We have arrived at baseball’s All-Star break. The Cleveland Indians sit at 51-44, a game and a half out of first place in the AL Central. It has been quite a ride since GM Chris Antonetti hired Terry Francona to manage this club. The shot had been fired – a change in culture was about to arrive in Cleveland. We expected some changes, but nobody could have expected that this team would be as good as it has been. Yes, they have been up and down and have the nickname “Team Streak,” but this start has a completely different feel than the last two years. This seems real.
Matt Albers – 30 appearances – 33.2 IP, 2-1, 3.21 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 23 K, 18 BB, .250 vs. lefties, .231 vs. righties
Nick Hagadone – 28 appearances – 25.1 IP, 0-1, 5.33 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 23 K, 16 BB, .196 vs. lefties, .225 vs. righties
Others: Matt Langwell, Scott Barnes, Joe Martinez, C.C. Lee, Preston Guilmet
If the starting rotation was supposed to be the Indians biggest question mark heading into the 2013 campaign, the bullpen was to be its unquestioned strength. Loaded with power arms, Terry Francona’s biggest problem was thought to be how he would use these various options and keep everyone happy. But as the old adage says, “that’s why they play the games.”
The season began with the three-headed monster in tact. Joe Smith would take the seventh, Vinnie Pestano assumed his role in the eighth, and closer Chris Perez would finish things out. Hard throwing righties Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw would be mixed in and could slot anywhere in front of Perez. Veteran lefty Rich Hill pitched his way onto the team in Goodyear with the trust of Francona, who he played for in Boston. Nick Hagadone would battle Hill for the top lefty spot, hoping to regain the form that made his so intriguing in April and May of last season. Matt Albers, who came over with Shaw from Arizona, would serve as the middle reliever. With the versatility of Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, and Nick Swisher, Francona was able to carry eight relievers. Little did we know how much he would need all eight.
In a perfect world, the Smith/Pestano/Perez trio would continue on for the third straight season as the crew that takes the team to the finish line. Hill would come in to get out the key left-handed batters with his funky delivery. Shaw and Allen would take the sixth while spelling Smith and Pestano. Hagadone would emerge as the power arm lefty the Tribe front office coveted. But anyone who knows baseball knows how volatile bullpens can be from year to year.
Perez has battled injury and off the field problems most of the season. He had a shoulder issue in Spring Training and never really looked like himself early on. As always, CP has been something of a high wire act, putting runners on base in seemingly every save chance. By he continued to do his job. The shoulder issue popped back up in the midst of blowing a save on May 26th in Boston. He spent the next month on the Disabled List.
During that stint, the news broke of his arrest on marijuana possession. In the end, Perez for the most part had kept his mouth shut and emerged from the DL to take his closing job back with authority. Since his return, CP is seven for seven in save chances with a sub-one ERA. He still makes everyone nervous, but you could certainly do worse than having Perez closing out games for you.
Perez’s up and down first half has nothing on Vinnie Pestano’s. The set up man was as automatic as it got the last two years handling the eighth inning. But from day one, he has not been that same guy. I’ve maintained that his World Baseball Classic experience has done him more harm than good. In April we figured he would work the kinks out. But the zip on his fastball was just not there and his stuff was flat. That’s when the elbow injury popped up.
Like Perez, Pestano did a stint on the DL. But while CP did a rehab stint in the minors, Vinnie seemed to rush off of the DL and looked exactly like the pitcher he was before the injury took him down. With Perez on the shelf, he took over the closers role and while he went six for six in save chances, Vinnie did his Bob Wickman impersonation every time out. Pestano hasn’t been fooling anybody, especially since assuming his set-up role. Things came to a head two Sunday’s ago when he gave up a game-tying three-run homer to Torii Hunter. The next day, Francona took him out of the eighth inning to have him work out his issues in less key spots. Physically, Pestano just is not right, I don’t care what he says. Maybe the All-Star break is exactly what he needs, but I worry about him the rest of the year.
Luckily, Francona has other options for the eighth that can be trusted. You cannot argue that Smith and Allen have been the Tribe’s best relievers this season. Smitty has assumed the Pestano spot in the eighth and has done a nice job. When issues have popped up, it’s been because of over-use. Smith leads the team with 41 appearances and Francona is going to have to be careful not to burn him out. He is the same guy against lefties (.213) or righties (.212), which is a far cry from the guy who couldn’t be used against lefties two years ago. Yes, Smith has an ERA over six in July, but he is still as reliable as they come.
The real sensation in the pen this year is Allen. The former 23rd round pick riffled through the minors last season from A ball to the majors. The power stuff makes him look like the closer of the future. Francona has trusted him in late innings more and more and it has paid off. 53 Ks in 39.2 innings of work is extremely impressive. The improvement of his off speed pitch is what makes him so tough to hit. Allen is what Pestano was in 2011 when he came out of nowhere to be the most dependable pitcher in the pen.
Shaw started off the season looking great. With Smith a free agent to be, it was assumed that Shaw would be a guy that was being groomed to take over his role. Like Allen, he has power stuff and has been impressive at times. But over the last six weeks, we have seen a regression. Since the beginning of June he has allowed 10 earned runs in 15.1 innings with 10 walks. That is just not getting it done. However, none of those 10 runs have come in his last four appearances. A return to form for Shaw will be welcomed so Francona has multiple right-handed options in the late innings.
By the way, Allen is 24 and Shaw is 25.
The biggest issue that hasn’t really gone away (other than the starters not going deep into games, taxing the bullpen) has been the lack of a left-handed specialist that can be counted on to do the job late in games. Hill has spent the entire season on the roster, but has been brutal up until the last 10 games. He and Hagadone have had many chances to prove themselves and take hold of the job. Neither has really done so.
Its been extremely frustrating when an obvious lefty/lefty situation pops up late and Francona can’t counter. Detroit is the prime example. The Indians didn’t once match up with Prince Fielder in the biggest series of the season earlier this month. While Hill has been maddening with his inconsistent performance, Francona has stuck with him and the hope is that he continues to pitch the way he has over the past two weeks. He still needs to show he can matchup for one batter late and do the job.
Hagadone had a few nice moments, but has walked too many (16 in 25.1 innings) and the lingering effect of the home run he gave up to Joey Votto in late May sticks with me. Because he has options, Hags has been riding the I-71 shuttle most of the first half. It also hasn’t helped his cause that the eighth spot in the bullpen has become a revolving door of guys because the starters are constantly in need of protection. I’m sure we will see him again at some point after the break.
The multitude of arms that have come up have served as Albers protection as well. When the veteran right-handed has pitched, it usually comes in multiple innings. He has done a nice job for what he is up here to do, eat middle innings when needed.
The current eighth man in the pen is C.C. Lee, who made his major league debut on Sunday and pitched well in a 6-4 win. I’m intrigued by him and he is a legit option. Guys like Matt Langwell and Joe Martinez are filler, but did their jobs when called upon in Cleveland. The same can’t be said for lefty Scott Barnes who had been given another opportunity to make himself the matchup lefty. The performance just was not there. Columbus closer Preston Guilmet made one appearance in a one run game a week ago and came through.
Francona has made some head-scratching decisions in managing his pen, but mostly it is due to the core of the group being so overworked. The starters have to give more length as the season progresses because guys like Allen, Smith, Shaw, and especially Pestano are at their best when they have adequate rest. He has had to lean on Smith and Allen so heavily. It would also be great if Hill could reassert himself into a quality late inning lefty because the Indians have that huge hole late in games.
One thing is certain. If the bullpen doesn’t perform well after the break, the Tribe won’t be playing meaningful baseball in September.