pen that most teams would love to have.
Between all of the relievers on hand and the chance to keep Smith on what could be a more team-friendly contract, it could mean Shaw is expendable.
When Smith was about to hit 30, four years ago, Cleveland allowed him to walk away. The bullpen has not skipped a beat. It could happen again with another 30-year old. It would definitely be odd to see a Tribe ‘pen without its workhorse, but for what Shaw would cost and considering his role and gradually declining numbers, he may not be worth to the Indians what he could be worth to a team willing to spend a lot of money for the chance that he could resemble more frequently the reliever that he was in his 2014 and ’15 seasons.
Shaw is worth keeping for the Indians, but the only question is, at what cost? We may find that out in the next month or so.
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