Can the Indians Really Depend on the Pen?

Chris KreitzerSenior Analyst IMarch 24, 2009

GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 21:  Kerry Wood of the Cleveland Indians poses during photo day at the Indians spring training complex on February 21, 2009 in Goodyear, Arizona.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Recent reports out of Goodyear have not been kind to Japanese import Masa Kobayashi. He currently is sporting a 14.40 ERA in five innings of work.

Coupled with Easy Ed Mujica's 12.71 ERA, the duo is putting up stats reminiscent of the horrid bullpen of 2008 where a total ofsix pitchers who appeared in at least 14 games had earned run averages above 5.60!

Thankfully, young options (Sipp, Meloan, Jackson) to go with non-roster guys (Chulk, Herges, Saarloos) are available to help sort out the final spots on the bench out in center field.

The thought of those two toeing the rubber this season makes many Tribe fans quiver and for good reason. It seems as the Cleveland Indians bullpen goes, so does the team's final record.

Mark Shapiro has preached many times over the years that a teams relief corps is many times a crap shoot, and by looking at the corresponding ERA's with the Indians win totals, his analysis seems correct. Here is a breakdown of the past five years of Indians bullpens and how the club ended up.

2004 (80-82, Third Place)

Bullpen ERA 4.90 (Ranked 12th in AL) opposing batting average .271

Omar Vizquel's Indian career was ending, Grady Sizemore's was just beginning, and the Tribe Bullpen was just plain sucking. Bob Wickman started the season on the 60 day DL, so the team decided to begin the season with a closer-by-committee format.

Boy, was that a bad idea. In an attempt to bolster the club's holes in the area, they traded a quartet of future big league regulars (Ryan Church and Maicer Izturis to the Angels, Willy Tavares and Luke Scott to the Astros) for Scott Stewart and Jeriome Robertson.

These ill-fated moves, along with the signing of Jose Jimenez doomed the club from the outset. Here are their scary stats...

Scott Stewart 23 games, 13 2/3 innings pitched, 7.24 ERA
Jeriome Robertson 8 games, 14 innings pitched, 12.21 ERA
Jose Jimenez 31 games, 36 1/3 innings pitched, 8.42 ERA

Another star of the bullpen was Chad Durbin, who may have set a record (later matched by Fausto Carmona in 2006) in giving up three walk-off homeruns in the first 28 games of the season.

If there ever were a bullpen from hell, this was it, as 20 pitchers threw in relief for the Indians, headlined by such names as Lou Pote, Jack Cressend, David Lee, Jake Robbins, Rick White, Matt Miller, and catcher Tim Laker. Let's just say the Indians knew things had to improve for the team to compete in 2005.

2005 (93-69, Second Place)

Bullpen ERA 2.80 (Ranked 1st in AL) opposing batting average .224

What a difference a year makes! After starting the season slowly, the Indians charged hard over the last two months and missed the playoffs by a mere one game.

The team re-signed Bob Wickman to close (45 saves, 2.47 ERA), acquired veteran lefties Arthur Rhodes (2.08 ERA) and Scott Sauerbeck (4.04 ERA), and got an amazing year out of reclamation projects Bob Howry (2.47 ERA in 79 games) and Rafael Betancourt (2.79 ERA in 54 games).

The worst regular reliever was probably Jason Davis, and he wasn't that bad (4.69 ERA). This was a bullpen built for the playoffs, but unfortunately the young supporting cast fizzled at the end of the season. Shapiro and Co. may have taken the success for granted.

2006 (78-84, Fourth Place)

Bullpen ERA 4.73 (Ranked 11th in the AL) opposing batting average .274

As Joni Mitchell once wrote, "Don't it always seem to go. That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," could very well have been the mantra of the 2006 bully.

In a desire to strengthen the position player depth in the organization, the Tribe included David Riske (3.01 ERA in 2006) in the Coco Crisp trade (Josh Bard, too) that netted the team top prospect Andy Marte, Kelly Shoppach, Randy Newsom and Guillermo Mota.

In a separate move to augment the loss of Crisp, the Indians also shipped Arthur Rhodes to the Phillies for the immortal Jason Michaels. These two moves, along with the loss of Bobby Howry to free agency really put the bullpen in a state of confusion.

Now granted, Rhodes and Riske were nowhere near as effective in 2006 then they were a year earlier, but maybe keeping the guys together out there who led the league in ERA in their same respective roles may have been a good idea.

Wickman got hurt, Mota was horrible (6.21 ERA), Fernando Cabrera (5.19 ERA) and Rafael Betancourt (3.81 ERA) were tired from their appearances in the WBC, Scott Sauerbeck got drunk and hid in some bushes with a woman who was not his wife (6.23 ERA), and a guy named Brian Sikorski (4.58 ERA) had to be purchased late in the season FROM Japan.

