Orbiting Cleveland: Fixing the bullpen

When everything seems to be going right, it’s almost inevitable that something will suddenly go wrong. Just ask the Cleveland Indians.

The Tribe was riding high this week as the team was fresh off a four-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox and had reclaimed sole possession of the top spot in the American League Central.

The Indians had an opportunity to build an even more sizeable lead in the division when they faced the Kansas City Royals this week, but let’s just say things did not exactly go according to plan.

The team got off to a decent start with a 6-5 win on Tuesday, but unfortunately followed up that effort with a 6-5 loss and 10-7 loss on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. In the big scheme of things, two losses may not seem like all that big of deal, especially considering the Indians still just trail the Detroit Tigers by 1 ½ games in the division, but these losses seemed a tad different from the others.

For the past couple years, even when the Indians have been bad, the one stabilizing force on the team has been the bullpen. Regardless of the circumstances, this has been the one area that team can rely on.

Yet, against the Royals, this bullpen was anything but reliable.

Even in the Indians’ win on Tuesday, the bullpen struggled to an extent. For reference, take a look at the bullpen’s line for the three-game series:

9.2 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 7 BB, 8 K

The bottom line is that a team is not going to be able to win very many games when its bullpen is allowing more than a run for each inning that it pitches.

For quite some time, it was believed that the main woe on this team was the lack of a solid left-handed bullpen option, but it now appears if this issue is a lingering one that seems to hang over the entire bullpen.

In 2011 and 2012, Vinnie Pestano was incredibly consistent (2.32 ERA in 2011, 2.57 ERA in 2012), yet the only consistent thing about him this season has been his inconsistency. His walks are up (4.7 BB/9 compared to 3.7 BB/9 career mark) while the strikeouts are down (9.3 K/9 compared to 10.8 career mark).

For the past two seasons, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Pestano would be the closer in waiting, but it now seems as if the Indians should rather just wait and see.

His numbers are not terrible by any means, but they also are not the dominant standard that Pestano has set for himself in seasons past. Of course, injuries have also played a role as Pestano spent time on the disabled list earlier this season with elbow tendinitis.

Pestano has hardly been the only underwhelming arm in the pen, however.

Bryan Shaw looked like a high-caliber reliever at the start of this season, but he has since scuffled as well. He currently owns a 4.66 ERA, and he’s been very rough as of late.

In fact, in his last three games pitched, Shaw has pitched a total of two innings while allowing seven earned runs. Perhaps it’s just some bad luck and things will eventually even out, but the unfortunate thing is that this bad luck has cost the Indians some key games.

Even the ever-popular Cody Allen has scuffled as of late.

While his ERA of 2.55 is still outstanding, in his last four games Allen has allowed three home runs and four earned runs. Is this also just a case of bad luck, or is it a sign that teams may be starting to get a handle on Allen?

The Tribe has to hope that it’s not the latter, but it’s never an encouraging sign when a pitcher allows three home runs in 3 1/3 innings of work, which is exactly what Allen has done.

All the problems mentioned above are genuine concerns, but the greatest bullpen concern for the team remains its left-handed relief options. Or rather, in this case should we say its lack of left-handed relief options.

Between Rich HillNick HagadoneScott Barnes and David Huff, the Indians have tried a bit of everything to try to remedy the situation. However, so far nothing has really worked.

Hagadone has probably been the most effective left-handed reliever used, but that’s not saying much. He currently boasts a 5.33 ERA, and his inconsistency has been startling.

Hill and Barnes have also been terrible and have a 6.95 and 7.27 ERA, respectively. And Huff? Well, he was so bad in the three games he played, that it ultimately led to him being designated for assignment. Not looking too good, eh?

Cleveland, we have a problem.

So, with that in mind, how do the Indians go about rectifying the situation?

It may be hard to believe, but one thing to watch in the coming weeks will be the road back to the Majors for Brett Myers. Yes, Myers was terrible this year as a starter (8.02 ERA in 21 1/3 innings of work), but he does have a solid track record as a reliever.

The key with Myers is going to be health. He’s been on the disabled list since April 21 with inflammation in his right elbow. What’s even more discouraging is that whenever it seems as if he’s ready to come back, the right-hander encounters another setback, so the Indians shut him down again.

If he’s healthy then he could immediately provide a boost to this bullpen. Unfortunately that seems like a big if though, and there still seem to be questions as to whether Myers will even pitch this season.

While Myers could be a possible boost to the rotation if he does pitch, he still does not solve the left-handed relief problem that persists for the Tribe.

In that case, perhaps it can be argued that left-handed starter Scott Kazmir should be converted into a reliever. After all, this is his first Major League action since one start in 2011, and there are concerns about whether his arm can hold up.

But it also may be a bit too premature to convert Kazmir into a reliever, especially considering his recent success. In his last three starts, the left-hander has pitched 19 innings and gone 1-0 with a 1.89 ERA.

Kazmir is no longer the ace that he was back in 2007, but he’s proving that he can be an effective Major League starter once again. A player’s value is always much higher in the rotation, so why would the Indians necessarily want to change an effective starter into an effective reliever? The move would seem to lack logic.

There are, of course, some minor league options as well. Guys like Preston Guilmet and Chen-Chang Lee could possibly provide a boost to the bullpen, but they would still be rookies, so who knows how they would handle the pressure.

Also, neither Lee or Guilmet is a left-hander, so that concern would remain. Columbus left-handed starter T.J. House could possibly be transitioned into the bullpen, but it would be tough for the Indians to abandon him and his development as a starter.

Knowing all this, perhaps the best course of action for the Indians is to go the trade route.

It does appear as if there will be some quality arms available, including Cubs closer Kevin Gregg and former saves champion Francisco Rodriguez, who is currently saving games for the Milwaukee Brewers. Both players are having strong seasons, and they could probably fit in nicely as a possible setup option.

As far as left-handers go, the Miami Marlins’ Mike Dunn is intriguing. While there is no indication as to whether or not he’ll be on the block, let’s remember that this is Miami we’re talking about. If the Indians want to acquire him, then the Marlins will certainly listen and likely entertain offers.

For his career, the 28-year-old Dunn owns an ERA of 3.63 with a 9.8 K/9 rate. He’s also having an excellent 2013 season as he has posted a 2.97 ERA in 36 1/3 innings of work.

No, a trade for Dunn does not immediately make the Indians a World Series contender, but he does immediately become the best left-handed reliever on the team, and this move does help shore up a legitimate hole.

Another option could be the Blue Jays’ageless reliever, 42-year-old Darren Oliver. As usual, Oliver is enjoying a strong season as he’s posted a 3.24 ERA in 25 innings of work. He might not be as appealing Dunn, but the Blue Jays will probably end up being sellers, and Oliver could be a guy to target.

A final possible left-handed target could be the Astros reliever Wesley Wright. Wright’s numbers aren’t great as he has a 4.11 ERA in 30 2/3 innings of work. However, a change of scenery could probably do a lot for him, and his FIP and xFIP suggest he’s actually outperformed his ERA as they stand at 3.16 and 3.37, respectively.
There will likely be other players available and other potential moves that the Tribe can make, but the key will be actually making that move.

It’s tough to realize what was once a strength is a borderline weakness, but that’s the reality with the Indians’bullpen this season. This past three-game series could have probably been a sweep, yet the Indians instead had to settle for going 1-2, which directly relates to the bullpen.

In many ways, the Indians did not lose those games, but the Indians’ bullpen lost those games.

In baseball, a team can never give games away like that, and action does need to be taken. Let’s just hope that it’s the right action.

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