Tribe Bullpen Has a Good Hand, With Questions on Other Arms

After several years of boasting one of the game’s best bullpens, including the 2016 version that nearly carried the club to a World Series championship, the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen took a major nose dive this past season.

The Tribe’s 2018 ‘pen was among the worst in the game. The unit’s 4.60 ERA was 25th out of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams. Among the five groups lower, only the Colorado Rockies were a playoff team. The Mets, Orioles, Royals, and Marlins had disastrous seasons.

Cleveland’s ‘pen was not able to submarine its regular season, though there were times it seemed it could. However, if the the Indians are to return to the 102-win level they were at in 2017 or the championship-caliber level they appeared to be at the past few years, they will need a return to prominence from the relief corps.

That could be easier said than done. The Tribe will have to almost completely redo the bullpen as the team tries to pull out of the relief wreckage of 2018.

The good news is that the Indians are covered in the closer role. Brad Hand, a two-time All-Star, will be the closer in 2019 and he is as good as they come at saving games. The ninth inning is covered.

Now the bad news – little else, if anything, can be called settled in Cleveland’s bullpen.

The Indians struck a trade deadline deal for Hand, in part to bolster their struggling group of relievers last season. The other key component of the deal was Hand’s contract has him under team control for several more seasons. That is important as Cleveland stands to lose two of its stalwarts from the back of the pen.

Long-time closer Cody Allen and All-Star lefty Andrew Miller are both set to be free agents this winter. Even though Allen slogged through the worst season of his big-league career, many pundits expect him to ink a multi-year contract with a club wealthy enough to throw money at a reliever who has proven to be a steady closer through the majority of his seven-year career coming off of a rough season. The Indians are not likely to be that squad, unless Allen’s price tag takes a surprising dip.

Miller, on the other hand, could find the market a little tougher. He is coming of a second straight season in which he had injury issues. When healthy, he has been an All-Star who many have considered among the top five relievers in all of baseball. There is a chance he may need to sign a one-year, make-good deal to prove his health and status among the game’s elite relievers. If that happens, he could return to the Tribe. However, there is a chance some team out there will be willing to take a chance at a two- or three-year deal. Cleveland, in a small market, is not a team that is really able to gamble on something like that.

Even though Allen and Miller ended 2018 nowhere near the 2016 versions of themselves that played postseason hero roles, the fact remains the real possibly of the Indians losing both would be a major blow to bullpen. There really is no one else in tow with the strong history of pitching at the end of games.

The Indians could also lose Oliver Perez, who became one of the club’s more trusted relievers after being picked up in May. The 37-year-old could garner interest and a nice contract from another team, even with his age crawling closer and closer to 40 with each passing day.

As far as the relievers who are likely to come back, veteran Dan Otero has closed games, but he is more of a middle reliever. He had a rough go this past season, leaving some to wonder if he can rebound back to his 2016 and 2017 forms that made him a valuable reliever to the Indians. If he can not return to his old form, that leaves the entire bullpen a mess that the Indians will have to piece together.

The other two expected returners to the ‘pen are lefty Tyler Olson and righty Adam Cimber. Olson enjoyed a strong second half to 2018 after a tough start. However, he is more of a situational lefty than a Miller-type who can get anyone out.

Cimber was having a very good second season with the Padres when he came to Cleveland as part of the Hand deal. However, he never seemed to be the same quality bullpen arm that he was in San Diego. The Indians are hopeful that it was a case of a young guy struggling to gain his footing with a new team and in a new league. They could really used the pitcher who had a 3.17 ERA in 42 outings with the Padres, rather than the version who had a 4.02 ERA in 28 appearances after the trade.

There really are not a lot of other solid options. Nick Goody should be back from the injury that wrecked his 2018 campaign. He had a strong 2017 season, but it remains to be seen if he can bounce back from his elbow issues.

Jon Edwards is a reliever the Indians like. The 30-year-old had not pitched in the Majors since 2015 when the Tribe brought him aboard this past spring. He had an encouraging minor league season. In nine games with the Indians, he had 3.12 ERA. He showed some promise as a pitcher who could possibly be someone figuring things out in the latter stages of his career.

Neil Ramirez should be back. He had a really good first half to 2018, but fell off in the second half. He will be a middle relief option.

Cody Anderson, a former starter, will be an option next season. He missed all of 2017 after Tommy John surgery and pitched in three innings of three games at three minor league levels this past year. When healthy in 2015, Anderson showed real promise as a rookie.

Another pitcher to keep in mind is 2016 All-Star Danny Salazar. Since his All-Star first half that year, however, he has not been the same. He has been injured and not very effective when able to pitch. He was out in 2018 with elbow issues. If he can return in 2019, there is a real chance the Indians could convert him to a reliever. He has an arm that in short stretches could prove to be perfect for a late-game relief role. However, he has never been a full-time reliever, so it remains to be seen if he has the pedigree to fill an important bullpen spot.

All of this said, the Indians still have so many more questions than answers after Hand. The free-agent market is an obvious possibility. There are always available relievers who come at a team friendly cost. Do not expect a blockbuster deal for a reliever, however, as a solid veteran always seems to get lost in the free agency shuffle and sees a dip in his expected salary by January or early February. Cleveland will be looking to bolster and rebuild its ‘pen with arms like that.

You can expect a lot preseason chatter about different names for the ‘pen. You can also expect a lot of battles for Opening Day bullpen spots. There is a lot unsettled in the Tribe’s ‘pen. That was the case much of 2018 and may be the case right up to the start of 2019. If the Indians are going to get back to a level in which they can truly compete with the likes of Houston, Boston, and the Yankees for American League supremacy, however, it will have to be with a bullpen that answers more of the questions than are left open-ended.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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