History: Bob Wickman was acquired way back in 2000 from the Milwaukee Brewers for Richie Sexson (although, contrary to popular belief, there were many other players in the deal). And for a time, he was exactly as advertised: a competent closer. He had a stellar 2001 campaign, and cashed in on Mark Shapiro's "reloading" binge after the season.
Half-way into the 2002 season, Wickman injured his elbow, underwent Tommy John surgery, and missed the entire 2003 season and half of the 2004 campaign. Even after he came back, there were serious doubts as to his long-term durability, and Wickman seriously considered retirement at the end of the season. The Indians, after losing out on several other closers, re-signed Wickman to a one-year deal. That $2.5M contract was a bargain; Wickman saved 45 games for the Indians.
Bob Howry was signed after the 2003 season. Bob was coming off elbow surgery; he injured a tendon in his elbow the previous season, and missed the second half of 2003 recovering from surgery on it. He didn't pitch with the Indians until the middle of the 2004 season, but it was worth the wait for the Indians and their beleaguered bullpen; Howry posted a 2.74 ERA down the stretch. The Indians re-signed the arbitration-eligible Howry after the season, and in 2005 Howry picked up where he had left off, putting together his best year since his days with the White Sox.
The Market: Unlike the starter market, there's quite a few quality relievers to be had: Octavio Dotel, BJ Ryan, Billy Wagner, Kyle Farnsworth, Tom Gordon, Trevor Hoffman, and Ugueth Urbina are all available, and that's ignoring many of the good setup men out there. So there probably won't be quite the feeding frenzy for relievers as there will be for Kevin Millwood and the free agent starters.
Replacements: While it's doubtful that the Indians will replace Wickman AND Howry with in-house players, they have a couple young arms that could step into the bullpen in 2006. One is Fernando Cabrera, who you've already seen; he's probably go to be at the very least a 6th/7th inning reliever in 2006. The other is Andrew Brown, one of the players received in the Milton Bradley deal; depending on what happens with some of the veterens, he should be eased into the bullpen at some point in the 2006 season.
The Indians of course can grab a free agent reliever if one or both of the two Bobs don't return, depending on what else they do in free agency.
Contract Issues: Wickman would probably return on a one-year deal given his age, but Howry would probably be looking for 2-3 years and more money than he got in 2005.
Both pitchers have recent injury issues, so there's a big risk in giving either a long-term deal. Howry appeared in a career-high (and team record) 79 games this past season, so there's a significant chance he'll feel the effects of that workload next year. Wickman will be a year older, and his stuff isn't the same as it was when he first came to the Indians; Bob knows how to pitch, but there's only so much you can do to compensate for a loss in velocity and bite in your pitches.
Conclusion: I'm firmly in the Howry-as-closer camp, even with Howry's 2005 workload (it actually will probably keep him more effective given the difference between a closer's and setup man's workload). I don't know how much longer Wickman can be an effective closer; he has much less of a margin for error than he used to have, and at times came very close to blowing several save opportunities. I'd like to bring back Howry as the closer for a year or two as a bridge to Fernando Cabrera. Howry, Arthur Rhodes, Cabrera, Betancourt, and Riske (if the Indians keep him) on paper looks like a solid bullpen, and the Indians need to spend money elsewhere. Yes, I know bullpens are extremely volatile, and yes, the Indians need to be out looking for the next Scott Sauerbeck or Bob Howry to serve as an insurance policy. But I don't think spending $6-8M on two relievers is a great use of the Indians' resources. I'd much rather use the extra $3-4M to make a play for Kevin Millwood or to bring in another bat.
(Future blog entries on Wickman/Howry go here)