I think all Indians fans are going into this season with the view of it being another rebuilding year. However, GM Chris Antonetti and Manager Manny Acta haven’t been shy this Spring with their expectations. “We expect to win” says the skipper. Good for him. I like that attitude.
If indeed the Indians are going to hang around near the top of the AL Central, several things must fall into place. It has to be 2007 all over again. Career years are needed from the veterans and the young players must take that next step forward. The anchor of that 2007 team had a lock-down bullpen. And as we all have seen over the years, you can’t win unless you have a stellar pen.
Looking back to the best two Indians teams of the past six years, the one constant was stability at the back end of the pen. Their was quality depth, and everyone knew their roles.
In 2005, the Indians won 93 games, but missed the playoffs by just one game. While the Wahoo bats were surging behind a 23 year old Jhonny Peralta, a 22 year old Grady Sizemore and a “healthy” Travis Hafner, once the Tribe hit the 7th inning with a lead, the game was over. Eric Wedge had four lethal weapons at his disposal before going to his closer.
From the right side, a resurgent Bob Howry (79 appearances, 2.47 ERA) and an up and coming Rafael Betancourt (54 appearances, 2.79 ERA) took turns getting out the key right-handed batters. From the left, Wedge had a matchup guy in Scott Sauerbeck (58 appearances, 4.04 ERA) and a power arm in Arthur Rhodes (47 appearances, 2.08 ERA). Closer Bob Wickman always made you sweat, but in 2005 he had the best season of his career. The portly right-hander saved 45 games with a 2.47 ERA in 64 appearances.
The real shame was that 2005 team probably had the best overall pitching staff of any Tribe team of the past 25 years. All five starters (CC Sabathia, Kevin Millwood, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Scott Elarton) made 30 plus starts for the first time in team history, and the only one who didn’t win double digit games (Millwood), led the AL in ERA at 2.86. Plus the bullpen was terrific. That team could have done postseason damage if not for the final week of the season choke job.
In 2007, the Indians made a magical run to the AL Central division crown and fell one game short of the World Series. Like the 2005 team, Wedge had a rock solid bullpen which came through once the roles were defined. The season started with the likes of Roberto Hernandez and Fernando Cabrera playing key roles. By the end, they were long gone and replaced by prospects who took their game up a notch.
It was “Raffy Left” and “Raffy Right” once the Indians took a lead into the seventh inning. Rafael Perez at the time was described by legendary baseball scribe Peter Gammons as “the most unhittable left-handed reliever in the game.” He finished the regular season with a 1.78 ERA in 44 appearances. Betancourt came from the right side and had the best year of his career. In 68 appearances, he had an ERA of 1.47 and a whopping 80 K’s to just nine walks.
The third set up option was Jensen Lewis. It seems hard to believe now because of what we’ve seen of him the last couple of years, but the 2007 version of Jenny Lew was superior. He didn’t make his Major League debut until July 16th, but by October, The Grinder was turning to him to help nurse one and two run leads. He made 26 appearances and had an ERA of 2.15. Believe it or not, he struck out 34 in 29.1 innings of work. That was when he had the late life on his fastball.
Aaron Fultz did a decent job as the matchup lefty (2.92 ERA in 49 appearances) and Tom Mastny produced at times as well (7-2, 4.68 ERA in 51 appearances). Thomas “Nasty” will always hold a special place with me. I will never forget when Wedge called on him to face Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Mike Lowell in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game Two of the ALCS and got them 1-2-3. The Tribe scored seven in the next half inning and Mastny was the winning pitcher.
Like Wickman in 2005, Closer Joe Borowski was the king of the high-wire act save. How many guys have a 5.07 ERA, yet save 45 games? One. Borowski.
But I digress.
The Tribe pen in 2011 still is in flux. Chris “Pure Rage” Perez is locked in as closer, with lefties Tony Sipp and Raffy Perez in front of him. The right-handed set-up spot is still up for grabs, though Chad Durbin and Vinnie Pestano look like the leading candidates. Joe Smith will be in that mix once he is healthy.
Regardless of who gets the final jobs, the Indians won’t be able to be successful without a strong performance from their pen. Just ask the Tribe teams of 2006, 2008, and 2009.