February 2012

Camp Bastian is set up

The one thing I love about the Indians’ Spring Training complex out here in Goodyear is the backdrop. Behind the practice diamonds off in the distance is a gorgeous range of mountains on the southern edge of Phoenix. Spring Training used to be defined by pam trees for me down in Florida. Now, I feel spring’s arrival when I can see those rocks ripping up from the earth.

I have arrived to Camp Bastian out here in the desert. My flight was a little delayed, but I wound up with a nice rental car, a decent little hotel room (the kitchen will be clutch) and the first person I saw upon pulling into Goodyear on Saturday night was Indians closer Chris Perez. He was on hand at the player development complex on Sunday morning as well, along with a dozen or so other players.

I actually was impressed with the day’s turnout. The day before the reporting date, especially when it’s a Sunday, is historically a quiet day at any complex. Consider it the last day off for the players with at least seven months of work ahead. Among those on hand on Sunday morning were Josh Tomlin, Frank Herrmann, Ryan Spilborghs, Dan Wheeler, Robinson Tejeda, Chris Ray, Corey Kluber, Nick Hagadone, Jack Hannahan, Russ Canzler, Joe Smith and Grady Sizemore.

Oh, and Hannahan’s dog, Pete.

I spotted bench coach Sandy Alomar and pitching coach Scott Radinsky, as well as Adam Everett, who is now in a front office role after playing for the Tribe last season. After he finished up some morning meetings, manager Manny Acta took some time to chat in his office for a few minutes, too. Highlights of today’s coverage can be found on Indians.com, as usual.

On Monday, the Indians pitchers and catchers are required to report to Arizona. They do not, however, have to be physically in camp with the team. That changes Tuesday, when they will undergo routine physicals. Wednesday will be the first official workout for the pitchers and catchers. Position player follow suit with the same three-day process, beginning on Thursday.

One little news item: the talks between pitcher Jon Garland and the Indians are still ongoing. Cleveland is still working through some details and it now seems unlikely that Gardland will take a physical on Monday, as initially thought. The Indians reached an agreement with Garland last week on a Minor League contract that includes a spring invite. The team is not anticipating having an update on his status until later this week. So, stay tuned.

Right now, there are 61 players in camp, including 21 non-roster players. Camp is so crowded that the Indians actually had to pair up four players to share two lockers. For those thinking the Indians cornered the market on non-roster invitees this winter, though, know that the Twins have 26 NRIs this spring, including 20 who were signed to Minor League contracts over the winter.

I’m closing up shop for today. Keep checking Indians.com, the blog and Twitter for all your Indians needs throughout this spring.

–JB

Garland, Cespedes and rankings

Depth. It’s a word you’ve heard countless times this offseason as the Indians have signed player after player after player to Minor League contracts that include invites to Spring Training.

Well, guess what? Here comes that word again.

The Indians are reportedly working to sign free-agent right-hander Jon Garland to — drumroll, please — a Minor League contract that includes an invite to attend Spring Training with the Major League club, adding to the team’s pitching depth.

The deal is pending a physical, which will likely take place at the team’s spring site in Goodyear, Ariz., later this week. Pitchers and catchers are slated to report for the Tribe on Feb. 20, so no rush to get this done. Get him into Goodyear, get him his physical and announce the move officially when everyone’s on hand.

This is a low-risk, high reward situation for the Indians, and one that could enhance the team’s rotation depth. This starting staff has the potential to be a solid group, but there sure are a lot of questions.

Can Justin Masterson really take that next step in becoming an ace? Can Ubaldo Jimenez right the wrongs of 2011 and be the front-line starter Cleveland believes he can be? Can Derek Lowe and/or Kevin Slowey bounce back after poor 2011 showings? Can Josh Tomlin build on a promising season that ended in injury?

Will Fausto Carmona (or Roberto Hernandez) ever pitch for the Indians again?

As for that last question, there is no clear answer right now. In a panel discussion with Cleveland.com on Monday, though, GM Chris Antonetti did acknowledge that the club will now call the pitcher by the name Roberto Hernandez. His legal and visa woes in the Dominican are ongoing, though.

Right now, the fifth spot is seemingly up for grabs between Slowey, David Huff and Jeanmar Gomez (in no particular order). Behind that group are arms such as Zach McAllister, Scott Barnes, Corey Kluber and Austin Adams. Garland, if healthy, can undoubtedly boost the depth chart.

His 2011 season ended in July due to a shoulder surgery that required at least six months of recovery. It stands to reason that, if there haven’t been complications, that Garland might be in the mix for that fifth rotation job as well. Another comeback story to follow this spring.

Worth noting is this: Garland’s 2,083 1/3 innings and 132 wins since 2000 rank 12th and 16th, respectively, among all Major League pitchers. He is 132-119 overall with a 4.32 ERA across 353 games in the big leagues. Garland has won at least 12 games in a season seven times and he has topped 190 innings nine times.

