The short comings of the Tribe bullpen in 2008 is still an open wound for many fans; from Borowski to Betancourt, there were disappointments abound. At the beginning of the offseason Mark Shapiro made it known that one of his main priorities would be to address the bullpen situation, and, at least on paper, present a core of relievers that would look more solid than the 2008 bunch.
In a short period of time Shapiro has done just that, and with a group that could be better than those of 2007, has shown that the Indians intend to be contenders in 2009.
James Pete at MVN presented some interesting ideas about the group of players that will be comprise or are vying for spots in the 'pen including: Kerry Wood, Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez, Rafael Betancourt, Masa Kobayashi, Joe Smith, John Meloan, Tony Sipp, Rich Rundles, Adam Miller and Zach Jackson.
At first glance the nucleus seems to be solid and all the peripheral players also seem to be of good composition as well. However, the same was thought at the beginning of last season. So to properly analyze how good this bullpen could be it is important to consider the numbers each pitcher has put up previously.
First is the big offseason acquisition, Kerry Wood. Kid K has electric stuff that is obviously perfect for a closing role. Despite his injury-riddled past, it seems that closing has been very good for his arm, having only been on the DL once last season for a non-arm related issue.
Last season Wood went 5-4 with 34 saves, 84 K's, 18 walks and an ERA of 3.26 in 64 games. These numbers (and the fact that he and Mark DeRosa are very good friends) give Tribe fans just reason to be excited about the ninth inning, instead of fearing the Borowski blow-up that we had become accustomed to.
Jensen Lewis was one of the brightest stars in the bullpen last season, ending the year by successfully saving all 13 games he was asked to close. The team decided to keep the youngster in a setup role during the offseason, because it would be unfair to expect him to repeat that feat over an entire season.
However, given Lewis' past with the team it is not unreasonable to expect him to be a solid arm in the 7th and 8th innings all year long.
One pitcher that got a bad reputation last year because of a slow start is Rafael Perez. Those fans who continued to watch games later in the season saw him regain most of his 2007 form and become the lights-out lefty that the team relied so heavily on in '07. I would expect Perez to continue his run of fine pitching and assist Lewis as the 7th and 8th inning setup man.
Betancourt and Kobayashi were both a bit lackluster in 2008, and neither posting an ERA under four. Betancourt was expected to pitch as he did in '07, when he posted a 1.47 ERA and was the right to Perez's left. Kobayahshi, on the other hand, was expected to be similar to Boston's Hideki Okajima, but appeared to be more Hideo Nomo circa 2004. In the latter parts of the season Kobayashi, who was accustomed to Japan's shorter season, was seldom seen as a precaution.
Both players signed multi-year deals prior to '08, and appear to be locks for the '09 bullpen. Both pitchers will have less weight resting upon their shoulders this season, and hopefully will respond more positively.
Recently acquired Joe Smith is the type of solid young reliever that the Indians have had success with in past years (see: Perez, Betancourt in '07). Last season in 82 appearances for the Mets Smith posted a 3.55 ERA with 52 K's and 31 walks over 63 innings. Switching leagues could be a concern for Smith, however, it seems as though he will be a good right handed option for Wedge to call on for spot appearances.
It remains to be seen who will be retained of the remaining rookies. Adam Miller could very easily earn a spot with a decent showing in Spring Training. The highly touted prospect has dealt with injury problems throughout his minor league career, but has bounced back and pitched very well in the closing parts of the 2008 season and in Winter Leagues.
Likewise, Rundles, Meloan and Jackson pitched very well at the end of the season on the big league club and could factor in to the teams 2009 plans. Tony Sipp has consistently thrown well in the minors and, as a lefty, could have a spot on the team come spring.
On paper, this bullpen is built for a playoff run. Following the collapse of the 2008 team any optimism that can be taken from this Indians team must. Keep the faith Tribe fans, and believe that this year is our year.