For years, the Indians bullpen has not only been a positive attribute of the franchise, but one of the best in baseball. In fact, thanks to the best closer in Indians history, as well as the top left and right handed set up men in franchise history, they ranked third in relief fWAR from 2013 through 2017 despite throwing more than 100 innings less than each of the top two teams (NYY and KC). For some reason, when that left hander goes down with an injury and the right hander leaves for Colorado, the bullpen isn’t quite as good.
While Bryan Shaw isn’t fairing better with the Rockies (6.75 ERA through his first 17 appearances), the Indians bullpen of 2018 doesn’t even slightly resemble those since 2013. They currently (all stats as of May 2) rank 18th in fWAR (0.4) with a 4.57 ERA backed up by a 4.21 FIP that makes it seem reasonable. This is despite Cody Allen, Tyler Olson and Andrew Miller being worth 12 fWAR on their own.
The fact that those three pitchers have been so consistent and reliable is a definite positive starting point. While Miller is on the DL, he is expected to return as soon as his 10 days end and Allen and Olson remain as a strong end game option. With Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer regularly pitching deep into games, that should be enough most days. We can also ignore Jeff Belivieu for two reasons: small sample size and the fact that he will likely be designated for assignment as soon as Miller returns. That leaves Matt Belisle, Nick Goody and Zach McAllister.
The answer to Belisle (3.4 K/9, 5.06 ERA, 4.48 FIP mostly in mop up duty) will likely be similar to Belivieu. It didn’t appear that he would be included among the Indians relievers this spring until after Ryan Merritt went down with injury. He is expected to return shortly and is out of minor league options so, depending on what happens with Josh Tomlin, he could become the Indians long reliever. If you needed immediate hope, those are two easy fixes likely to happen within the next week or two.
The rest of the problems are significantly more complicated. Of the three remaining pitchers, only Goody has a remaining minor league option and he hasn’t been a total disaster. He still has a K/9 of 9.00 and started the year by allowing one run, five hits and two walks in his first eight innings. It has been his last three appearances that have been the problem as he allowed six runs in three innings. While this could merit a trip to Columbus, he was one of the Indians most dependable relievers in 2017 and started off the season that way in 2018. If one of these three pitchers deserves a long leash, it’s him.
If there is one pitcher who can claim bad luck, it is Dan Otero. He has struck out 13 in 12.1 innings while walking one, yet holds an ERA above 4.30. While his FIP is 3.41, his xFIP is 2.06. His ground ball to fly ball rate (3.5) is far and away the best on the team as is his 60% ground ball rate. While he is no Allen, his 28% hard ball rate is best on the team with the exception of the three pitchers who aren’t a problem with the other five pitchers who have been used in relief all over 40%. Otero has no options, has found some bad luck and has peripherals that show he is likely to turn things around. He’s not going anywhere.
That leaves one pitcher who could be deemed expendable should the Indians attempt to improve their pen. McAllister is a free agent at the end of the season and is being paid only $2.5M this season, placing him in a very similar situation to Josh Tomlin. Like Tomlin, McAllister has generally been better than league average, worth an average of 1.1 WAR per season since moving to the bullpen. At the same time, he has definitely shown his ceiling as a pitcher who can strike out a batter per inning, but allows at least home run per nine. While a serviceable reliever, he isn’t reliable enough for tight situations and he’s been particularly rough lately with two outings accounting for eight runs (seven earned) over the last week.
Like Tomlin, the issue with McAllister is depth. If the Indians release him, someone else will sign him, because he does have value, but the Indians can probably do better. There is no place to store either pitcher in case late season injuries cause the team to break glass. Especially considering the histories of Miller, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and the staff in general (Shawn Morimando, Julian Merryweather, Cody Anderson and Merritt all on the DL right now), throwing away a pitcher like McAllister could seem fool hardy. Especially without multiple minor league options.
Speaking of minor league options, let’s wrap up with some internal options who could fill in should the Indians want to send down Goody, release McAllister or if someone else has to hit the DL.
Thanks to those previously mentioned injuries, the starting staff in Columbus has been significantly drained and Adam Plutko will be making his 2018 MLB debut on Thursday in the double header against Toronto. As the 26th man, he’ll need to return to Columbus after the pair of games, but if a player was placed on the DL, he could return before the normal 10 day waiting period. He has pitched well in AAA this year (2.35 ERA, 25 K, 8 BB in 30.2 IP) and there isn’t a long term spot in the MLB rotation available for him with Merritt expected back soon. Other than two games last year, Plutko’s only relief experience came in Cleveland as a September call-up in 2016, but if he wants to stick around in the Majors it will have to be in the bullpen.
Beyond Plutko, another Clipper starter, former Ranger Alexi Ogando, has had a good start to the season. While Plutko could be a long term bullpen option, especially as a long man, Ogando would be a fill in player who would be expendable should the need come up to free up space. A player like Ogando being available makes the idea of dropping McAllister for a young reliever more tenable as he should be able to jump up to the majors at any point to eat innings.
In the Columbus pen, Neil Ramirez, Evan Marshall and Ben Taylor are all having fine seasons and all have MLB experience. However, that was true of Beliveau prior to his call-up as well. While the most experienced of the group, I personally find Marshall to be terrifying after watching him pitch in Arizona over three of the last four years. After a great rookie campaign, he has posted a 7.93 ERA over the last three seasons with a 1.5 HR/9 rate, 4.5 BB/9 and 5.0 K/9. In short, he makes McAllister look like Mariano Rivera and shouldn’t be trusted.
Ramirez is also 28, and while he has had very similar home run and walk rates in the Majors as Marshall, he strikes out batters more than twice as often. Again, we need to take his small sample in AAA with a massive grain of salt, but he has 20 strike outs in 12.1 innings with two home runs and three walks allowed. These numbers are slightly better than his career marks, which should be expected for a veteran Major Leaguer in AAA. Along with Ogando, he could be a decent option for depth if absolute need comes up, but he isn’t good enough to replace McAllister on his own.
Taylor is the youngest of the three relief options at just 25 and has extremely limited MLB experience with just 17.1 innings in Boston last year. Like the other options, he has an extremely high K-rate in Columbus, but he leads the team in BB/9 at 0.9. The Indians aren’t likely to give up on McAllister for a 10 inning sample size, but with long term farm hands Louis Head and Cole Sulser struggling, he may be the best option for a young player to mold into a future relief ace.
Further down, Mitch Brown has been converted to relief and is having a great season with the Ducks as are Matt Whitehouse and Luke Eubank, but these are likely not options for 2018, at least not yet. My personal favorite reliever in the system is Ben Krauth in Lynchburg and he has 23 strike outs in 12.1 innings already (along with just 5 walks, 4 hits and 1 earned run), but only twice in recent memory have the Indians brought up a reliever straight from even AA, Cody Allen and Kyle Crockett. As with those pitchers in Akron, Krauth will likely have to wait until at least 2019.
With all that being said, unfortunately, the solution for the Indians bullpen may just be patience as they wait for the return of Miller and Merritt and hope Goody, Otero and McAllister can return to their career norms.