Fixing the Cleveland Indians Bullpen

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Fixing the Cleveland Indians Bullpen
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Indians have been big underachievers this year, going just 31-48 in a year when they were expected to be contenders for the AL Central title and, perhaps, even the World Series.

One major area of concern for the Indians is the bullpen. Cleveland's relievers have combined for a 4.89 FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) this year, worst in the majors.

With journeymen such as Matt Herges, Greg Aquino, and Luis Vizcaino expected to be important contributors in the bullpen, that's no surprise.

The Indians have cycled through a number of relief pitchers this year, seemingly throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks.

Obviously, very little has stuck.

Who should the Indians turn to from within to stabilize their bullpen for the present and the future?

Let's take a look.

As I explained in this article, if you're not playing for the current year, you shouldn't have many declining veteran relievers. There's one key difference between the Nationals (whom I discussed in that article) and the Indians; however, the Nationals are trying to build for 2011 and beyond, while the Indians will want to win next year.

This means that the team shouldn't just get rid of every 30-plus reliever, like the Nationals should. The Indians don't have two or three years to try out different options. They need to quickly establish a bullpen hierarchy now, so they don't have to do what the Mets did last offseason and go blow a lot of money on guys.

The great thing about bullpens is that you can assemble a good one with good scouting and $5 million. You don't have to sign the big free agents. The Padres have a bullpen of complete no-names (Greg Burke, Luke Gregerson, Luis Perdomo, etc.), and they get league-average performance from them.

The Indians need to look at all of the upper-level relievers in their system and decide who can be a quality contributor (let's say 4.25 FIP or less) in 2010, give them looks now, and see if their assessments are correct.

Here are all the in-house relief candidates, and my take on their 2010 (and beyond) abilities, complete with projected 2010 ERAs (This counts Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Anthony Reyes, David Huff, Jeremy Sowers, Scott Lewis, Chuck Lofgren, and Jeanmar Gomez as starters).

 

Jose Veras has been terrible this year, and his 5.67 ERA is actually generous, helped by a. 243 BABIP.

Veras turned in a serviceable performance last year with the Yankees (4.19 FIP), but he's already 28 and his straight fastball, though fast, isn't fooling anyone. Even though Veras can flip a nice curveball, he shouldn't be on the roster of a contending team.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 4.69

 

Mike Gosling was turning in a nice year at Triple-A, but his career big league FIP is 5.63. He's thrown 96 innings, a little more than a full relief season, so it's not really a small sample.

He's strung together two straight good years in Triple-A, but he's also 28. Like Veras, Gosling might be a major league pitcher, but he's not one a contending team should ever have in their plans. Veras and Gosling make more sense as extra arms on bad teams or Triple-A insurance for good ones.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 4.58

 

Jensen Lewis is a bit more enigmatic. He gets enough strikeouts, and does a good job limiting walks, but his homer rates have been all over the place. What's worrisome is that his homer rate is trending way down (as in worse), taking Lewis' FIP with it.

Weirder still is that Lewis is getting more grounders every year, so his groundball percentage has actually been inversely correlated to his homer rate. 

While Lewis' 2009 has certainly been uninspiring, it seems like it could largely be a fluke because of his unusual 17.3 percent HR/FB ratio. He has the stuff and track record to at least be a last-man-in-the-bullpen sort.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 4.12

 

Matt Herges is 39, and he's posted FIPs around his career 4.21 mark for as long as I can remember. Herges is your classic below-average yet playable reliever: He throws strikes with a high-80s fastball and a decent changeup that he throws about a quarter of the time.

He'll also mix in a curve once an outing. Given Herges' lack of upside and chance of implosion at his age, mixed with his rather uninspiring (if inoffensive) track record, he really shouldn't be on a good team's roster next season.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 4.64

 

Chris Perez, just acquired from the Cardinals, has a 4.77 FIP this year and 4.49 career mark. He turns 24 today. Perez has a vicious two-pitch mix, with a 92-97 mph fastball and a huge mid-80's slider.

It's commonly written that Perez needs to throw more strikes, but that's actually not true. Yes, he walks far too many batters (5.18 BB/9), but he also his the strike zone with 53.7 percent of his pitches, well above the league average of 49.1 percent.

