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The Bomb Squad Bullpen Corner

  Cody Anderson--Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo  
I would like to preface this piece here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario by saying that the Cleveland Indians reliever Bryan Shaw has mostly been pretty good. Like any Major League reliever, his greatest outings are often buried in the carnage of the really bad ones, and unfortunately for Shaw, his really bad ones tend to be really bad.

This year, Shaw's "bad ones" are especially noteworthy, because his implosions tend to have wasted a really good start from a really good starter. This doesn't just go for Shaw, but for the rest of the Indians' bullpen, that has the look of a rag-tag bunch of vagabonds, rather than an actual title contending bullpen.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps my very biased opinion that most bullpens just plain suck is at play here. The truth of the matter is that if you step away from the Indians' bullpen and look at the numbers, they clearly aren't the worst in the league, and if you were to compare them to their Ohio counterpart, they would resemble something standing at the top of Mt. Olympus (the Reds pen is horrid).

What is clear is that this particular bullpen doesn't quite mesh with this particular team. The team is built for close games, with a stellar rotation and a decent offense. The hope is that the rotation can go deep, and limit the non-leverage guys appearances. Unfortunately, when the high-leverage guys begin to look like fairly consistent garbage, things can go bad, and pretty quick.

The bullpen, as it stands

Here are the Indians' numbers this year, in comparison the rest of the majors, copied from fangraphs, and using WAR as the measurable.


Immediately, you see that while imperfect to an extent, the Indians bullpen is close to league average, and in comparison to the rest of the league, not as valuable as nearly every other major league team.

If you look a little closer at the standard numbers, you'll see just how average-to-below average they are.


While they are 10th in ERA, with a 3.47, they are 20th in FIP, with a 4.10, and 17th in xFIP, at 4.07. You would expect these types of FIP-ish spikes based on the team's phenomenal infield defense, and the bullpen's propensity to induce ground balls. Their 47.2% GB% is tenth in the league, but they're 19th in the league with a 1.11 HR/9 and 21st in the league with a 12.8% HR/FB. Without diving too deeply into the numbers, it's easy to see that when they are good enough to induce ground balls, they're a pretty good bullpen. When they leave a pitch up, bad, bad things happen.

You'll hear me talk a lot about the "whole being greater than the sum of its parts," and it's clear that the Indians' brain trust, beginning with Mark Shapiro, before seceding to Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff, has worked under this umbrella since the days of free spending went away at the beginning of the new millennium. The Indians have worked extremely hard, especially recently, to build a strong minor league system, while holding on to good, affordable talent. Their current roster and rotation is buoyed mostly by both homegrown talent, and young talent acquired in trades that have essentially been "homegrown (players like Carlos Carrasco and Michael Brantley, who spent a considerable amount of time in the system after being acquired).

Then there's the bullpen, and in particular, THIS bullpen:


Before we dive into this, and get to a unique solution, we do have to think about how the pen fits into the grander scheme of the economics of this baseball team. The Indians have rarely gone out of their way to sign a big money, free agent relief pitcher. Kerry Wood comes to mind, and obviously, didn't really pan out the way that Shapiro and Antonetti wanted it too. They've brought guys in like John Axford, who they signed for $4.5 million as he was entering arbitration, but clearly the Indians have never banked on free agency to bolster their rotation.

Instead, the Indians have tried to cultivate prospects for the role, brought some players over as pieces in a trade, and balanced out that cultivation and trades with really low-level players that they believe they can either revive, or have something left in the tank.

Just take a cursory look, (eliminate Trevor Bauer from the equation, since he's not locked into the five-man rotation). There have been seven players not named Bauer who have appeared in 10+ innings. Four of those seven are "bottom-of-the-barrel-ish" acquisitions: Dan Otero, Joba Chamberlain, Tommy Hunter, and Jeff Manship. This isn't a knock on any of the four in that when you're a reliever, it's the nature of the beast.

But that's the bulk of our bullpen.

The recent bullpen make-up, and the likely Indians' bullpen blueprint

Every year, the Indians count on some of these bottom scrapings to carry the load, and the team has been fairly successful riding Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and a bottom scraper to anchor the team. But here's the problem. Allen and Shaw have been used by Terry Francona extensively, and in situations that are questionable at best, and this isn't even counting using a "set-up" guy to set-up, when he's getting shelled like a World War I trench on the Western Front.

In 2012, the Pen was Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, Tony Sipp, Esmil Rogers, Jeremy Accardo, Cody Allen and Nick Hagadone. You can see where each fits into the appropriate categories.

In 2013, the Pen was Perez, Shaw, Allen, Smith, Rich Hill, Matt Albers, Pestano, Nick Hagadone and Marc Rzepczynski, with Hill coming in at $1,000,000 and Albers at 1.75 million.

