The Devil's Pitchfork: The Cleveland Indians' Bullpen

Nino Colla@TheTribeDailySenior Writer IMay 7, 2009

GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 21:  Rafael Perez 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)

A wise man once exclaimed, "Welcome to the Hotel Hell. Check in time is now. Check out time is never."

An even wiser man responded by asking if his room had cable.

Okay, Dwight Schrute may not be wise, but he certainly had a good idea to torture his co-worker.

Just, the execution, as always with Mr. Schrute, was quite poor.

Execution is the name of the game for the Cleveland Indians and right now because of that poor execution, they have to feel like they are in Hotel Hell and no, their room doesn't have cable.

It has a creaky bullpen.

And their salary is way more than $80 thousand a year.

The bullpen woes of the Indians are well documented and if you haven't heard, well bless your little heart.

Surprisingly though, the Indians bullpen does not have the worst ERA in the game. No that belongs to the Angels, who went into Thursday’s action with a 7.52 ERA. Cleveland sits at 6.27 and the Yankees are not far in front of them.

Still bad is bad and nothing beats the display the Indians put on Tuesday night in Toronto.

After regaining the lead, the Indians bullpen proceeded to internally combust. This was a day after the Indians offense had to come back at least three times, twice after the bullpen blew leads.

However the bullpen made it impossible for Cleveland's offense to muster up enough to perform another comeback.

Armed with a three-run lead, Eric Wedge decided to put up-and-down lefty Rafael Perez out to start the seventh. Three runs, nine outs, everyone but Rafael Betancourt pretty much at his disposal. Hell, only six outs if you don't count the ninth inning and Kerry Wood.

You'd figure they could do that, right?

Yeah you don't know the Indians bullpen.

After recording the first out, Perez proceeded to give up a few hits. Losing his patience in Perez's inconsistencies, Wedge decided to give a rare late inning lead shot to Vinnie Chulk, who actually had the lowest ERA among Indians relief pitcher not named Tony Sipp.

But all of Chulk's previous work was in situations in which he wasn't expected to hold a tight lead. He responded by walking Marco Scutaro to load the bases for hot-hitting Aaron Hill.

One hit later, the game was now a one-run affair, and Wedge was out on the mound yet again, this time for Jensen Lewis.

Lewis came in the previous night with one out, after Perez put the Indians in a similar situation. Having already used Kerry Wood to try and save the game in the ninth, Wedge had no other choice but to call up on Lewis, who has given up six home runs in 13.2 innings.

Lewis got the job done on Monday, but Tuesday was a different day. Brought in on yet another jam, Lewis could not respond and the game was tied.

Not knowing where else to go, Wedge trotted out once again, this time for left-hander Tony Sipp, who had yet to pitch on back-to-back days.

Starting to sound like a horror story yet?

Sipp kept stepping up every time the Indians needed him to answer the call, but this time he couldn't get it done. He was successful in tight situations in previous days, but this was just not a test he could pass. With one swing of the bat, Adam Lind ended a six run swing for the Blue Jays.

Sipp then gave up another solo shot to Scott Rolen, making it a 10-6 lead for the Blue Jays and to cap off a seven run inning.

This is just one chapter in the painful novel that is the Indians 2009 bullpen. It's probably the most ridiculous one though.

That was until Wednesday night.

No it was a much cleaner for the 'pen; they didn't give up a run, which is a rarity, but the day equaled in ridiculousness.

Having no other choices left, Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge decided to get creative.

Realizing that Rafael Perez had issues that couldn't be solved unless he kept pitching, they sent him down to Triple-A Columbus, a place where he could pitch without consequences.

They promoted 39-year-old veteran Matt Herges, but really it was with much fear as Herges didn't exactly put himself in a position to garner the call.

And now this is where it gets interesting.

Not having anywhere else to turn, Shapiro made a statement. Realizing that the only thing consistent about his bullpens throughout the years is their inconsistency, he pledged for change.

Not just now, but for the future.

"We've always had a set way of doing things here and tried to respect. But now I think we've got to have a little greater sense of urgency where those things are not going to be as important. So, we're going to have to try and be creative. We're going to have to look at things from top to bottom in our system and look for solutions. Those are conversations we're having right now."

