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Buffalo Bullpen Roulette

Tony Sipp.  Rafael Perez.  Juan Lara.  Tom Mastny.  Ed Mujica.  Has there ever been more Spring Training speculation surrounding a bunch of relievers, not one of whom is a good candidate to make the team?  The Indians have been stockpiling power relief prospects conspicuously since acquiring Andy Brown three years ago.  When I started ranking prospects here a year ago, I deliberately weighted my system against relievers, yet they kept popping up in great numbers, claiming four spots out of 13 in my most recent list.  Three more are about to be added.

So there really is a groundswell of relief talent in the Indians system, and we were able to get a glimpse of it courtesy of the big-league club's first-half bust in 2006.  Ed Mujica gave up no earned runs for five months, Tom Mastny went from nobody to closer and acquitted himself well enough, and Tony Sipp racked up big strikeout numbers in Akron all the while.  People are interested.

What chances will these guys be given in 2007?  Of course the needs of the big-league club will dictate that more than anything.  But even beyond that, we can't read too much into the handling of these relievers, because there's going to be some roster-rule strangeness affecting the team's decisions.  Mujica and Lara are on the 40-man, and Sipp is not; that is no accident.  Mujica is a year younger than Sipp but was drafted three years younger.  On top of that, the Rule 5 exemption was extended by a year -- after Mujica was added to the 40-man but before Sipp.  So while Mujica was added at age 21 (end-of-2005), Sipp doesn't need to be added until age 24 (end-of-2007).  That in and of itself will distort things.

Lara is the oldest of this group and in the middle with regard to service time and the options clock.  He was added to the roster for the last three weeks of the 2006 season, which for option purposes is no different than adding him at the end of the year.  The timing is interesting, because they could have chosen Sipp, and under the old CBA rules, they may have felt they had to.  But at that moment (Sept. 6), the Indians at minimum knew that the owners were pushing hard for that extra year of Rule 5 exemption in the new CBA -- Dolan was one of the lead negotiators -- and probably suspected strongly that it was going to get done.  That alone may be why Lara got the call, and Sipp never did.

So given everyone's age, ability, development path and roster status ... what does it all mean?

I think it means that Lara gets the first lefty callup spot, particularly if they let Perez resume development as a starter.  Let's not forget, while not a dazzling prospect, Lara's numbers speak quite well for his major-league readiness, particularly as a LOOGY.  He held lefties to a measly .195/.255/.208 line in the minors last season (about 95 PAs).  If Lara keeps up that pace in Buffalo, there will be little reason for the Indians to feel pressured to add Sipp to the roster, particularly if they only need a LOOGY.

I think Sipp eventually will be installed as the closer in Buffalo.  As the best all-around relief prospect in the system right now, and not yet on the 40-man roster, the Indians have every incentive to groom him by putting him in the closer role, and leaving him there all season.  Or they may mix and match him in that role with Mastny and Mujica.  A desire to give all three significant numbers of innings, especially Sipp, probably will preclude any strict one-inning-save usage pattern.

I think Mastny will be the first callup option in Buffalo, not because of his dramatic run of adequacy as a closer in Cleveland, but because of his dominant numbers against righties.  Any righthander called up this season is likely to be put into long relief or ROOGY situations, and last season Mastny held minor-league righties to a ridiculous .153/.230/.190 line with a 12.92 K/9 (about 150 PAs).

Mujica will be next in line behind Mastny.  His ROOGY numbers were also very good (.173/.232./.231) but not quite as dominant (8.53 K/9).  He's also the youngest of this bunch (turning 23 this May) and at least a year ahead of everyone on the options clock.  I believe both of these factors incent the Indians to give Mujica as much development as he needs in Buffalo this season.  While he's a better all-around prospect than Mastny, he's unlikely to be better than Mastny this season, especially against major-league righties.

Perez is a wild card.  As a starter in Akron, he was doing pretty well.   But his peripherals were uninspiring, and as he'll turn 25 this May, they're unlikely to get much better as he gets promoted.  On the other hand, lefties were truly helpless against him: .136/.189/.182.  Realistically, he's probably going to be either the lefty Tom Mastny or the lefty Brian Slocum.  Perez is older than Adam Miller, Fausto Carmona and J.D. Martin, so if he doesn't dominate in Buffalo, he may have trouble breaking into even the 7th starter spot for the big league club, even next season.

It's great if the Indians aren't giving up on Perez as a starter.  It's understandable, and Perez probably wants every chance to succeed in that role.  But it can't be ignored that last season, Perez had a 7.08 K/9 as a Double-A starter, and a 10.87 K/9 as a Triple-A reliever.  So the Indians probably won't hesitate to put him back in the bullpen if that's where the need is.  They may well be expecting for him eventually to be a big-league reliever, but they know he'll get more work in as a starter for the time being.  And he certainly didn't have trouble with the transition last season.

And for all of these reasons, despite the buzz around Sipp and despite his status as our best relief prospect, he probably is fifth in line to be promoted to the big league club in 2007.  His non-roster status is influencing that, but the fact is that there are two terrific RHP options and two terrific LHP options ahead of him.