Indians Bullpen Took Free Agent Hits, But Hardly Crumbling

When a baseball team loses a pair of late-inning relievers to free agency, as the Cleveland Indians did this past week, it is certainly cause for some concern and worry. However, it is nowhere near time for Tribe fans to start hitting the panic button when it comes to Cleveland’s bullpen and its prospects for remaining a team strength in 2018.

Watching Bryan Shaw sign with the Colorado Rockies and then Joe Smith ink a deal with the Houston Astros was definitely frustrating for the faithful followers of the Wahoo Warriors. The sky is not falling and the walls are not caving in, however, at the home bullpen at Progressive Field.

Of the two, Shaw was undoubtedly the biggest loss for the Tribe. Shaw has been one of Terry Francona‘s must trusted relievers since the pitcher and manager both came aboard the Indians’ ship in 2013. In five seasons with Cleveland, Shaw made more appearances than any other reliever in game during that time. While he had a tendency to frustrate Indians fans with late-game meltdowns, including Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, Shaw typically got the job done and was one of the better setup men in all of baseball during his half decade with the Tribe.

Smith, on the other hand, was a new old friend who came back to Cleveland after more than three seasons away this past July. Smith was a trusted bullpen arm for the Indians from 2009-2013. His last season of his first go-round with the Tribe coincided with Francona’s first campaign guiding the Indians. Smith signed a rich contract with the Angels after the 2013 season ended. He came back to the Tribe in a deadline deal with the Blue Jays this past summer.

Both Shaw, who is 30, and Smith, who will be 34 on Opening Day, have had long, steady careers as relievers. However, neither is a devastating blow to Cleveland’s 2018 outlook.

Shaw actually was declining the last few years. Maybe there really was something to the growing fan angst and anxiety when he took the mound in his last couple of seasons with Cleveland. His best season donning the Wahoo Red, White, and Blue was his second one in 2014. He had a 2.59 ERA in 80 appearances. That was a career-high in games pitched and only his 2011 rookie season with a 2.54 ERA in Arizona has been better.

Since Shaw’s second Indians summer, it has been downhill, though not unsightly. His ERA dipped to a still respectable 2.95 in 2015. It was 3.24 in 2016 and 3.52 in 2017. That steady increase in runs allowed on the mound had to give Cleveland management something to ponder over the past week or two when the idea of losing the workhorse reliever became a real possibility. It is quite possible that his workload of 70 or more outings for five straight years may be wearing on him. The three years and $27 million he received is quite the price tag for a pitcher whose best years are probably behind him.

The same goes for Smith. It was a bit shocking that he received two years and $15 million from the Astros. Usually a pitcher nearing his mid-30s with mixed results recently will not get more than one year. Like Shaw, Smith’s best years are pretty much in the past. He has not been an elite-level reliever since his 1.81 ERA in 76 games during the 2014 campaign. Since then, he has been over 3.00 for three consecutive years. in his 21 game with the Tribe during the final two months of 2017, he was at 3.44.

What the Indians lost were two workhorses who had their share of tough outings. Most of the time each was good, but neither was unhittable.

To that end, what the Indians still have in their bullpen is as good as any team’s corps of relievers in all of Major League Baseball.

Cody Allen remains one of the game’s better closers. He is one of Francona’s most-trusted relievers, having pitched for the Tribe skipper since 2013, just like Shaw. Then, of course, there is Andrew Miller. Miller was a 2017 All-Star before injuries derailed the second half of his season. When healthy, Miller is arguably the best reliever in baseball. He was the MVP of the 2016 ALCS for the Tribe, a rare honor for a relief pitcher to earn. He was just that good all through that postseason run and is that good in general. He is a true superstar and a great setup guy to Allen, able to step into the ninth inning role when needed. He can pitch multiple innings and pitch at any point in a game. With most teams, he would be the closer. Having Allen and Miller is as good a 1-2 bullpen punch as there can be in the sport.

After those two relief stars is where losing Shaw and Smith could be felt. Both Shaw and Smith were trusted enough by Francona to use in the latter stages of a game if he felt one of his top two guys needed a night off. Shaw, especially, pitched the ninth inning every now and then. The moment never seemed too big, at least for him.

Now it will be up to some of the other Tribe relievers and maybe even a starter or two to step up and fill those late-inning voids. It’s not as if the Indians do not have good options. Cleveland’s bullpen was actually loaded last year.

Zach McAllister and Dan Otero have been fixtures in the Indians ‘pen the past couple years. McAllister, a converted former Tribe starter, had a 2.61 ERA, while Otero, in his second season with the Indians, was at 2.85. Both had very good seasons.

Nick Goody, scooped up last winter from the Yankees, shined brightly in his second full MLB season. He posted a 2.80 ERA in 56 games and the future seems bright for the 26-year-old. If anyone could fill the old Shaw role, it could actually be Goody.

Then there’s Tyler Olson. A spring training invitee last year after the Indians signed him midway through 2016, he spend most of the first half of 2017 at Triple-A Columbus. A bit of late bloomer, Olson was technically a rookie in 2017 at the age of 27. He’d spent parts of two other seasons in the Majors but not long enough to shed rookie status. Olson filled in for Miller when he was hurt and the Indians wanted a lefty in the bullpen. Olson actually pitched like he was Miller. In 30 games, covering 20 frames, the southpaw did not allow a single run. While the Indians kept Goody, McAllister, and Otero off their 2017 postseason roster in favor of putting starters into relief roles, Olson was on the team for the ALDS. He opened a lot of eyes in a short time.

The Indians are going into 2018 with what is currently a group of six relievers that are locks or near-locks to be in the bullpen on Opening Day. That really only leaves room for one or two more arms in the ‘pen. Francona likes to carry eight relievers on the roster, while the norm is seven.

Cleveland does not need to make splashy move in the ‘pen. A low-key veteran signing or two is all that is really needed (and may have already happened with the offseason additions of Jeff Beliveau, Leonel CamposEvan Marshall, Alexi Ogando, and Neil Ramirez). Even with the losses of Shaw and Smith, there are still plenty of good pitchers Francona can turn to after his starter has left the hill.

Will Shaw and Smith be missed? They certainly will. Are their losses going to destroy a bullpen that still has two elite-level hurlers and four that are in the range of good to very good? Hardly. Even with the loss of two veteran innings-eaters, the bullpen cupboard is not bare for Francona. He may not get to see the friendly face of Shaw on a near every other game basis, but he should still like what he sees in any reliever that he may call for in Shaw’s old sixth or seventh inning role.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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