Changes on tap in the Indians bullpen
October 20, 2013
A lot of the early offseason discussion has revolved around what the Indians are going to do with their starting rotation or how they can improve the lineup.
We know the challenges the Indians face to keep Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez next year, not to mention Justin Masterson the following year. The team’s struggles at third base and right field offensively have had fans speculating on potential upgrades at those positions.
However, one lesser talked about item is the coming renovation of the bullpen.
The Indians’ bullpen is set to undergo considerable changes with the likely non-tender of former closer Chris Perez and longtime set-up man Joe Smith hitting free agency. In addition to Perez and Smith, it’s likely that Matt Albers and Rich Hill find themselves with different teams in 2014. That makes four of the seven relievers that finished the season who will need replaced. The only players seemingly assured of returning are Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Marc Rzepczynski.
In my opinion, the 2013 edition of the bullpen was the strongest it’s been in a number of years. That’s mostly due to the additions of Shaw, Allen, Albers, and Rzepczynski down the stretch. With the exception of Albers, the team would prefer to keep those pitchers in their respective 2013 roles. Albers is a candidate to be replaced from within by the likes of C.C. Lee, Carlos Carrasco, or even Vinnie Pestano if he bounces back this spring. If we use the structure of last year’s bullpen to predict next year's version, that would leave three holes that need filled; a closer, a primary set-up man, and a second left-handed reliever.
As the primary set-up man in 2013, Joe Smith had another solid year. The Indians do have interest in resigning him, but I suspect that their initial focus is going to be on finding a new closer and organizing the rest of the bullpen from there. Smith is poised for a raise on the $3.15 million he made in 2013, and it remains to be seen if the team will have the money or resources to acquire a new closer and re-up Smith. Of course, Smith himself could be an option for closer.
I would like to see the team go in a different direction.
While Smith has been consistently good for several years, a rarity amongst his colleagues, he’s never been a closer. To bring him back, you’ll be paying him closer money without knowledge that he can sufficiently do the job. Smith was excellent in the second half this year and took on a bigger role this year than seasons past.
However, if you get behind the numbers you’ll see that Smith was the same pitcher he’s always been. In fact, his line drive percentage was the highest of his career and his groundball percentage was the worst of his career. Those are things that worry me moving forward as Smith relies primarily on inducing groundballs to get outs.
When I look at closers there’s one stat I value above the rest: K/BB ratio. Smith’s K/BB ratio typically hovers just above two. That’s a decent ratio, but it doesn’t make for a dominant reliever. Even Chris Perez last year posted a better ratio on the strength of a higher strikeout rate.
With only three outs to get and the game always close, you’d like your closer to limit free passes and take care of business on his own as much as possible. Smith simply isn’t that type of pitcher. To excel he would not only need the requisite mindset (an unknown) but he’d need to return to the 55%-60% groundball rate type of pitcher, and I don’t think that’s a slam dunk to happen.
It’s true that Smith’s 2013 ERA of 2.29 was exceptional, but don’t expect him to duplicate his 86.3% strand rate. That number is not sustainable. His FIP was 3.60 and xFIP was 3.70, both in line with his career averages and probably a more accurate reflection of what you could expect from him in the future. Are those the type of numbers you want as your closer?
Maybe you want him back in a set-up role, and I would too, but if a reliever isn’t going to be the closer can you really afford to pay them five million a season for the next three years? It’s probably going to take that type of commitment to bring Smith back, and I don’t think that’s the best use of the team’s financial resources.
With that said, even with upgrades needed elsewhere on the team, acquiring a new closer should be a priority.
I’m a big fan of Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, but that comes from appreciating them in the roles they’re in currently. If you take those two and move them ‘up’ the pecking order, what relievers are left to get the ball to them? Allen and Shaw combined for 145.1 very effective innings in multiple different situations, circumstances, and roles. Acquiring a new closer and adding another arm to the mix with late inning experience could allow the team to continue using them where they are most effective.
Some of the available closers in free agency are Joe Nathan, Brian Wilson, Joel Hanrahan, Grant Balfour,Francisco Rodriguez, Joaquin Benoit, and Ryan Madson among others. Non-tender candidates with closer experience include Andrew Bailey and John Axford. Each one of those pitchers have their flaws, whether it be age, injury history, or cost. On the other hand, the majority of them would represent an upgrade from Perez and with the list of available potential closers being so large, the Indians should have the ability to land one of these guys if they so choose.
Considering the team’s financial challenges, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pursue pitchers like Wilson, or Rodriguez who may not require a large investment in return for the chance to close again. My guess is the team won’t be looking for a reclamation project like Madson or Bailey unless it’s for a set-up role.
From the list above, that leaves Joe Nathan, who’s cost would seem to prohibit him from consideration, Joel Hanrahan who is coming off an injury plagued 2013 and wasn’t particular good in 2012, and Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit who will be 36 and seeking multi-year deals after good seasons closing for their respective teams.
There’s sure to be other names connected to the Indians in terms of their closer vacancy, and that’s not even including some trade candidates that will probably emerge. However, I believe Francisco Rodriguez in particular is intriguing.
I’m not under any illusions that he’s the same pitcher from the mid 2000’s with Anaheim; however, Rodriguez is still only 31, he’s still an effective reliever, and his experience as a closer and pitching in big games is nearly unmatched of the available options. Best of all, I would expect that Rodriguez could be had on a one year deal for a reasonable salary, allowing the team flexibility to also pursue a set-up man or allot money elsewhere.
