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Cleveland Bullpen: A Wasteland of Opportunity

August 20, 2006 | By RotoRob | comment on this post

The Indians’ bullpen has come full circle.

Considered a main stumbling block to the club’s development in 2004, the bullpen was completely rebuilt last year — with tremendous results.

This season, however, the Tribe pen has regressed, and is in even worse shape than it was in 2004, and that’s the main reason why Cleveland has not been able to contend this year, just a season removed from winning 93 games and almost overtaking Chicago for the AL Central crown.

Let’s break down what happened to that phenomenal pen from last year.

  • Fernando Cabrera looked like a closer in waiting after last season, going 2-1 with a hold and a 1.47 ERA in 15 games. This year, he was injured early in the season and has never fully regained his form. Cabrera has been inconsistent at best of late, and his 5.80 ERA with a 2-2 record and just two holds in 34 games is not what the Indians had in mind for him this season.
  • Matt Miller was great in the first half of 2005, going 1-0, 1.82 with four holds and a save, before missing most of the second half. Cleveland was banking a full season from Miller in 2006, but after an ugly start (5.63 ERA in six appearances), something was clearly wrong with him. He had to undergo elbow surgery in April and was lost for the season.
  • Arthur Rhodes was tremendous last season, going 3-1, 2.08, with 16 holds as the key southpaw set-up man, but he was dealt to Philly in the Jason Michaels deal.
  • Bobby Howry handled the right-handed set-up role to perfection, going 4-3, 2.47 with 29 holds in 79 games. However, Cleveland let him walk as a free agent after the season, and the Cubs scooped him up.
  • Closer Bob Wickman recovered from injury to put up excellent performances both last year and this season before the Indians bailed out on the race and dealt him and his $5 million salary to Atlanta for a minor league catcher. Apparently, Wickman was the glue that held the Tribe pen together, because since his departure, the team has floundered, saving just one game in seven tries before finally closing one out yesterday.
  • Rafael Betancourt also looked like a potential closer of the future last season, going 4-3, 2.79, with a save and 10 holds in 54 games. This year, he was on the DL for almost a month and has gone 1-4, 4.81, with only five holds in 36 games. When Wickman was dealt, and the Fausto Carmona experiment flopped, Betancourt had his chances, but he failed to grab the closer reins.
  • David Riske, despite his failings as a closer when Wickman was hurt, was actually quite steady last year, going 3-4, 3.10, with one save. But he was dealt to Boston in the trade that brought Andy Marte to Cleveland.
  • Finally, lefty specialist Scott Sauerbeck went 0-1, 4.04 with 14 holds in 2005, but legal trouble prompted the Indians to designate him for assignment and he’s now pitching in Oakland.

That takes us to the newcomers in 2006:

  • Andrew Brown was called up last weekend after spending the year as the closer in Triple-A Buffalo. He’s thrown two scoreless outings so far, but it’s early days.
  • Carmona was inconsistent as a starter when C.C. Sabathia was hurt, and he was sent back down to Triple-A. After he returned, the Tribe used him out of the pen, and he was excellent, quickly moving into a key set-up role. However, when Wickman was dealt, Cleveland erroneously assumed that this 22-year-old kid was ready to be a closer. It was an ugly show while it lasted, and thankfully, Carmona was removed from the gig, because the last thing you want to do is damage the psyche of a pitcher with great potential like he has.
  • After Carmona imploded, oft-injured Jason Davis got his chance. I have maintained that Davis has closer stuff and could be successful in the role, but after bagging his first chance, he had a rough outing and then blew his second chance. Davis has not pitched that badly, but since moving into the committee of closers, he’s suddenly not striking anyone out.
  • Brian Sikorski, a 32-year-old journeyman, was the latest victim, blowing a save for Sabathia on Friday. His ERA is now almost 6.00. Next!
  • That brings us to Tom Mastny, a pitcher Cleveland got at the end of the 2004 season from the Jays for John McDonald. Mastny was recalled on July 24, and has looked excellent since. Last night, he finally gave the beleaguered bullpen a successful save and so he’s now the flavour of the week.

Pick up Mastny while you can — he’s going fast in AL-only leagues. Manager Eric Wedge was very complimentary after yesterday’s performance (mind you, Wedge might have good things to say about anyone who could actually save a lead these days), saying that Mastny throws strikes, had a good fastball and better secondary pitches than the team expected.

For the Indians, that was just their 17th converted save of the season against (avert your eyes here) 20 blown saves. Since July 29, opponents have won in their last at-bat eight times.

And don’t think this all doesn’t have an effect on the starters. Wedge has admitted to giving his starters a longer leash lately. The results show:

  • Paul Byrd, who averaged just 98.2 pitches per game in the five starts prior to Wickman being dealt, has thrown at least 100 in his last three.
  • Cliff Lee averaged 102.4 PPG in five starts before Wickman left. In his last two starts, he’s thrown 216 total pitches.
  • C.C. Sabathia is always a workhorse, but with at least 107 pitches in each of his last five starts (all post-Wickman), it’s getting a bit extreme lately.
  • Rookie Jeremy Sowers was babied when he first came up (85.5 PPG in four starts), but since the Wickman trade, he’s averaged 96.3 PPG in six starts.
  • Jake Westbrook averaged 97.2 for his final five starts of the Wickman era; since then, it’s jumped to 110.6 in five starts.

This is definitely food for thought for fantasy owners of Indian starting pitchers.

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