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What to do with the Tribe’s Pair of Arbitration Eligible Middle Relievers

We’ve already talked about Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen‘s upcoming arbitration seasons, but when it comes down to it, if they aren’t extended long term, the Indians have an easy decision to keep them on for 2016 at whatever single season total they can agree on. There are, however, a couple other pitchers who are set for an increase in pay and are not quite as valuable to the club.

Both Zach McAllister (going into his second of three arbitration seasons) and Jeff Manship (going into his second of four) create significant situations for the Indians front office to look over. Dan Otero is also heading into arbitration, but it is just his first season and he is much easier to keep for next season.

The pair were two of the Indians five most used relievers in 2016, but by the end of the season, the bullpen had ballooned to 14 or 15 pitchers depending on how you count it and, not only will all those pitchers be back for 2016, but quite a few deserve spots on the 25 man. Allen, Andrew Miller, Shaw and Otero make up four guaranteed spots, but beyond them Kyle Crockett and Shawn Armstrong deserve Major League spots while Joe Colon and Perci Garner deserve another look. In addition, Austin Adams could have been cut at multiple points, but remains on the 40 man roster and is out of options for 2016. If the Indians want to keep him, they will have to hold him on the 25 man. With all that and more moves likely coming (like the signings of Tim Cooney and Edwin Escobar early in the off-season) the Indians won’t need any one particular pitcher to make it through the 2017 season.

Zach McAllister

The Indians in house fastball specialist (79% of all his pitches in 2016 were four seamers according to BrooksBaseball.net, another 5% cutters), McAllister made $1.3M for the second best season of his career after 2015. Given a stint on the DL that cost him 16 games and came after two of his three worst appearances of the year, that was pretty impressive.

While throwing one pitch a majority of the time may seem ineffective, McAllister has made it work. In 2016, 20% of his four seam pitches were fouled off, 11.5% were swung on and missed and 33% went for balls. Only 6% were hit for line drives and 0.76% for home runs. It may just be one pitch, but it is a good one.

Set to make about $1.7M next year according to MLBTradeRumors, the Indians could spend a lot more in free agency and get a player of significantly less value. With a 3.55 ERA and 9.3 K/9, there is no reason McAllister won’t be a useful early man out of the pen for the Tribe next year. The three headed bullpen monster of Allen, Miller and Shaw should be plenty to take care of any difficult situation, especially if Otero is able to have another great season and one of the younger players proves trustworthy. The Indians don’t need eight perfect relievers and McAllister’s versatility can make him particularly useful when he is not needed in this late inning role.

If there is one worry for ZMac, it’s in his control, where his BB/9 has increased each of the past three seasons while his workload has decreased each year. His FIP of 4.01 in 2016 reflects this after an FIP of 3.15 in his first full season where he was exclusively used as a reliever. McAllister definitely benefited from the Indians improved defense and possibly a little luck as well. It wouldn’t be a great idea to push McAllister beyond his 2016 in 2017, although as mentioned, for less than $2M, he should definitely be part of any plans.

Jeff Manship

While McAllister is just 28 and still in his prime, Manship got a late start to his career and is already 31 going on Atchison. Speaking of Scott Atchison, while he is much older than Manship, he also had a very uncharacteristic season in his first year in Cleveland, then quickly dissolved back into a 4.00+ ERA pitcher the next season.

Manship came out of nowhere in 2015 with his 0.92 ERA in 39.1 innings, but an FIP of 2.63 made it as obvious as his previous career ERA of 6.49 that this wasn’t sustainable. In 2016, he was still a serviceable pitcher, but much more like his previous years. With a 3.12 ERA that was left largely unsupported by a 5.11 FIP, 1.5 HR/9, 4.6 BB/9 and 7.5 K/9, the idea of a return of the Manship is less than exciting.

MLBTR projects Manship to earn about $1.2M in arbitration, which is also team friendly and the Indians will most likely just pay him and bring him back, but that doesn’t mean they should. On the surface, Manship looks like an extremely dependable reliever. His splits against left and right handed batters are so even that he literally allowed the same average to both sides last year at .241 (although an OPS of .795 vs LHH makes him better off against right siders). His incredible lucky streak lasted 24 games from August 26th, 2015 through May 5th, 2016 as he didn’t allow a run over 24 appearances and 23.2 innings. When that went away with a four hit, no out, three run appearance against Kansas City on May 7th, you couldn’t hold it against him as his numbers still looked great spread over the duration.

The real answer to his success, however, was not just luck but the Manager of the Year in 2016, Terry Francona. As can be seen by his average of less than an inning per appearance when he was the hottest pitcher in the pen, Francona picked his match-ups extremely well with Manship and got him out at the first sign of trouble. Four times in the past two seasons Manship has walked two batters in an inning (a difficult spot for a reliever to put himself in), but only once did any of those runs score. More often, Manship would allow a runner to reach, get an out or two, then get pulled from the game.

There is another component of Manship’s usage that helped him out. His appearances almost never mattered. The Indians overall record in games Manship has pitched has been 28 and 57, a .329 winning percent for a team has won 54% of their games the last two years (62% of those Manship didn’t pitch in). This is not the argument that it is Manship’s fault they lost, in fact, he has just two losses and one blown save in those two years. The argument is that nearly anyone could do what Manship has done. In the 18 wins he pitched in during 2016, the Indians averaged winning by 3.4 runs and that includes when he was used in tighter situations late in the season thanks to injuries. Looking only to August 11th, the Indians averaged a 3.8 run victory when he was used during a win.

Is there any question that Shawn Armstrong, who allowed 36 hits in 59.2 innings in 2016 across AAA and Cleveland, could not only match, but vastly surpass Manship? Not only was he good overall, but his splits provide much more confidence than Manship’s (.194/.318/.222 vs RHH and .142/.260/.189).

If you assume Allen, Miller, Shaw, Otero and McAllister, that leaves either two or three free bullpen spots. One of those will surely go to a left hander, either Crockett or a new pitcher, to save Miller for truly important situations, not just one batter early in a game. The other should go to Armstrong. With Colon and Garner also showing promise and plenty more exciting young relievers coming up, there is no reason the Indians should keep tossing out Manship in zero leverage situations. Those innings might not be important to the team, but they would be to the development of the next generation of bullpen stars. With Allen, Miller and Shaw all currently expected to be gone after 2018, it’s extremely important to start working on that next generation right now.