Along with a Rodriguez type as closer, I’d like to see the team add another low cost veteran to the mix who could help in the seventh and eighth innings. Considering Jason Frasor just resigned with the Rangers for $1.75 million, I would suspect pitchers like Madson, Octavio Dotel, LaTroy Hawkins, or Matt Lindstrom wouldn’t command much more, and a couple might be attainable on minor league deals.
Once again, that’s not the sexiest group of pitchers. Each of those guys have their warts, but they’re also pitchers with a history of success and late inning experience who are going to be available at a minimal cost. The goal here would be to find someone to team with Allen and Shaw to shoulder the load between the sixth and eighth innings.
That would leave one more spot to fill, the second lefty. This is another spot that I think the Indians have the ability to fill from within. I’d imagine that Nick Hagadone will be given the first shot, but 2013 draftee Kyle Crockett should be waiting in the wings.
The Indians just went through an entire season with Rich Hill on the roster, so the standards aren’t very high for this role. I imagine they will bring in someone on a minor league contract to compete with Hagadone and Crockett, and it could be someone who sticks in the system as depth if he doesn’t make the team, but either way I see the last spot in the pen going to another left-hander.
Besides the players mentioned, the Indians will also have depth in the form of Josh Tomlin, Preston Guilmet, Blake Wood, Bryan Price, Matt Capps, and Austin Adams. The players returning from last year’s bullpen will provide stability in the roles that have the highest usage. Pitchers with upside like Hagadone, Carrasco, and Pestano will have a chance to solidify lesser roles, and work their way into key contributors.
That leaves the team to seek help outside of the organization to fill their void at closer and to likely replace Joe Smith. Their ability to do so will go a long way toward determining if the 2014 bullpen will be as effective as the 2013 version.
The good news is that there are capable and cost effective relievers on the market with late inning experience that can make this renovation a success.
And you've still got depth waiting in the wings such as Barnes, Crockett, Soto as lefties, Guilmet, Price, Armstrong, Adams, Haley etc.
Cheap, homegrown, internal options that only need a chance to flourish in many instances. Many other teams do this, the tribe should not be afraid to do the same rather than overspend for external expensive retreads of tired arms that are really only a crapshoot.
That's what I'd advocate at least. It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out of course but I do think with the solid building blocks already in place, the Indians can put together an effective pen in '14.
I say sign Javier Lopez or another lefty for the pen, go with CC Lee, if Pestano is healthy he fills in for Smith and you still have Shaw, Allen and Rzepczynski. I think the Indians should go with a good arm out of that bunch and go with one of the guys in the farm system namely Adams, Armstrong or Haley
Joe Smith.... bring him back..
Chris Perez.. bring him back..
Scott Kazmir.. bring him back with a multi year extension..
Ubaldo Jimenz bring him back with a multi-year extension..
Wild hair idea...
While this isn't presently done, the Indians could become the 'leader' in how a bullpen is constructed. First, there is no rule a starting pitching staff should be limited to five arms:
In football, if a team has a 6.2" 230 lb tailback who can run a sub 4.5 40 and an offensive line filled with drive blockers.. they aren't a passing team. That team runs the ball..
In baseball.. if a team has eight starting pitchers, then a schedule can be arranged such that all eight guys start. There would have to be some accommodation in order to keep the SP's fresh & consistent for each and every six day period.. Two pairs of SP's could pitch in piggy back roles. Four SP's would have consistent starting days. The pen would be adequately stocked with the best arms in the system by having four "long men/starters" on the roster along with 5 or 6 other RP's. The Rockies tried to do this with their entire pitching staff via limiting pitch counts to 75..There's something there that could work and give the Indians the best chance to win game while keeping the best pitchers available throughout the long tough grind of a ML season.
What do you think?
That being the case, there is a stronger case for retaining Smith if he's only going to cost $3-$4 million. Decide between Allen & Shaw as closer during spring training and then use Allen/Shaw/Smith as the three late bullpen guys, with Scrabble and Hagadone (soon to be usurped by Crockett) as the two LOOGYs, and then some combo of Lee/Wood/Pestano/Carrasco (if/when he doesn't make starting rotation) and the other AAA relievers mentioned for the other three spots.
In 2013 the Indians were forced to use a revolving door of 15 different players from the bullpen even before the All-Star break, so finding guys who can lock down a spot playing consistently all year like Smith, Shaw and Allen has value in itself.
The signing of Blake Wood last offseason and bringing back the lottery ticket of Matt Capps reduces the 'blow' of losing Smith but they have to commit that financial resource to the field in 2014, otherwise the fans will BS and rightly so.
Wood, Hagadone and Carrasco are all out of options, so I expect them to join Scrabble, Shaw, Allen, and Pestano to comprise the opening day bullpen. I'm comfortable with that.
It's make or break time for Hagadone, because Crockett (and to a lesser extent Barnes and Soto) will be at AAA waiting for an opportunity.
Same deal with Wood and Carrasco. If they can't perform, then Lee, Haley, Adams, and Guilmet are all immediate options.
Which I'd still pass on. If there's an area where they can shed some money and not take a hit with performance, it's the bullpen. It's not like you can say without a doubt that Joe Smith will perform better than a CC Lee, Carrasco or Austin Adams next year; signing him would mean more depth, which is good, but I don't think it's worth the price. I'd rather go with the upside and cheapness of the young guys, and use the savings to invest elsewhere.