What Perez needs to do is put batters away better. They make contact on 80.6 percent of swings against Perez, well above the 77.4 percent league average. This leads to more pitches fouled off, longer at-bats, less efficiency, and more walks.

Perez's problem is one that he should learn to overcome pretty quickly—he certainly has bat-missing stuff. Like Lewis, Perez comes with question marks but fits in a low-leverage role. He also has a ton of upside.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 4.02

 

Rafael Perez entered the year as perhaps the best lefty middle reliever in baseball. Before one month had elapsed, he found himself back in the minors. He's since been recalled, but has struggled to a 9.26 ERA.

While Perez's FIP is much more kind (4.76), it doesn't see Perez's ghastly 26 percent line drive rate, which would put his ERA in the six-seven range. 

It's hard to tell what's eating Perez. He's throwing his two pitches (fastball and slider) over a mile per hour harder than he ever has, so his stuff isn't off. Batters are laying off his out-of-the-zone pitches more than they ever have, and he's finding the zone the least amount of his career, a bad combination.

Perez's stuff doesn't seem to be off at all. He's still hard to hit (26.2 percent of swings off him come up empty, and he's got his velocity in a good spot).

The problem seems to be command, as he's finding the strike zone less, and his pitches in the zone are getting hit (94.6 percent contact in the zone, 26.5 percent outside of the zone). That means Perez isn't throwing enough strikes, and when his pitches do find the zone, they're right down the middle.

If this was a career-long problem, I'd be worried, but it's not. Perez is probably a a mechanical adjustment away from being back to his top-notch 2007-2008 form. He should be in next year's bullpen, no matter what.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 3.46

 

Tony Sipp has been awful as a rookie, with a 6.82 FIP brought on largely by his terrible walk rate of 8.49 BB/9. Sipp has also allowed three homers in 11-2/3 innings. An otherworldly .096 BABIP makes Sipp look superficially good (3.09 ERA).

Before writing the lefty off as too wild to pitch in the majors, let's take a step back.

First off, with a 92 mph fastball and impressive slider, Sipp has the basic tools to succeed, especially for a lefty. He's still just 25 (about to turn 26), so he could improve.

Also, Sipp's minor league BB/9 rates are usually around three, so this could be a small-sample fluke. The number that does look in line with his minor league numbers is Sipp's 10.80 K/9 this year.

Sipp is precisely the sort of pitcher the Indians need to evaluate now. He could be a real major league asset, or he could have "Chad Orvella Disease" (where a minor league pitcher with great control comes to the majors, gets scared by the good hitters, throws the ball out of the zone, and walks far more batters than they ever did in the minors).

Unlike Chad Orvella, who saw a big drop in his K rate as well as had his walk rate increase, Sipp has still missed bats in the majors, so I'm going to predict that he'll throw more strikes. Batters have missed on 38.2 percent of swings against Sipp, which certainly indicates he has excellent stuff.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 4.14

 

Kerry Wood's bad year (5.06) is largely a fluke brought on by a 16.7 percent HR/FB ratio. However, Wood's control has gone south this season (5.48 BB/9).

Wood's fastball is going as fast as it ever has, but it's never been less effective than it's been this season (according to Fangraphs.com's Pitch Type Linear Weights, one of the most awesome things ever).

He's also struggled with a cutter he's added this year. However, his slider and curve have never been more effective, and both of them have been off-the-charts great this year. Consider this stat: This season, Wood saves one run over the average pitcher with every 12 sliders he throws.

With numbers like that, it's clear the 32-year-old is far from washed up. His walk rate trails behind his zone percentage and should come down to the 4 BB/9 range, which is acceptable. Wood's not having a 2-3 FIP-quality year like he did in 2007 and 2008, but he's still a very good pitcher.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 3.42

 

Joe Smith has pitched quite well for the Indians, with a 3.79 FIP. The sidearming righty has also had trouble with walks and liners, and while some of it is his fault, a good amount of it is bad luck. Smith's FIP's have gotten slightly better each season, a trend that the 25-year-old should continue next year.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 3.67

 

Rafael Betancourt has been an excellent middle reliever for years, and while he'll never match his 2007 heights (2.22 FIP) again, he'll be a valuable reliever for the next couple of years. He's been one of the few bright spots in the Cleveland bullpen this year with his 3.71 ERA.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 4.00

 

Rich Rundles is a guy I've liked for years. The big lefty gets written off because his fastball sits at about 84 mph, but it's got a ton of sink, and batters have a difficult time lifting it and Rundles' plus slider. Rundles has struck out over a batter per inning in Triple-A despite his lack of velocity.

