Ah The Bullpen Mafia…..Such a cute and fun-loving group (accept for Mr. Personality Rafael Perez of course). They were the talk of the town while the Indians were in first place for a good two-thirds of the season. This group performed on and off the field, entertaining us all the way through.
As we have seen so many times over the past decade, a bad bullpen can kill a season. It can also be a revolving door of guys who don’t settle into roles. Who can forget the likes of Luis Vizcaino and Matt Herges pitching the 8th in 2009? When they failed, the next batch of scrubs included Greg Aquino and Jose Veres. That’s what one injury to a key setup man (Rafael Betancourt) and a bad year from your top lefty reliever (Perez) can do to you.
The Bullpen Mafia was the opposite. Almost from opening day, these guys knew what they were out there to do and the faces never really changed. Until the rosters were expanded at the beginning of the month, other than the move from Justin Germano to Frank Herrmann on May 20th, the guys have the pen have stayed completely the same.
Chris Perez was your closer. Tony Sipp and Vinnie Pestano were your set-up men. Raffy Perez was the next best option. Chad Durbin and Herrmann were the long/middle men depending on where and how they were needed. As good and as consistent as the group has been, you can be assured that things will be different looking ahead to 2012.
With the Indians in dire need of a quality right-handed hitting stick either in the outfield or at first base, they will have no choice but to go and get one via trade. It’s not as if Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder are walking through that door. Any low-tier free agent available (i.e. the finished Derrek Lee) will be nothing more than an aging version of Matt LaPorta. The Tribe has to deal from strength, and that is where the bullpen comes in.
Do they consider trading their All-Star closer Perez as part of a deal for a big bat, knowing that Pestano, a strike-out machine with that closing demeanor, can slide into the role? What about the arbitration raises that will be due to guys like Smith and Raffy? The Tribe will always be working on a mid-major budget. Durbin will 100% not be back. What do they do about Herrmann?
When I mentioned the Indians dealing from a place of strength, its because they believe in some of the young arms they are brought up in September. My Tribe spies have told me to expect hard-throwing lefty Nick Hagadone to be a big part next year’s pen. That means that most likely Sipp or Raffy Perez will not be with the team next year. Sure, they could carry three lefties, but they won’t. It wouldn’t shock me if they didn’t offer arbitration to Perez and let him walk. He’s been a fixture in the pen since his breakout 2007 season, but he’s also due for a nice raise. The thing that worries me is that while he has shown that he throws regularly in the high 90’s with his heater, Hagadone has been wildly inconsistent with his command. But make no mistake, Hagadone will be in the 2012 Mafia.
Then there are the two kid righties who the Indians have thrown to the wolves these past two weeks – Josh Judy and Zach Putnam. Any time the Indians had a chance to add an extra arm for a couple of days because of rotation injuries, they turned to Judy. He usually didn’t pitch, but when he did, he struggled. The Tribe brass is high on Judy, their AAA closer most of the year, but in his Major League appearances, he hasn’t looked like a guy ready for a big late inning role. He’s made 10 appearances, and allowed 12 hits and seven earned runs (5.11 ERA). Judy is only 25 and will be in the mix next year one way or another.
Putnam, a University of Michigan product, is just 23 and carried a 3.65 ERA in 44 games in Columbus this season. The Tribe brought him up last week to see what he’s got. He’s allowed four earned runs in his five appearances. But again, this was his first taste of the majors. I believe Zach will be battling Judy for that final spot in the pen next season.
Another name to keep an eye on next season is Chen-Chang Lee, the righty from Taiwan. In 21 appearances in Columbus, he posted a 2.27 ERA and was the set-up man for the Clippers as they won their second straight championship.
As I said before, it’s a good spot for the Tribe to be in. They have seemingly a lot of bullpen depth. My guess is that one of these young arms will be a part of a package to get that right-handed bat the team so badly needs. Two others will be with the big club out of Goodyear.