In 2014, it was Allen, Shaw, Scott Atchison, Rzepczynski, Axford, Carlos Carrasco, Zach McAllister, Kyle Crockett, C.C. Lee, Josh Outman and Nick Hagadone. Atchison entered the Albers role, with the "pricey" Axford not panning out. McAllister was a sorta failed starter, and Carrasco was a guy they were trying to salvage.

Last year, it was again Allen, McAllister, Shaw, Rzepczynski, Ryan Webb, Manship, Austin Adams, Atchison, Hagadone and Crockett.

Now, these pens were all a varying degree of successful, and all had that varying degree of homegrown talent (that mostly hasn't paid off), bottom-of-the-barrel guys, trade acquisitions that get too costly and are moved, and the occasional "starter we don't know what to do with."

I get the thinking. The front office and on-the-field staff have clearly pegged the Indians' starting rotation as the anchor of this team. It's clearly as good as we think, and if we're to dive into our souls, even better. The hope is that the team can utilize it's limited funds elsewhere, while continuing to get a good year out of Albers or Atchison or Manship or Otero.

In some ways, it's panned out. Allen and Shaw have been good-to-amazing for much of the past two years, but have been used a lot. You can throw McAllister in there as well, although his usage is limited, since his first fulltime year in the pen really came in 2015. The problems, prior to this season, didn't seem quite as pronounced, although they were certainly noticeable. If Allen or Shaw struggled, the team was dependent on McAllister or a group of rag-tag pick-ups to carry the load. Equally, the youngster, other than Allen, really haven't panned out on any consistent level.

If you look at Pestano (he was awesome, then flamed out), Sipp, Crockett, Lee and Adams, they just haven't done the job with any consistency, or haven't been given the chance. I'd lean on the former, more than the latter. McAllister is the one big league starter-turned-reliever that at least has looked the part and not earned their way back into the rotation, and ultimately, the good Atchison and Manship and ultimately Otero goes away.

In reality, this happens a lot to all types of relievers. The norm certainly isn't longevity at the top level, when you are consistently coming into either high leverage situations, or scruffy leads. When you add too many innings onto the pile, especially for the guys that are doing the job, you can see how it's a difficult proposition to close.

So have the Indians balanced their team budget with a low-income bullpen over the years? Yes. Has it been successful? In many ways, sure, in that they have won more than they lost, have found players who have been a band aid, and have been able to sign their rotation and core to long-term deals. But the answer is an unequivocal no when it comes to long-term prepping, delivering what the sterling rotation needs, and if we're to be honest, Tito-proofing the usage, as they've done with the line-up to some extent.

Full-circle

The top of the Indians' pen are currently Dan Otero and Joba Chamberlain, if you're to look at the numbers. Again, it's the bullpen, so it's hard to nail it down to one statistic or another. Let's just say that if you look at what's important to most teams, and to this one in particular, the numbers are really good. They have a high ground ball rate, a low ERA, and excellent to good FIP/xFIP. If you throw Cody Allen into the equation, while his numbers aren't spectacular, you get the impression that if used correctly, he can be one of the elite relievers in baseball, as he's been the past two seasons.

I like Otero. He was outstanding with the A's prior to the 2015 season. He had a 2.01 ERA over 105 outings, and was one of those fairly cost-effective gems that Billy Beane loves. The Otero tried to up his game, adding a cutter to his sinker/slider/changeup arsenal that ultimately messed up his delivery, and specifically, his release point. He went back to basics this year, and is dominant once again. I'm a big body of work guy, and Otero has that very body of work.

I like Joba Chamberlain a little less. Most people know that I can't but help but put emotion into my line of thinking, even when I'm using numbers to support any conclusion. I suppose a part of me dislikes Chamberlain because of his path from the Yankees to the Tigers to the Royals. Injuries and inconsistencies have really crunched Chamberlain's mojo, and that's really hard for me to get past. He's absolutely snacking on the ground ball right now, with a ridiculous ground ball rate of 54%, but his weakness appears to be location. His walk rate is pretty high, and that's never a good thing for a guy that you may or may not be using in important scenarios. He's young, and obviously has talent, but in the end, is he a guy you give high leverage appearances too?

McAllister is a solid bullpen pitcher, but his best asset is that he's cost effective, and he hasn't done a whole lot to make him more than just a fairly cost effective reliever. His numbers are always pretty good, but he seems to have these moments in which you scratch your head and wonder. His BB/9 is also 4.03, which doesn't exactly breed confidence.