In six major league innings (yeah, it's a small sample), Rundles has a 3.28 FIP. He's pitched well at Triple-A for two straight years and gives the team yet another lefty (along with Sipp and Rafael Perez) who is a difference-maker.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 3.61

 

Vinnie Chulk is a classic fringe pitcher. He's 30, he throws a 91 mph fastball and an average slider, and occasionally tosses in a good curve or bad changeup. With a career FIP of 4.46, Chulk is right on the edge between big leaguer and Triple-A player.

Chulk has posted FIPs of 5.53 and 5.96 in his last two big league stops, so he's also trending downward. Like Veras and Gosling, Chulk isn't worthless, but he's also not someone you should carry on a big league roster unless he's filling in for an injured player. 

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 5.14

 

Greg Aquino is similar to Chulk. He's got a 92 mph fastball, an average slider, and an average changeup. He also is 31, has a career 5.10 FIP and 5.07 BB/9, and isn't going to get any better. Again, a nice guy to have stashed in AAA if half your MLB bullpen gets hurt, but not someone who should be in the blueprint for success.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 4.97

 

Hector Rondon is the one true prospect on this list. A starter at Double-A Akron, the polished 21-year-old is just about big-league-ready, and he certainly will be by 2010.

I don't normally advocate moving starters to relief roles, but I feel that Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Chuck Lofgren, and Scott Lewis all rate higher as starters than Rondon, and that he will probably be crowded out of the rotation. 

Rondon throws an 89-95 mph fastball and good change. He's got exceptional command of both. He has an excellent 2.64 FIP in 66 Double-A innings, with 15 walks and 65 strikeouts.

And those numbers are as a starter—if moved to relief, Rondon would pitch even better (it's been statistically shown that pitchers cut approximately one run off their ERAs when moving from starting to relieving). 

As a reliever, Rondon would probably throw 91-97 and mix in his good changeup. He'd have to worry less about his below-average slider than he would as a starter.

Rondon could truly burst onto the scene and emerge as the Indians' best reliever in 2010. Will they let him? It's anyone's guess.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 3.09

 

Fausto Carmona may also figure into the bullpen mix if he is crowded out by the other young starters. 

As much as Carmona has been hyped, it's important to remember he has exactly one major league season where his FIP has been below 4.50 (3.94 in 2007). 

Carmona's forkball has always been his most effective pitch, not his famous sinker, which has actually produced below-average results throughout most of his career.

Not surprisingly, his best season was the season in which he threw the sinker the least (75 percent in 2007) and his worst season was the season in which he threw it the most (81.3 percent this season).

Carmona threw his sinker at 95 mph as a reliever, but it sits around 92 as a starter. If he uses the slider and forkball more, and moves to relief to increase his velocity, he could still be a very good pitcher.

The Indians shouldn't give up on him yet, and they should use the rest of 2009 to evaluate his relief pitching abilities and see if they can get better results with him throwing the sinker closer to 60 percent of the time.

My projection assumes that he moves back to relief and figures out how to get back to at least 2008 form, which I think is reasonable.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 3.97

 

Aaron Laffey should be a starter, but it seems that the Indians like him better as a reliever, so I'll evaluate him as such.

Like Rundles, Laffey is a sinkerballing lefty who doesn't throw hard (87 mph fastball, 79 mph slider, 81 mph changeup).

He's put together a 4.40 FIP in 177 1/3 innings, mostly as a starter. Unlike Rundles, Laffey rarely strikes hitters out, but he has slightly better control than Rundles does.

Laffey posted a 4.88 FIP as a rotation regular last season. If we assume a bit of improvement from then til 2010 and give him the one-run starter-to-reliever adjustment, we get a damn good reliever.

PROJECTED 2010 FIP: 3.59

 

So, after all that, we get 11 pitchers in-house who have projected FIPs below 4.25, the level I said makes a reliever a "quality contributor."

These are the 11 guys worth keeping. If the Indians can trade the other five, great. If not, they should be taken off the 40-man roster.

