Up until the beginning of last week, everyone thought (us included) thought one of the Cleveland Indians’ strengths was its bullpen.
Then came the last game of the homestand against Seattle, when Vinnie Pestano, Chris Perez, and Joe Smith all allowed solo home runs to tie a game in which the Tribe eventually won.
Later in the week, Pestano had a bad outing to cost the Indians a win against Boston. His velocity was down, and he turned a 4-3 lead into a 7-4 deficit, although Mike Carp’s double is only that in Fenway Park, and the last two runs scored on a wind-blown pop fly that fell in.
Still, because Pestano has been so reliable for so long, and he is just coming off a stint on the disabled list for a sore elbow, there is reason for concern.
Then yesterday, Perez turned a three run lead into a crushing loss to the Red Sox, and left the game with an apparent shoulder injury in the process.
There are warning signs for both hurlers. Pestano’s strikeout to walk ratio this season is just 12 to 7 in 12 innings pitched. For his career, the right-hander has struck out three times as many hitters as he has walked (180 to 60) and averages almost 11 punchouts per nine innings.
As for Perez, he normally fans 2.22 hitters for everyone he walks and averages a strikeout per inning. His whiffs are on pace (18 in 16-2/3 frames), but he’s walked 10 in his work thus far.
Loss of command and decreased velocity are warning signs of an injury.
So where does Terry Francona go from here?
He does have some options to close, and remember what former Tribe GM John Hart used to say, closers fall out of trees. The skipper can turn to young Cody Allen, who MLB Network’s Peter Gammons called the best young reliever in the AL. Allen already has one save on the year, and has allowed only 16 hits in 23-1/3 innings, striking out 30 and walking seven in the process.
He also has Smith, also with a save on the season. Smitty is a veteran, and has allowed 11 hits in 17 innings, walking five while striking out 18. Because he is a sidearmer, the tendency is to think of him as a specialist vs. right handers, but his velocity allows him to get left-handed hitters out too. He’s allowed lefty hitters a .251 batting average for his career, compared to .218 to right-handed batters.
Bryan Shaw is another intriguing alternative. Shaw, sort of a throw in coming along with Matt Albers in getting Trevor Bauer for Shin-Soo Choo, looks to have closer stuff. He’s allowed 20 hits in 24-1/3 innings, striking out 24 and walking eight. At the very least, he will probably start getting work in the seventh and eighth innings as opposed to the sixth now.
One other pitcher has been mentioned as well, veteran Brett Myers, now rehabbing an elbow problem. The veteran saved 19 games last year in Houston before getting traded to the White Sox, and with Cory Kluber pitching well, there doesn’t seem to be a spot in the starting rotation for him. It is difficult to think Francona will go to him in this role until he has proven to be healthy and effective at the big league level.
Of course, the best think for the bullpen will be more innings from the starting pitchers. The rotation has been a little better than expected, but there have been far too many starts of just five innings. In the last turn through the rotation, both Zack McAllister and Scott Kazmir had “five and fly” outings, and Ubaldo Jimenez made it through only four frames vs. Detroit.
That cannot continue to happen, or the weaknesses cropping up in the bullpen could cause it to implode.
It’s been a tough week for the Tribe relief corps, but only that. One week. The Indians still have some reliable power arms ready to use at the end of games.