The Indians had a miserable finish to the season last year, though their bullpen wasn’t part of the problem. The team’s relief unit pitched to a 3.68 ERA (3.75 FIP) in the second half while working more innings (273.2) than any other non-Rockies team in baseball. GM Chris Antonetti remade his bullpen a bit this offseason, using some spare bullpen arms to finish the Trevor Bauer three-team trade and another to land Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes. Long-time Tribe reliever Rafael Perez was cut loose following shoulder surgery.
New manager Terry Francona has one of baseball’s best closer-setup man combinations in baseball at his disposal, or at least he did until injury struck last week.
Perez, 27, absolutely terrified me at this time last year. He saved 36 games and was an All-Star in 2011, but the underlying performance told a different story. He posted a dreaded sub-2.00 K/BB ratio (1.50, to be exact) and was an extreme fly ball pitcher (28.3% grounders) who only saw 5.7% of his fly balls leave the yard. His 4.27 FIP and 5.01 xFIP stood out like a sore thumb compared to his 3.32 ERA.
Rather than see his performance suffer, Perez took a major step forward in 2012 and became one of fantasy’s top closers. His strikeout rate (9.21 K/9 and 24.4 K%) jumped in a huge way while the walks (2.50 BB/9 and 6.6 BB%) were by far a career-low. The fly ball thing did correct a bit (9.1% HR/FB), but it was nothing that crippled his performance. Although his ERA got worst (3.59 ERA), Perez pitched much better last season (3.34 FIP and 3.67 xFIP) than he did the year before.
The right-hander was poised to be a high closer pick in fantasy drafts coming into the season, but about a week ago we learned he will miss the next 3-4 weeks with a shoulder issue. That theoretically puts him in line to return before Opening Day, though remember, he is missing basically all of Spring Training and will probably need more than one or two rehab innings to prepare himself for the season. Perez is still someone worth carrying this year even if he doesn’t return until mid- or late-April, but make sure you handcuff him with…
The 28-year-old Pestano is one of the few setup men worth owning in a standard 5×5 league. He’s been in the show for two seasons (plus five appearances) and has done nothing but miss bats (11.04 K/9 and 30.1 K%) and keep runs off the board. Pestano will walk some people (3.48 BB/9 and 9.5 BB%) but otherwise manages to keep his WHIP low because he’s just so hard to hit. He’s death on righties as well (.206 wOBA against).
With Perez out, Pestano is the obvious candidate to step into the ninth inning and assume save chances. It’s not even up for debate, he’ll be the man no questions asked. Even if Perez does get healthy in time for Opening Day, shoulder injuries can linger and he could be shelved again in the future. Either way, Pestano is worth owning because he’s a strikeout (and holds, if you’re in that kind of league) machine who throws a ton of high-quality innings.
Francona has a number of interesting bullpen arms to sort through in camp, most notably the 24-year-old Allen. He zoomed through the minors after being drafted (in the 23rd round!) in 2011 and made his big league debut last summer. He struggled a bit throwing strikes (4.66 BB/9 and 11.9 BB%) but otherwise continued to miss bats (8.38 K/9 and 21.4 K%) as he had in the bush leagues. I wouldn’t say Allen is guaranteed a spot in the Opening Day bullpen, but he should find himself with the team when the regular season opens and he could emerge as one of Francona’s go to relievers by midseason. Saves will be hard to come by because of Pestano, however.
Smith, 28, doesn’t have a platoon split despite his funky low arm slot and is a solid bet for holds, ERA, and WHIP. Not strikeouts or saves though. The 30-year-old Albers fluked into a sub-3.00 ERA last season but he doesn’t miss bats or limit walks. Generic middle reliever stuff. Herrmann spent a bunch of time in Triple-A last year but otherwise pitched well in his limited big league action. The 28-year-old is unlikely to see any kind of work in important innings. Too many arms ahead of him.
Huff, 28, is out of minor league options and won’t squeeze into the back of Cleveland’s rotation without a bunch of players getting hurt these next three weeks. He could stick to his two best pitches in a relief role and emerge as Francona’s top lefty matchup guy, but that is a bit of a stretch. I don’t think Huff will go all Glen Perkins on anyone. The other lefty reliever candidate is 27-year-old Nick Hagadone, who was untouchable for about six weeks last summer before getting demolished in late-June. He punched something (a wall? bat rack? who knows) with his pitching hand (!) and broke a bone shortly thereafter, ending his season. Hagadone should have a leg up on Huff for a bullpen spot, but he does have an option left.
The Indians have a number of other bullpen pieces in camp/on the 40-man roster, including Bryan Shaw, Blake Wood, Scott Barnes, Matt Capps, and Rich Hill. Capps has the name value but has been pretty unreliable the last two years, plus he’s coming off a shoulder problem. Without saves, he’s not worth carrying on a fantasy roster. Perez (despite the injury scare) and Pestano definitely are while Allen, Smith, and even Hagadone are deep league fodder.