This Bullpen of Horrors almost claimed Fausto Carmona as well. After Bob Wickman was traded the Braves, the Tribe stuck the young Dominican into the closer's role.

In the span of seven days (from July 30 through August 5), Carmona recorded four losses and three blown saves for the Indians, including walk-off home runs surrendered to Boston Red Sox David Ortiz and the Tigers' Ivan Rodriguez.

Thankfully he was returned to his original role as a starter soon thereafter. The lone bright spot was eventual call up of Rafael Perez, a future bullpen star.

2007 (96-66, First Place)

Bullpen ERA 3.75 (Ranked 4th in the AL) opposing batting average .254

Mark Shapiro made it a priority to rebuild the 2007 pen by signing a quartet of pitchers (Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Fultz) to compete for the many open spots in the bullpen.

Foulke never made it out of Spring Training, so Joe Borowski assumed the role as closer. As much as JoBo made Tribe fans' hold their collective breaths all season, he pitched with guts, saving an AL leading 45 games (as well as game 4 of the ALDS). His 5.04 ERA was a cause for concern, but that will be discussed later.

Rafael Betancourt had a downright magical 2007 season posting a 1.47 ERA in 68 games, while Aaron Fultz (2.92 ERA) pitched well in the first half of the season. Aging veteran Roberto Hernandez was a bust (6.23 ERA), but a pair of young pitchers really helped the Tribe make a run to the playoffs.

Lefty Rafael Perez (1.78 ERA in 44 appearances) and righty Jensen Lewis (2.15 ERA in 26 games) provided stability and excitement after the All-Star break.

Ultimately, it was the starting pitching that did in the Tribe in the ALCS, but the bullpen was a huge strength and looked to be one in 2008.

2008 (81-81, Third Place)

Bullpen ERA 5.13 (13th in the AL) opposing batting average .280

With the success of the relievers experienced in 2007, Shapiro felt only minor tweaking needed to be done. He brought in Japanese closer Masa Kobayashi and veteran Jorge Julio to compliment his strong corps of arms.

Kobayashi would serve as a type of insurance in the case of injury or major meltdowns like years' past. It may have been an omen of things to come when Aaron Fultz was released in Spring Training, making the Indians eat his $1.5 million contract.

The GM should have and probably internally did project the eventual decline of Joe Borowski (18 games, 16 2/3 innings, 7.56 ERA while showing at best 85 MPH fastball), but no one would have thought that the guys who had so much success in 2007 would fall completely on their face.

Julio was a flop (5.60 ERA in 15 games). Betancourt looked terrible from the beginning (6.00 ERA in 42 games befor the All-Star Break) and never looked comfortable in closing games after Borowski was removed.

Jensen Lewis's velocity was way down early and was eventually sent back to Buffalo (he rebounded late in the season, assuming the closer's role and saving 13 games).

Kobayashi showed glimpses of being average, but eventually tired and posted a 10.32 ERA over his final 15 games. Here is the list of the over-5.60 ERA for the season club...

Edward Mujica 33 games, 38 2/3 innings pitched, 6.75 ERA
Juan Rincon 23 games, 27 1/3 innings pitched, 5.60 ERA
Joe Borowski 18 games, 16 23 innings pitched, 7.56 ERA
Jorge Julio 15 games, 17 2/3 innings pitched, 5.60 ERA
Brendan Donnelly 15 games, 13 2/3 innings pitched, 8.56 ERA
Tom Mastny 14 games, 20 innings pitched, 10.80 ERA

Those have got to be some of the worst stats a bullpen has put up in the history of baseball. I wouldn't want any of those guys' autographs, let alone them pitching for my favorite team.

The team did play quite well over, going 34-21 after July 31. That success can be attributed in part to the stability of the closer's role (Lewis) and the lack of appearances of the jobbers listed above.


What will the 2009 bullpen look like and perform? The signing of closer Kerry Wood in the off season should solidify the closer's Role (assuming no lingering injuries), allowing the younger pitchers to settle into their respective spots in the Pen.

The acquisition of sidewinder Joe Smith should help as well in providing depth and a different look. If the Cleveland Indians can compete with a better than average bullpen day in and day out, the statistics above support a better record and a most probable return to post season.

Unfortunately as Shapiro has learned, relievers are probably the most unpredictable positions on the diamond. The 2005 and 2007 seasons showed that having a guy finish games (Wickman and Borowski) effectively most of the time correlates into wins.

Wood has saved 34 games in 40 chances and reportedly topped 98 MPH on the radar gun in the National League playoffs. Lewis and Perez have been lights out this spring, and Betancourt seems to be getting things together.

If these five guys can find consistency in their respective roles, 2009 should see a return to greatness for the Indians. It is also an odd year, which for some reason has proved to be good thing for these guys.

From Jim Poole to Jose Mesa, Tribe fans have suffered through some excruciating performance from the last line of defense. Hopefully this season, Tribe fans can smile and not hold their breaths when the gate swings open out in centerfield at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

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