During spring training there were many questions, concerns, and fan complaints regarding the Indians bullpen. The team had lost reliable and steady set up man Bryan Shaw after the 2017 season. Andrew Miller elected for free agency and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. All time Indians saves leader, Cody Allen, was also a free agent and signed with the Los Angeles Angels. This left the team with a lot of big shoes to fill and the question of who would the Indians bring in to fill them?
According to fan complaints, it appeared that the Indians did nothing in the off season to address their bullpen needs. They did resign LHP Oliver Perez. They did sign Tyler Clippard, Alex Wilson, Justin Grimm, AJ Cole, and James Hoyt to minor league deals and invited them to spring training. These aren’t exactly the top available free agent relief pitchers fans were looking for. Tyler Clippard, who is currently recovering from a spring training injury, has been assigned to AAA Columbus and is working on his recovery there. So the questions remained, who would be in the Indians bullpen when it came time to play real games and what would be the result?
The bullpen surprises in April
Three weeks into the regular season you’ll find one of the most pleasant surprises thus far is the bullpen. Currently the bullpen consists of: Nick Wittgren, Neil Ramirez, Tyler Olson, Dan Otero, Oliver Perez, Adam Cimber, and Brad Hand. Look familiar? Of course it does. Except for Nick Wittgren, every one of these players pitched steadily out of the Cleveland bullpen in 2018. Jon Edwards and Cody Anderson have also made appearances out of the bullpen as well. Currently this squad ranks 3rd in the AL in bullpen stats. Combined they have a 3.42 ERA, 66 strikeouts and a 1.32 WHIP. Thanks to the brilliant starting pitching so far, they have appeared pitched the sixth-fewest innings (68.1).
Last year this same exact squad struggled at times to hold leads, get crucial outs in high leverage situations, and blew saves. What has changed?
Terry Francona about the bullpen:
Manager Terry Francona provides the answers in saying “maybe it wasn’t fair to the guys last year in not necessarily defining their roles.” “When Brad Hand and Adam Cimber came over it was exactly what we thought we needed, fresh arms, a proven closer and another tough lefty in Brad.” “The problem may have been we put them in situations that weren’t consistent with what they knew in San Diego”. “When you looked at our bullpen in August last year, there was Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and the rest of the squad that had been together the past few seasons. We brought in Oliver in June and he performed amazing. We tried to play matchups, give guys days off and rest as we were preparing for the stretch and post season, and it never really gelled”.
Francona also admitted they didn’t communicate properly with Hand what his role in the bullpen would be and that Cleveland used Cimber differently than San Diego did. “Cimber was a rookie last year when he started with the Padres. Cimber saw time in mid game relief and generally threw full innings. When we acquired him, we thought that with his unique style and with AL teams not having seen him, we could plug him into any situation to get us that crucial out.”
And of Brad Hand, “Brad was excited to be here, ready to compete on a playoff bound team. He knew we had a proven closer in Cody and a high leverage man in Miller. He was willing to pitch whenever and wherever we needed.” “The problem was with him a lefty and Miller a lefty and Hand also being a closer we were asking him to be too much, we were never consistent with him.”
While not an excuse, there are other factors that may have plagued Cimber and Hand in Cleveland last year. A lot of pressure came with being on a contending team. Everyone thought they’d be the saving grace to a lackluster bullpen. However, as they found out, relief pitching in the AL is a lot different than pitching in the NL. Pitching in a playoff atmosphere with high expectations is unlike pitching in laid back San Diego. Even the new climate, time zone, league, and who knows, new food can affect a player. I’ve never been to San Diego but have heard of their famous fish tacos. If those exist in Cleveland, they CAN’T be the same. Cleveland and the Midwest diet is much different from Southern California’s. Culture shock does exist in professional sports.
Brad Hand is the closer
As spring training began in 2019, only one piece of the Indians bullpen puzzle was in place. Early in camp the Indians announced that Brad Hand will be the closer. Everyone else would be competing for a job. The team would look at everyone closely and figure out the proper roles and define who each would be.
Three weeks now into the regular season the bullpen is one of the biggest surprises. With an offense that at times is still struggling at the plate, starting pitching and the relief core has kept this team competitive and winning. Offensive reinforcements are on the way. Jason Kipnis returned to action during the Seattle series. OF Carlos Gonzalez was called up from his conditioning assignment at AAA and is now in the lineup. By Easter Sunday, Francisco Lindor was ready to return. Hopefully these additions will get the offense back into a steady lineup.
This team was expected to have the best starting pitching in MLB. The bullpen was questionable. However, those arms have settled in nicely so far. They are figuring out their roles and getting into a rhythm. They’re stepping into the game for the starters and getting those crucial inning ending outs. They’re holding onto the tie or lead. Closer Brad Hand is doing exactly what the team announced he should be doing, saving games on the back end.
The bullpen still needs definition
As stated, this year’s bullpen squad has figured out who they are. Side armed, submarine style RHP Adam Cimber has matched up against righty batters. LHP’s Oliver Perez and Tyler Olson have matched up against lefty batters. Dan Otero has pitched in middle relief giving a full inning plus when needed. Nick Wittgren, Jon Edwards, Neil Ramirez have all contributed in the later innings. Brad Hand closes. There hasn’t been the traditional 8th inning setup man yet. So far that role has gone to whoever is left in the pen and matches up best with who’s at bat. It could be said that the set up man is the first arm out of the bullpen when the Indians have the lead, regardless of what inning it is.
With the absence of starting pitcher Mike Clevinger for the foreseeable future, the Indians will be making many pitching transactions. Jefry Rodriguez was called up for a start in the recent Kansas City series and he pitched well. With off days on the schedule the Indians sent him back down to AAA. Relief pitchers were called up to bolster the bullpen and the Indians employed an eight man pen. They will most likely use this strategy for awhile. Clevinger’s possible return is August, but is also truly unknown. Until then the Indians will use all options and look for more parts from AAA.
Other experienced relievers are available
The Indians won’t need a 5th starter until April 24th. Currently Cody Anderson is the extra man in the bullpen. AAA Columbus does offer options should the Indians need more arms. Nick Goody is currently in Columbus. He spent 2017 and until an injury occurred, 2018 in the Indians bullpen. AJ Cole, Brooks Pounders, and James Hoyt, while not on the 40 man roster, have MLB experience and their contracts could be selected. Tyler Clippard recently reported to the Clippers. He was in extended spring training in Goodyear, AZ rehabbing through a pectoral muscle injury. He pitched well this spring until that injury. The Indians have him on their radar as he would’ve most likely made the big league club out of spring training.
It’s amazing what bullpens look like and do for their teams year after year. They can go from being the best to worst in a matter of a few games. They can get predictable and figured out by opposing batters. With the only known factor of Brad Hand to close out a game, the Indians bullpen has been everything but predictable. A few months and weeks ago there were questions marks surrounding this part of the team. Now there are exclamation points.