In the game of baseball, nothing seems to ever stay the same.
What may have been a strength suddenly becomes a weakness and what was a weakness suddenly becomes a strength — there’s no method to the madness.
For proof, look no further than the 2013 Cleveland Indians.
Heading into this past season, it seemed as if the general consensus among fans was the same: This team has the ability to score runs and the bullpen will be lights out, but it all depends on the starting rotation.
Fast forward two months later, and it appears as if some of that remains true. The offense remains a force as evidenced by the fact that the Indians rank fifth in the MLB with 257 runs scored.
However, it also appears as if the starting rotation and bullpen have reversed roles. The starting pitching was a major question mark heading into the season, but it seems to have since been righted.
Between Justin Masterson (3.07 ERA), Zach McAllister (3.08 ERA) and Ubaldo Jimenez (3.86 ERA since April 21), the Indians seem to have a solid one-two-three punch in its rotation, and Corey Kluber and Scott Kazmir have also been very effective at times.
The goal for any Major League club is to have three at least quality starting pitchers and while it may be too early to make that statement about Masterson, McAllister and Jimenez, the trio has certainly performed much better up to this point than many had expected.
Just like that, a supposed weakness has become a strength. Unfortunately for the Indians, it seems as if the bullpen has also had a reversal of fortune but not a positive one.
During the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Indians’ bread and butter was the back of its bullpen, which was led byChris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith. It was expected that that would remain the case this season, but things have not exactly gone according to plan.
Tribe closer Perez is currently on the 15-day disabled list with mild rotator cuff tendonitis.
Pestano earlier was on the disabled list with right shoulder tendonitis, and he is struggling with a 5.54 ERA in 13 innings. His velocity also seems to be down a good four miles per hour.
Joe Smith has been the most consistent player of the bunch as he has a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings this season. However, Smith is just one man, and he cannot possibly be counted on to anchor the back of the pen by his lonesome.
Of all the Tribe’s struggles in the back of the bullpen this year, none have been more damaging than those of Perez.
While it’s now evident that Perez was likely pitching hurt, there’s no denying that his performances played a direct role in some tough Tribe losses.
Perez currently has a 4.32 ERA, and he’s already just 6-for-8 in save situations, and he’s also blown a couple leads in non-save situations. In actuality, Perez should be 5-for-8 in save situations as a failed replay call bailed Perez out earlier this season against the Oakland Athletics.
Perez also has allowed a total of four (err five…) home runs so far this season. Last season, he allowed only six all year.
Clearly, the injuries that Perez and Pestano have dealt with have been devastating for the Indians thus far. In the past, the Indians could get to the seventh inning with the lead, and it was already a foregone conclusion that they would emerge victorious, but that level of confidence has now disappeared.
It’s going to take some time for Perez to make it back off the disabled list, and it’s also evident that Pestano is going to need some more work before he’s fully up to speed. Tribe Manager Terry Francona went ahead and named Pestano as the team’s interim closer, but fans do seem to have some lingering doubts about the move.
While it’s not been publicly said, it looks as if Pestano is still hurt. There’s no evidence of this, but just take a moment to watch him pitch — something seems off. Or, if that’s not enough, take a moment to watch the radar gun — something is definitely off.
Like Perez, home runs have also been an issue for Pestano as he’s allowed three home runs in 13 innings despite allowing only seven in 70 innings last season.
So, we know that Perez will not be back closing until he’s healthy and if a case can be made that Pestano should not be closing, then who should be?
That answer is an easy one — Cody Allen.
Very few players have had a quicker rise through the system than Allen.
Drafted by the Indians in the 23rd round of the 2011 draft, Allen wasted no time in making his presence felt. He joined the Mahoning Valley Scrappers shortly after he was drafted and progressed all the way to Double-A Akron by the end of the season.
His overall line from his first professional season was quite impressive too as the right-hander posted a 1.65 ERA in 54 2/3 innings of work between Mahoning Valley, Single-A Lake County, High-A Kinston and Akron.
As everyone knows, Allen continued to progress last season as he started the year out at High-A Carolina before quickly getting promoted to Akron and then Triple-A Columbus. Across those three stops, Allen compiled a 1.87 ERA in 43 1/3 innings of work while striking out 11 batters per nine innings.
He was equally impressive when he made the jump to Cleveland in late July as he recorded a 3.72 ERA in 29 innings while striking out 8.4 batters per nine. His success has carried over to 2013 as Allen currently boasts a 2.16 ERA in 25 innings, and he’s also striking out 11.9 batters per nine innings.
As everyone who has seen Allen pitch knows, this kid clearly has back-of-the-bullpen written all over him. He seems almost destined to be a future closer in the making, but what if we remove the words “future” and “closer in the making?”
For me, it seems as if there is no one else more capable of assuming the Tribe’s closing duties than Allen. Sure, there may be some lumps and bruises along the way, but could he possibly perform any worse than Perez was when he was injured? Also, Pestano and his stuff is not up to speed, so would it not help Pestano if he could continue to get up to speed in his regular setup spot and not have to face the pressure of closing?
There are also some questions as to whether Pestano is actually genuinely equipped to be a closer. For his career, he’s been essentially unhittable against right-handed hitters as they own .144/.234/.227 line against him. However, left-handed hitters have had much better luck against Pestano and own a .258/.340/.453 line. I’m not so sure if those are the type of numbers that I want to see from my closer.
In comparison, Perez has much more favorable numbers in this area as he owns a .218/.299/.368 line against right-handed hitters and a .199/.307/.357 line against left-handed hitters. He may not be as dominant against right-handed hitters as Pestano, but he seems to be much more consistent across the board.
The same can be said for Allen. While his Major League sample size is quite small, his splits are not nearly as distant. Against right-handed hitters, Allen has a .240/.325/.279 line, and he owns a .213/.279/.415 line against left-handed hitters.
A number of those statistics are swayed from last season too as Allen has been even more impressive in 2013. Right-handed hitters are only hitting .178/.296/.244 while left-handed hitters have been equally inefficient and own a .182/.178/.409 line against the right-hander.
The other benefit to placing Allen in the bullpen is that it seems to be the best move for the present and also the best move for the future.
Next season, Perez will be in his third and final year of arbitration. He’s currently making $7.3 million on a one-year deal, and that price point seems all but a lock to come close or eclipse $10 million next season. It seems kind of hard to believe that the Indians would really be willing to commit $10 million to a closer on a one-year deal.
In comparison, Allen will not enter his first year of arbitration until 2016. In other words, he’s very flexible and affordable for the next few years, and this should be something that the Indians want to take advantage of.
Also, let’s say Allen does close out a few games while Perez is hurt, and he manages to do quite well. Perhaps then the Indians could consider moving Perez this July whether they’re in contention or not. If Allen succeeds, the Indians know that they have an excellent insurance policy, and the team should not hesitate to move Perez if a team is willing to part with something of value.
Of course, these are a lot of ifs, and it does not appear as if the Indians have an interest in trying Allen out at closer right now.
But instead of focusing on the ifs and maybes, let’s touch on what we know:
Cody Allen is a legitimate back-of-the-bullpen prospect.
Cody Allen throws four pitches whereas most relievers throw just two.
Cody Allen is just 24-years-old and only getting better.
Cody Allen is under the Indians’ control until 2019.
Closer or not, that’s someone I want on my team.