In search of relief
When the Indians added right-hander Chad Durbin to the fold last spring, I wasn’t against the idea. Cleveland’s bullpen could benefit from a veteran arm and it wasn’t a high-priced signing by any means.
Durbin was coming off a three-year stretch in which he posted a 3.62 ERA over 194 games, averaging 65 games and 75 innings per year. Beyond the field, he’s a great clubhouse guy and example for younger players.
The only issue turned out to be that the Indians handed him a Major League contract (worth a base of $800K), essentially guaranteeing Durbin a spot in the big league ‘pen. For the sake of protecting depth, he stayed in the bullpen all season, even while turning in one of the worst seasons of his career.
Why am I revisiting the Durbin deal? Well, first, because he signed a Minor League contract with the Nationals this week. I enjoyed working with Durbin and am happy to see he’s getting a shot to continue pitching in the Majors. Second, the Indians have taken different approach this winter while attempting to fill a similar need.
Every team can benefit from having a pitcher who can handle the — for lack of a better term — garbage innings that arise throughout a 162-game season. The trick is to find someone effective in this less-than-glamorous role, taking some pressure (not to mention innings) off the bullpen’s go-to late-inning guys.
Indians manager Manny Acta recently explained it this way: “At the end of the day, we don’t want to end up with two or three guys in our bullpen pitching non high-leverage innings. We want to bring in some guys that you can trust that can give a breather to [Vinnie] Pestano throughout the season, and [Tony] Sipp, and some of those guys.”
Durbin’s season as a whole was mostly forgettable. The righty posted a 5.53 ERA and a 1.639 WHIP, which were his worst marks in both categories since 2004. He also yielded hits at a rate of 11.3 per nine innings. That said, Durbin was actually effective as a mop-up man.
During the 2011 season, Durbin logged 29.2 innings within innings 1-6 for the Indians. In that sample, he posted a 2.43 ERA for the team. It was when Cleveland asked him to work in the more critical innings (7th inning and later) that he labored to the tune of a 7.45 ERA (38.2 innings).
Let’s get back to the 2012 bullpen picture, though.
Right now, there appear to be five spots accounted for between closer Chris Perez, setup men Pestano and Sipp, as well as righty Joe Smith and lefty Rafael Perez. That leaves two vacancies and a slew of arms in the mix to battle for those jobs during Spring Training.
Candidates on the 40-man roster include righty Frank Herrmann, lefty Nick Hagadone and righty Corey Kluber. Hagadone has very limited MLB experience and Kluber is more likely to be back in the Triple-A rotation. So, of the rostered candidates, Herrmann would be a “favorite,” so to speak.
Herrmann appeared in 40 games for the Indians in 2011, but I don’t see him as a “lock” for a job due to his inconsistent performance. He had a 5.11 ERA, so Cleveland isn’t going to just hand him a job without a close look this spring. Like Durbin, though, Herrmann performed well when filling his specific role.
As a long man, Herrmann is most utilized in the early innings when a starter struggles or in extra innings when a bulk of his fellow relievers have already been used. Consider that Herrmann had a 0.89 ERA when he appeared in innings 3-5 or extras (20.1 innings) last year. He had a 7.50 ERA in the 6th-9th innings.
To Acta’s point, the Indians bullpen as a whole performed best when the pitchers were used in their preferred innings. It was when the manager was forced to use his relievers in other roles — a game gone awry can often dictate such adjustments — that they typically found trouble.
Based on their usage last season, I broke the “preferred innings” as the ninth inning for Chris Perez, the eighth inning for Pestano and Sipp, and the seventh or eighth inning for Smith and Raffy Perez. Those five pitchers had a combined 2.32 ERA in their preferred innings in 2011 and a combined 3.50 ERA in all other innings.
The exception within the group last year was Smith, who had a 2.01 ERA overall in an incredible season on the mound.
Ninth innings: 2.58 ERA (15 ER/52.1 IP)
Extra innings: 8.59 ERA (7 ER/7.1 IP)
Eighth innings: 1.89 ERA (8 ER/38 IP)
Other innings: 3.00 ERA (8 ER/24 IP)
Eighth innings: 2.02 ERA (6 ER/26.2 IP)
Other innings: 3.79 ERA (15 ER/35.2 IP)
Seventh/Eighth: 2.76 ERA (13 ER/42.1 IP)
Other innings: 3.48 ERA (8 ER/20.2 IP)
Seventh/Eighth: 2.12 ERA (11 ER/46.2 IP)
Other innings: 1.77 ERA (4 ER/ 20.1 IP)
What does it all mean? Well, as is likely the case with any team, the pitchers perform best when the game sets up so they can work in their “assigned” innings. Meaning, the starter lasts around six innings, and the bullpen lines up so the middle relievers handle the sixth and seventh, the setup men handle the eighth and the closer can work the ninth.
What Acta wants to try to avoid is having to use his late-inning guys in situations that fall outside their regular job description. In 2011, Acta used Raffy Perez and Smith 71 times apiece and he sent Sipp to the mound 69 times. All three were within the AL’s Top 10 for appearances. Pestano also was used more than Acta might’ve preferred.
So the goal remained the same this winter. The Indians wanted to find an experienced arm — much like Durbin a year ago — but the club preferred to do so with Minor League contracts. That way, the team was not handicapped in any way come decision time at the end of camp.
As of this writing, Cleveland has signed four such relievers to Minor League deals that include Spring Training invites: righties Dan Wheeler, Chris Ray, Robinson Tejeda and Jeremy Accardo. I believe the final two spots will likely be filled two from this group and from the rostered options (Herrmann and Hagadone being the top candidates from that list).
Other non-roster invites include lefty Chris Seddon and righties Hector Ambriz, C.C. Lee and Tyler Sturdevant.
Of the first four I mentioned, the 34-year-old Wheeler is an interesting option. He’ll make $900K if he’s on the MLB roster and his deal does not have an out clause. Over the last four years, he’s posted a 3.49 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP over 250 big league games. He fought some injuries last year (4.38 ERA in 49.1 IP with Boston), but had a 2.54 ERA over his final 36 outings (May 21-Sept. 7).
Ray and Accardo both have out clauses (see previous blog entry for details), but both have prior experience as closers and as middle relievers. Tejeda is coming off a disappointing 2011 showing, but from 2009-10 he had a 3.54 ERA to go along with 143 strikeouts over 134.2 IP. Ray, Accardo and Tejeda will all be 30 this season.
My early prediction would be for Herrmann and Wheeler to begin the season in the bullpen, if they both have solid springs. No matter which pitchers take the open spots, I think Cleveland is heading into Spring Training on the heels of a smart winter in terms of building its big league bullpen options.
The Indians’ bullpen has much more flexibility and depth heading into camp this year.