"We are pushing the envelope on internal considerations. The reason we're doing that is we're not going to be able to turn over the whole bullpen from external alternatives. We've got limited external alternatives. We'll continue to be aggressive in pursuing external alternatives, but the reality is the answers are probably going to have to lie internally."

This prompted the conversion of two, and possibly one more, starting pitchers directly into the bullpen.

Aaron Laffey on the major league roster and High-A Kinston starter Zach Putnam, who then got the call to Double-A Akron.

There is also the possibility of super prospect Hector Rondon making a quick ascension up the ladder from Akron's rotation, into Cleveland's bullpen. However, Rondon was destined for Triple-A Columbus by the end of the year and given the patterns of David Price, Joba Chamberlain, and Jonathan Papelbon, this idea isn't that wild.

It's looking ever so likely though that a Rondon move is actually unlikely. The Indians have high hopes for the youngster and don't want to toy with his future in that way. They could look in other, less-riskier outlets at Double-A, perhaps a Josh Tomlin or Chuck Lofgren.

Putnam's rise is much more unlikely though, as he was drafted just last year and now he's already in Double-A. His future was probably more in the bullpen anyway, but this is a pitcher who was in the Kinston rotation to start the year only because of injuries.

Then you have Aaron Laffey, who was basically thrust into the position out of the blue. And to his credit, he's taking it like a true team player, saying all the right things and even go as far as...doing a good job?

Yeah, just hours after being told he was moving to the 'pen, Laffey went out and pitched three shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox, doing something that the rattled Indians pen couldn't do all year.

The Indians have battled through pen issues this year like no one else has. They've had an eight-man bullpen, a seven-run inning, and now a starter convert out of the blue.

I guess all of that is better than having relief pitchers start games like the Rays did a few years ago.

But this isn't the end. The Tribe has trotted out dozens of names, like Zach Jackson, Masa Kobayashi, Vinnie Chulk, Rafael Betancourt, Tony Sipp, and Jensen Lewis. They'll probably trout out a dozen more. But they'll keep doing it until something sticks.

Shapiro's born-again bullpen philosophy that evolved in a matter of days is going to be put to the test. His urgency in this matter, because of the resources he used to get this team in a position to contend, is very high and he won't accept anything less from a pen he basically rebuilt in the offseason.

The team as a whole is hitting well, very well in fact. Their starting pitching has come around to be respectable, with strong efforts from Carl Pavano and ace-like performances from Cliff Lee.

But yet the 'pen, they say it is mightier than the sword.

In this instance, it's mightier than nothing.

Even after some had thought it had potential to be the best in the business. Rafael Betancourt was expected to bounce-back, and that's where the correct expectations end.

Rafael Perez is no longer dominant. Some think it's because of his participation in the World Baseball Classic, where he was dominant.

Jensen Lewis is giving up home runs by the minute, Joe Smith is on the disabled list after a virus wiped out most of his spring and set him back, and when all your options to get to Kerry Wood are not getting to Kerry Wood, how on earth can Kerry Wood contribute?

So the Indians are now at a cross-road. Some of their changes, like Aaron Laffey, need to stick. Jeremy Sowers, who was called up after the game to make the start on Thursday in place of Laffey, will need to carry on the job Laffey was doing in the rotation.

I don't know if I mentioned this, but Laffey was perhaps pitching better than most of the rotation, so it’s now on Sowers to make this change successful.

We may see Hector Rondon and Zach Putnam make unlikely rises into the bullpen by years end. Joe Smith will have to come off the disabled list and contribute. Rafael Perez will have to right himself in Columbus. Things have to change to get better.

All in all, it's on the players to perform. The Devil doesn't hurt you, his pitchfork does. He can only place the pitchfork in a spot that will most likely hurt you the most.

Eric Wedge can only use his bullpen the best he sees fit and Mark Shapiro can only put it together the best way he can. While both are trying to adjust, in every possible way, the players need to do their damage.

So poke pitchfork, poke, or else we'll have to find some sharper ends.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.