The 11 pitchers worth keeping are:

Hector Rondon: 3.09

Kerry Wood: 3.42

Rafael Perez: 3.46

Aaron Laffey: 3.59

Rich Rundles: 3.61

Joe Smith: 3.67

Fausto Carmona: 3.97

Rafael Betancourt: 4.00

Chris Perez: 4.02

Jensen Lewis: 4.12

Tony Sipp: 4.14

So let's say the Indians enter the offseason with these 11 guys on the 40-man roster. What should they do to optimize their results for 2010 and beyond?

There are a few directions they could take:


1.) Have a Rondon-Wood-R. Perez-Laffey-Rundles-Smith-Carmona bullpen; trade Betancourt; have C. Perez, Lewis, Sipp start in AAA

This strategy gives the team seven relievers (I'm assuming a seven-man bullpen for these scenarios) with projected FIPs below 4.00. It is a tad expensive, as it involves keeping Wood around. It's nice that the team would have two righties and a lefty waiting in Triple-A, and this bullpen is very balanced, with three lefties and four righties. 

Another cool thing is that everyone except Wood can work multiple innings, and there are two lefties (Perez and Laffey) and two righties (Wood and Rondon) who can get batters from both sides out very well.

As for Betancourt, he could be flipped for one B-grade or two C-grade starter prospects, maybe some Triple-A guys who could challenge Huff/Sowers/Gomez/Scott Lewis/Anthony Reyes, etc. for rotation spots. He can't be sent to the minors, and as the eighth-best reliever in this scenario, the Indians should trade him rather than just cut him.

 

2.) Have a Rondon-R.Perez-Rundles-Smith-Carmona-C.Perez-Sipp bullpen; trade Wood, Betancourt, Laffey, Lewis

You may be thinking, "Why would they ever do this?"

This bullpen gives you seven relievers who project to 4.14 FIP or lower, which isn't all that far off from scenario No. 1.

The big difference is cost: Wood's pricey and Betancourt's got a $5.4 million club option for next year. 

As for Laffey, his value is as high now as it ever will be because starters are more valuable than relievers. If Laffey becomes a full-time reliever, his value plummets. If the Indians trade him now, teams will look at him as a 24-year-old No. 4 starter, a very valuable commodity.

Lewis is a worthwhile guy to have around, but because he's near the back of the good relievers here, the Indians could probably get decent value for him by sending him to a team looking for young bullpen arms. 

Laffey and Lewis are getting close to arbitration, so their salaries will increase soon as well.

Trading Wood, Betancourt, Laffey, and Lewis for a combined six or seven decent pitching prospects (let's say Wood brings back two or three, Betancourt one or two, Laffey one or two, and Lewis one) greatly increases the number of pitching prospects in the organization while saving money (which could be spent on, say, a good starting pitcher) and doing little to harm the bullpen.

 

3.) Have a Rondon-R.Perez-Laffey-Rundles-Smith-Carmona-Betancourt bullpen; trade Wood; have C. Perez, Lewis, Sipp start in AAA

This is the compromise scenario between the "stand pat" mentality of scenario No. 1 and the "trade mania" of scenario No. 2. You save money, get a couple of prospects, and only downgrade from Wood to Betancourt in the bullpen. Chris Perez, Jensen Lewis, and Tony Sipp are still kept around as insurance.

All three scenarios have their advantages and disadvantages, but notice that none of them involve throwing money at someone like Francisco Rodriguez. You see where that's gotten the Mets this year.

Bullpens can be built cheaply and effectively if you know what you're doing, and the important thing is to not blow money on big-time relief free agents when you can spend it somewhere else and not hurt your bullpen at all.

Of course, the Indians can do plenty of other things. They could decline Betancourt's option and then pick from the other 10 relievers. They could move Laffey into the rotation again and move one of the other starters to the bullpen. There's any number of scenarios.

But if Mark Shapiro's smart, he'll realize that the basic ingredients to a good relief corps are already in his lap, and may even be an area of organizational strength.

He just needs to stop giving Greg Aquino, Vinnie Chulk, Mike Gosling, Jose Veras, and Matt Herges innings. Give those innings to Rich Rundles, Hector Rondon, and Fausto Carmona. And make sure Carmona throws his offspeed stuff.

It really could work.

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