Belisle Named Winner in Tribe’s Spring Training Bullpen Battle

With less than a week until the Indians open the 2018 regular season in Seattle with a three-game series against the Mariners, the roster is starting to take shape.

Manager Terry Francona announced that 37-year-old veteran right-hander Matt Belisle had won a spot on the team’s relief staff, ending several months of speculation as to which pitcher would join the returning arms out of the bullpen.

In a corresponding move, fellow veteran righty Carlos Torres was granted his unconditional release after exercising the opt-out in his minor league tender with the club.

“Obviously, these are difficult decisions to make and I don’t think we would’ve made a wrong decision adding either guy,” said Francona on Saturday morning regarding the decision to take Belisle over Torres. “I don’t think it’s so much that somebody didn’t do something. I just think, in the end, you look at Belisle’s track record and the way he carries himself. I mean, there’s more than just the innings he pitches. He’s such a leader-type of guy.

“As hard as it was to talk to Torres, on the flip side, that’s how good it feels to talk to Belisle. So, there’s certainly a lot of mixed emotions this morning.”

The bullpen was clearly a focus of the Indians in the offseason as they brought in what seemed to be a never-ending list of candidates to vie for a spot on the staff while the club looked to buffer the losses of right-handers Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith from last season’s ‘pen. Shaw signed a three-year deal with Colorado in the offseason, while Smith inked a two-year deal with Houston.

Belisle was one of the final arms brought to Goodyear to compete for a spot with the club, signing officially with the team on February 25. He will slot into Francona’s seven-man bullpen alongside right-handers Cody Allen, Nick Goody, Zach McAllister, and Dan Otero and left-handers Andrew Miller and Tyler Olson.

Belisle and Torres appeared to be the two focal candidates for the job, as each has made ten appearances in Cactus League play while putting up some similar numbers along the way. Both posted 6.10 ERAs, and while Belisle had given up more hits than Torres in the same number of innings pitched (10 1/3), he also allowed just one walk to Torres’ six. Torres also gave up two home runs during the spring.

In addition to Belisle and Torres, other arms in camp who had a shot at a job in the bullpen included offseason additions Jeff Beliveau, Preston Claiborne, Stephen Fife, Evan Marshall, Alexi Ogando, Neil Ramirez, Ben Taylor, Adam Wilk, and Robert Zarate, and returning minor league non-roster invites Louis Head, Cameron Hill, and Josh Martin.

Belisle brings plenty of big league experience with him to the Tribe’s bullpen. A second round pick by the Atlanta Braves in 1998, he has pitched in 14 different Major League seasons and has successfully converted from starting pitching to relief work. He has been able to rack up some innings over the course of his career out of the bullpen, making 72 or more appearances from 2010 to 2013 while exceeding 60 appearances in six of the last eight years. Some of his best work as a reliever came at the pitching-unfriendly Coors Field while with the Colorado Rockies from 2009 to 2014.

Last year, he appeared in 62 games for the Minnesota Twins, posting a 2-2 record with a 4.03 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP, and nine saves (the most of his career). While his walk rate was up last season compared to prior years, he allowed his fewest hits per nine innings in his career and his 8.1 strikeouts per nine rate was the second-best results that he had seen at the MLB level. He was able to step up into the closer’s role for the first time in his career during the second half of the season after the Twins dealt Brandon Kintzler to the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline.

Belisle has also pitched for the Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Washington organizations during his 18 years in professional baseball.

Photo: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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