At first glance, the Cleveland Indians bullpen looks like a bit of an underwhelming mess. The Tribe went into the offseason needing an arm or two to solidify their ‘pen, but all they did was sign a bunch of inexpensive options -- most of which were just minor-league contracts with an invite to Spring Training. No splurge on a lefty reliever, not even a nibble at free agents like Ryan Madson, Tony Sipp, Tyler Clippard, and the like.
However, when you take into account what the Indians actually need in their bullpen and the type of signings they made, their strategy becomes clear. And it is a good one.
Since the start of the offseason -- between free agent signings, waiver claims, and trades -- the Indians have added (or re-signed) 12 relief pitchers to the organization. One (Dan Otero) is currently on the 40-man roster, and one (Kirby Yates) was traded away before ever throwing a pitch. With everything said and done, the Indians are currently looking at 10 relievers on the 40-man roster and eight non-roster Spring Training invites competing for just a couple spots in the bullpen.
At least a few of the spots in the bullpen should be spoken for at this point. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Jeff Manship, and Zach McAllister should all be shoe-ins. But what about those other three or four?
My initial vote for one of the bullpen slots would have been Kirby Yates, but the Indians decided to deal him to the Yankees and crush my dreams of predicting a perfect comeback candidate. Shawn Armstrong, the 25-year-old righty who struck out 11 batters in 8.0 innings of work last season, has a very good chance of earning a spot. Likewise, Austin Adams could get another shot this season after throwing in 33.1 innings in 2015, but it is no guarantee.
Of the players to receive non-roster invites to Spring Training, a few can be pretty quickly counted out of contention for a regular-season bullpen spot. Jarrett Grube and Felipe Paulino have been effective minor-league starters in the past, but both are the wrong side of 30 without much major-league experience to show for it. I cannot imagine either pitcher getting a spot in the bullpen while some of the other recent acquisitions do not. Joe Colon, who re-signed with the Indians on a minor-league deal this offseason, will miss the first 50 games of the season since being suspended for a failed drug test. He probably would not have won a spot anyway, but this reduces his chances even further.
That then leaves Joba Chamberlain, Dan Otero, Joe Thatcher, Tom Gorzelanny, Ross Detwiler, Craig Stammen, Dylan Baker, Kyle Crockett, and Giovanni Soto left to compete for the remaining few spots. The Indians biggest bullpen need this offseason was a left-handed specialist. Four of those on our "still competing" list who throw left-handed include Thatcher, Gorzelanny, Detwiler, Soto and Crockett. So who makes it?
Kyle Crockett’s stats did not look encouraging in 2015, he finished the season with a 4.08 ERA and a 3.53 FIP. However, that was over only 17.2 innings (31 appearances) and five of his eight total runs allowed came in only two games. Outside of a July 23 game against the Chicago White Sox in which he allowed two runs on two hits, and a mid-September meltdown against the Kansas City Royals when he gave up three runs on four hits, Crockett looked like a legitimate bullpen arm.
Assuming the Indians go with Crockett and want to add another lefty, the best option would be Joe Thatcher. With over 400 appearances under his belt, Thatcher carries a career 3.38 ERA and 3.19 FIP. Should he make the team, Thatcher would not necessarily need to be limited to facing left-handers. Over his career, right-handed batters have a .311 wOBA, while lefties hit for a combined .286 wOBA. Conversely, someone like Tom Gorzelanny has a much greater split and could potentially be a LOOGY (LHH: .293 wOBA against, RHH: .346 wOBA against).
Probably the best reliever the Indians signed was also the most recent. Cleveland added Craig Stammen, a reliever who was worth 1.1 fWAR just three seasons ago, for basically nothing earlier this week; mostly because of a torn muscle in his throwing arm that required surgery and cut his 2015 season short after only five games. If it turns out he has not recovered and would not be an asset to the Tribe, this is nothing more than a minor-league deal and Stammen can even opt out and become a free agent again. However, if it turns out that he is back to being around a 0.8 fWAR reliever, the Indians can add him to the roster and still only owe him $1 million (as much as $3 million after incentives), which is a steal.
The Indians have signed a bunch of cost-effective bullpen arms this offseason in hopes that something sticks, but don’t confuse that for being cheap. Let every other team go out and spend millions of dollars on a bullpen arm that to throw a handful of innings. Much like the rest of the Indians roster, the bullpen had its core already, just a few more pieces needed to be plugged in. Essentially, the Indians are betting on one of eight or nine talented relievers taking the next step and being great for a season. That is not a bad bet to take.