According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Indians are looking for late-inning relievers. The Indians have been in the market for offensive help and starting pitching depth, but it seemed like the bullpen was less of a concern. It was fairly stable last year, until the last month or two of the season. Since Terry Francona had to lean on the bullpen earlier in the season due to shaky starting pitching, it’s possible that fatigue played a role in August and September. Plus, as the old adage goes, you can never have too much pitching. Bullpens can be volatile year-to-year, so it’s always good to add a few arms each offseason, even if some of them are on minor league deals with invites to spring training.
Let’s look at who will definitely be returning to the Indians’ bullpen from 2014:
Cody Allen – He had 24 saves once he took over as closer, as well as a 2.04 ERA, a 1.062 WHIP and 91 strikeouts in 69.2 IP. Barring some kind of freak injury, the closer’s job is probably his heading into the season.
Scott Atchison – Atchison was one of the most pleasant surprises for me last season. He finished the year with a 2.75 ERA, a 1.028 WHIP, and 49 strikeouts in 72 IP. He’s back with a $900,000 salary in 2015 and a $1 million option for the 2016 season.
Kyle Crockett – Just drafted in 2013, Crockett made his major league debut in May. He finished the season with a 1.80 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, and 28 strikeouts in 30 IP. Crockett is best suited as a left-handed match-up guy – lefties hit .206/.275/.270 (.545 OPS) off of him, while righties hit .283/.353/.457 (.809 OPS) against him.
Nick Hagadone – Hagadone has had some ups and downs with the Indians, but really had a breakout season in 2014. I went from being nervous when he was called into the game, to actually having a small degree of confidence. Hagadone had a 2.70 ERA, 1.029 WHIP, and 27 strikeouts in 23.1 IP during the 2014 season. What’s interesting about Hagadone is that he’s not your typical lefty-lefty match-up guy; at least not in 2014. Lefties hit .217/.280/.348 (.628 OPS) off of him, while righties hit .211/.250/.395 (.645 OPS) off of him.
CC Lee – One of the reasons that the Indians gave for trading John Axford (aside from the fact that Francona seemed to lose confidence in him) is that they wanted to give Lee more opportunities at the big league level. Lee had some good moments, but I never felt comfortable when he came into a close game. He finished the season with a 4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and 26 strikeouts in 28 IP. I had high hopes for Lee prior to his Tommy John surgery almost three years ago; I’d love to see him blossom into a reliable reliever, but I’m afraid that the 2014 Lee may be the norm.
Marc Rzepczynski – Since he was acquired from St. Louis in 2013, Scrabble has been a pretty reliable lefty-lefty match-up guy. Overall, his 2014 numbers were a 2.74 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 46 strikeouts in 46 IP. Lefties hit .180/.241/.200 (.441 OPS) against him, while righties hit .338/.437/.507 (.944 OPS) off of him.
Bryan Shaw – Shaw has been a reliable reliever since he came to Cleveland in the Shin Soo Choo three-team trade. He appeared in a mammoth number of games in 2014. In fact, Shaw set the Indians’ single-season franchise record for appearances with 80 (beating Bobby Howry’s 79 games in 2005). In 2014, he had a 2.59 ERA, 1.087 WHIP, and 64 strikeouts in 76.1 IP.
* Zach McAllister – I included McAllister with an asterisk because it’s unclear whether or not he will earn a job as a starter in 2015, or if he will be relegated to the bullpen. Even though McAllister finished the year with a 5.23 ERA, he actually had a 3.45 FIP (and a .332 BABIP) – meaning that he likely was a victim of some bad luck and the Indians’ shoddy defense. He did seem to do better out of the bullpen though – as a reliever, batters hit .260/.288/.280 (.568 OPS) off of him, while as a starter they hit .283/.336/.444 (.780 OPS). He had a 5.67 ERA and 1.49 WHIP as a starter, and a 2.77 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP as a reliever (the reliever numbers are obviously a much smaller sample size – 13 IP compared to 73 IP). You still have to wonder if McAllister’s decent fastball, and occasional problems controlling his secondary pitches, make him better suited for the bullpen since batters won’t face him multiple times. While everyone’s numbers jump the second and third time through a lineup, McAllister’s even jump by inning – batters have almost a 200 point jump in their OPS against him in the second inning, compared to the first.
* Josh Tomlin – I also included Tomlin in this, since he technically is competing for a starting role (and at this point, is probably in danger of missing the opening day roster in general). Like McAllister, Tomlin probably was hurt by the Indians’ poor defense – he had a 4.76 ERA and a 4.01 FIP with a .320 BABIP. Tomlin doesn’t have spectacular stuff, but he typically has very good control and tends to throw strikes. I remember during one Tomlin start last season, I happened to be listening to the radio broadcast. Tom Hamilton started to talk about how the Indians wanted Tomlin to throw fewer strikes; to mix more balls into his repertoire. Then Hamilton went on to say (I’m paraphrasing here) that Tomlin was so competitive, it was hard for him to do so. He wanted to go after batters, especially if he had them down 0-2 or 1-2. Tomlin’s numbers weren’t particularly terrible when he had batters in those counts, but he did give up the most home runs (12 of his total 18 allowed) when batters were in an 0-1 count. I don’t think it was his intent, but Hamilton almost made it sound like Tomlin ignored the advice of coaches, and continued to do whatever he wanted. That’s obviously just my impression, but if there’s any truth to it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him miss the opening day roster. If that happens, Tomlin is out of options and would be exposed to other teams claiming him off waivers (if there isn’t a trade before that point).
The back end of the bullpen going into 2014 was supposed to be John Axford as closer, with Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw serving as the primary set-up men. Once Axford lost his job as closer (and was eventually traded), Allen shifted into the closer’s role, while Shaw and Scott Atchison tended to serve as the set-up men for the most part. Even though Axford was pulled from his role relatively quickly, it makes sense that they’d want to add an extra arm with late-inning experience for depth leading into 2015.
So who is left that could fit as an option for the Indians? MLB Trade Rumors looks at some of the remaining bullpen options available, breaking them into left and right-handers. There are a number of familiar names on the list – Chris Perez, John Axford, Matt Albers, Jose Veras, and Jamey Wright all spent time with the Indians at one point or another. (David Huff is also on the list, but he’s already signed with the Dodgers). There are also four pitchers with closing experience left – Brian Wilson, Casey Janssen, Francisco Rodriguez, and Rafael Soriano. I honestly wouldn’t mind a reunion with Albers, but there’s a chance he won’t be the 2013 Albers; he had a lot of problems with injuries last season in Houston and only threw 10 innings all year. (In fact he had an option for 2015 and they declined it and paid the buyout). There are no names that necessarily fly off the page on that list, and I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to overpay on the bullpen; you can usually find decent options in a cost-effective manner. The Indians have excelled at putting together reasonably priced, solid bullpens over the past few years. In fact, I think that’s been one of the front office’s strengths. (Knocking on every piece of wood in my house).
So don’t be surprised if the Indians happen to add some bullpen help prior to the start of spring training – whether it’s on a major league contract, or a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. Depth is always a good thing, as long as they don’t overpay for it.