From here, we can run through the gambit of relievers, and ask the same question: does Terry Francona trust them, and should he? I like Tommy Hunter, but he's been pretty bad. I expect his curve to trend up, but that's just based on a hunch. That's always fun when discussing ballplayers. Austin Adams can throw the ball hard, but his issues are always surround flat pitches. When he gets something up, his velocity works really well...in the exit fashion. Jeff Manship has regressed, as everyone thought, and then there's Bryan Shaw.

He's earned Tito's trust, and while I've never been a Shaw-fan, in the end, he's put up the numbers to support that "earned trust" credo. Unfortunately, Shaw isn't very good right now, but Francona won't just throw him aside. This is a fairly repeated pattern in Francona's history with the Indians, and I'm not sure if it's stubbornness on his part, or if it's based on being consistently handed a pen of scraps and hopefuls.

In the end, this current crop of Indians' relievers just aren't very good, and I don't think they've earned the right to support a rotation that is truly something special.

A quick look at the Royals

I could look at a lot of good bullpens here, but I'm choosing the Royals for a couple of reasons. First, they're the defending World Series champions, and if they haven't had the best bullpen in the big leagues, it certainly was, and still is, one of the five best. Second, they're in our division, and while they've clearly blown up their payroll for a variety of reasons, we compete against them a lot, and we need to supplant them to do anything of consequence this year.

Their pen is shaped vastly different than ours:


Closer Wade Davis came to the Royals in the James Shields trade, and was groomed early as a former 3rd round draft pick to be a starter. Tampa moved him to the pen, KC back to the rotation, but realized that he was best suited in the bullpen role. Over the past 2 1/2 years, he's arguably been their best pitcher, period, finishing in the top ten for Cy Young and garnering MVP votes last year. He's making $8 million this year.

Kelvin Herrera is entering his fifth full season in the Royals pen, and has been really good over that stretch as well. He's making $2.6 million this year, an arbitration year.

Luke Hochevar was the first pick in the first round of the 2006 MLB draft for the Royals, and was just not all that good. He was more or less a joy to watch pitch as an Indians' fan, but that all changed when they moved him to the pen in 2013. After Tommy John surgery cost him 2014, he returned in 2015, and continued to be a solid, if not spectacular piece to their pen. This year, he's been mostly spectacular, and comes with a $5.5 million price tag.

Danny Duffy is another former third rounder, but with the Royals. He's been successful as a starter, but has become exceedingly valuable in the pen as a lefty who can go some innings, and can make spot starts as well. The Royals pen is so good, that Duffy is back in the rotation now, but was outstanding this year, as the primary lefty.

Joakim Soria signed a three-year, $25 million deal to return to the Royals this year, after a long journey between stints. He parlayed a solid couple of years with the Tigers and Pirates into a long-term deal with the Royals to work high leverage innings. This is the kind of money the Royals spend on the pen. I'll get to that in a second. As you can tell, his numbers are solid, but fans and media are questioning whether or not he should be anywhere near the eighth inning. He's the Royals version of Bryan Shaw, except he would be one of our top two or three relievers this year.

The rest of the pen is essentially to do one of two things: either log innings when they are getting beat up, or do the same when they are beating someone up. Their money is looped into Davis, Herrerra, Hochevar and Soria, so their goal is to get to the sixth, and shut a team down.

That's always fairly suspect with their questionable rotation, but when they are pitching well early, teams don't have much of a chance late.

That said, the Royals rarely worry about their pen.

The Indians will never spend money like that on the bullpen. What they will do is continue to do the exact opposite as the Royals. They hope their starters can get to the seventh with a sizable lead, then hold on to your britches and hope that someone steps up and does more than they should to get to Allen.

Unfortunately, this is the type of thing that ultimately tax a rotation, frustrate a team, and puts too much pressure on the best parts of the pen....Cody Allen.

What should the Indians do? Enter the bomb squad bullpen

The Indians will likely do one of two things: They'll either continue to shuffle around the pieces they have, hoping to find some sort of magic mix, or they'll make a move to try and acquire a bullpen piece over the next six weeks. Chris Antonetti has really done a nice job finding gems in the past, and I wouldn't put it past him to do the same again.

Unfortunately, the parts that they have aren't all that good. Minus Cody Allen, every other member of the Indians pen has one or more questions, including Dan Otero. Does gathering one piece, or two at the most in a trade fix the pen? Will it cost a player they shouldn't give up?

Likely.

Instead, I think there's an outside the box solution that the Indians can utilize for the next 3 1/2 months that could not only lock down the pen, but make it one of the best in the game.

1. It won't ever happen.
2. It WOULD handcuff Francona into using the right pieces, because it would clean out some of the rag-tag.
3. It would give the Indians premium arms, and not 'close your eyes and pray" arms that they are using now.
4. It would allow these pitchers to work with Mickey Callaway on a daily basis, getting them ready for 2016 and beyond.
5. It would be cost effective.
6. It won't ever happen.

I also want to preface this part of my diatribe with this: I AM NOT a normal fan of what I'm about to put down into words, but this year feels different. This starting rotation may be the best I've ever seen in my forty-four years of being an Indians' fan. They can't waste it, and since they won't spend, they need to think outside the box.

Here's what I would do:

1. I'd DFA Bryan Shaw, Joba Chamberlain, Jeff Manship, Tommy Hunter and Tom Gorzelanny. I understand why it won't happen, but it's what I would do. I understand how it would look, and I understand that it's not what teams usually do. Unfortunately, not one of those pitchers exhibit the type of confidence that's needed in the pen. It would leave Cody Allen, Dan Otero and Zach McAllister.

2. I would call up the following four starters from Columbus: RHP Cody Anderson, RHP Mike Clevinger (don't kill me Danny Madden, it would only be short term, and you know I hate even mentioning it, but desperate times...), LHP Ryan Merritt, and LHP T.J. House. That's right, I'd call up four starters in Columbus, and immediately make them the bulk of my bomb squad bullpen.

Why?

Do you really have to ask?

All of these guys aren't going to be pitching in the rotation this year, if ever. At best, they'll be spot starters, unless someone goes down. If you limit their innings now, but putting them into the bullpen, you aren't going to hinder them if they have to move into the rotation, should one of the top five go down. In fact, with three other starters joining them in bullpen roles, you could stretch them out in really unique ways.

I love the idea of sitting these four (add Ben Heller to the mix, if you need an eighth reliever to appease Francona, but only use him in low leverage situation, as they did with Allen many moons ago) down and saying, "you are coming up together to salvage this bullpen. Pitch your asses off. You're a group, and it's literally a one-and-done deal." I know, groupthink doesn't always work, and it's not measurable, but sometimes, it just works. I firmly believe that the Indians' rotation will continue to be special because they are constantly working together to perfect their craft, and wanting to top each other. I think Francona would love the idea of captaining this 'bomb squad' of sorts, that are called in on a nightly basis to save the team.

It will also allow this group to compete for a right at high leverage situations, although I think most of the faithful readers can see where these players will ultimately end up. All four of these guys have been in the big leagues to varying degrees, so it wouldn't be a pressure-filled ride, and it's early enough that they could become accustomed to a stretch run. For the metric beatniks out there, you could really set up for a "best pitcher" scenario, where roles are less defined, because each player knows it's a temporary gig.

You never really know who ultimately plays up to the pen for future reference, and finds a home there for future years. With this current rotation signed until my own kids are heading off to college, there may not be many spots available, especially with four or five prospects littered throughout Double A Akron and below, who look like the real deal. Maybe one of these guys go the route of Wade Miller or Trevor Rosenthal and end up in the pen full-time, or follow the route of Adam Wainwright, Drew Pomeranz or Carlos Martinez, who spent a year in the pen before shuffling off to the starting rotation.

Truth be told, before Bauer's strong run in the rotation, he was the guy that spurred this idea on. He had the look of a guy that could anchor a bullpen before they moved him back to the rotation, other than a couple of odd, long stints that put a dent into his numbers. His locking down the fifth spot in the rotation didn't alter my thought process at all. It only enhanced it.

Imagine those scenarios in which you know they won't need a fifth starter. for five days, they slide right into the bullpen as part of the bomb squad, ready to pitch at a moment's notice. Combine that with rare spot starts needed because of shoulder fatigue or a baby being born, and your roster is already set.

Of course, the big question would hinge on how Francona would use the pen, so he'd have to be the first sell, and you'd have to get him to buy into actually utilizing these guys in a meaningful way. The interesting piece to it all is that they all have multiple inning ability, but equally have the type of stuff that can match up in an effective way in any situation.

You also have to legitimately decide whether or not this stunts the progress of any of these starters. I would suggest that as a starter in Triple A, you're fine tuning skills, not re-learning. You don't want to bounce around your prospects, but remember, the goal is to win a World Series. If you're committed to a one-and-done year, it should hinder them in the least, as lengthening their arms won't be a long-term project after 3 1/2 months.

The List

Imagine, if you will, a rotation and bullpen that looked something like this:

2. Carlos Carrasco
4. Trevor Bauer

The Bomb Squad:

C: Cody Allen
R1: Mike Clevinger
R2: Cody Anderson
R3: Dan Otero
R4: Zack McAllister
L5: T.J. House
L6: Ryan Merritt
Wildcard: Ben Heller

It's an out-of-the-box answer to perhaps the one piece of the Indians roster that could cost them big, if they don't address it quickly, and in a meaningful way.
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