A’s to sign Cespedes

The one remaining move on the board that I felt could serve as a statement for the Indians is now, well, off the board. Oakland has agreed to sign Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year deal worth $36 million. CLICK HERE for the story from MLB.com’s Jane Lee.

The Indians expressed interest in Cespedes and this was a move I thought had the potential to benefit the Tribe in a couple ways. First and foremost, he fit the criteria of being under club control for an extended period of time. Second, the price tag in terms of money and length would have shown a willingness to spend and commit.

That said, it takes two to tango. And, clearly, Cespedes liked the A’s better as a dancing partner.

Spring has nearly sprung

I’m leaving Cleveland on a jet plane on Saturday to bring you Spring Training coverage from Arizona. Make sure you’re following me on Twitter (@MLBastian), checking back here on the blog for updates and reading the daily news and features on Indians.com. I’ll be taking photos, too. I’ve got you covered.

For a quick rundown of the Indians’ situation as camp is set to begin, CLICK HERE. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 20. Physicals are Feb. 21 and the first workout is Feb. 22. Position players report on Feb. 23 with physicals the next day. The first full-squad workout will be Feb. 25.

In case you missed it…

Indians signed SS Asdrubal Cabrera on Friday.

Indians Player Twitter Power Rankings

Week 4: Major League Rankings

1. @VinnieP52 (Vinnie Pestano) – Last week: 1 (4)
2. @TheJK_Kid (Jason Kipnis) – Last week: 2
3. @thethree8 (Joe Smith) – Last week: 3
4. @ChrisPerez54 (Chris Perez) – Last week: 4
5. @LouMar6 (Lou Marson) – Last week: NR

Sixth Man: @SippTony - Last week: 5

Top Twitter Prospects

1. @TDaddyNeal (Thomas Neal) – Last week: 2
2. @C_M_Cook (Cole Cook) – Last week: 1
3. @EBerger18  (Eric Berger) – Last week: NR

–JB

Lowe and behold

The addition of Derek Lowe has been mostly overlooked, or seemingly brushed aside, by the Indians’ fan base this offseason. It’s not difficult to understand why this has been the case.

For starters, the Tribe added him via trade three days after the conclusion of the World Series. Boom. Rotation hole filled. And still more than three months of offseason left on the board.

Then, there was Lowe’s ugly 2011 stat line. He went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA in arguably his worst season in the Majors. To top it off, Lowe will turn 39 years old on June 1.

It’s not hard to see why this deal didn’t exactly excite most Tribe fans.

That said, this was a chance for the Indians — a team that has been hurt by injuries for the past few years — to add a durable veteran starter at a low cost. Atlanta is picking up $10 million of Lowe’s $15 million salary in 2012. For Cleveland, it’s an affordable price to pay for a pitcher capable of offering 200 innings and lots of ground balls.

There is also reason to believe Lowe might be on the cusp of a solid comeback campaign in a Cleveland uniform. Now, his days as a 20-win, Cy Young contender clearly seem to be behind him, but there is nothing to say that Lowe can’t rebound to the tune of 12-14 wins for the Tribe. As a Nos. 3-4 starter, that’s just fine.

When determining if a pitcher can indeed enjoy that kind of comeback, you need to look at his previous season (sans the win-loss record) in comparison to other recent seasons. Within the numbers, you can spot trends that might give some insight into what Lowe is capable of doing and what he’ll aim to correct for 2012.

What follows is a chart that shows Lowe’s production over the three-year period from 2008-10. Then, I compared those averages to his 2010 and 2011 seasons. The fourth column is his career averages. I left a few categories blank due to Lowe’s past history as a reliever and as a starter.

Take a look.

After you’ve absorbed all that for a couple minutes, take some time to also examine this next table. This shows Lowe’s trends, along with the hitters he’s faced, over the course of the past three seasons.

Still with me?

What we can see from the first chart is that Lowe’s hits allowed and walk rates spiked last season compared to other recent years. Beyond that, Lowe has been remarkably consistent pretty much across the board. His strikeout ability has actually increased as he’s aged.

So, what gives?

The second chart reveals more of what happened during his 2011 season. To start with, hitters had a bit more luck putting the ball in play (BABIP) in 2011 compared to 2010. That said, the average on balls in play was the same in ’11 as in ’09, when he won 15 games for the Braves.

This leads us to Lowe’s pitch usage in 2011. Over the past three years, the percentage of fastballs thrown has increased (down to 50% in 2011). Lowe started featuring a cutter more often and he turned to his slider and changeup at increased rates again. The result was fewer pitches in the strike zone in 2011.

Even so, Lowe’s strike rate and first-pitch strike rate were actually on par or better than in recent years. But he turned to offspeed offerings more often in an effort to put hitters away. This led to the higher strikeout rate, but is also led to hitters watching more pitches from Lowe than in years past.

That’s where the increase in walks comes into play. When hitters swung, they swung and missed more often. When they didn’t swing, Lowe enjoyed an improved looking strikeout percentage, but he did not enjoy the increased traffic due to walks. More traffic means more pitches per inning, which means a quicker exit.

On top of all of this, Lowe took the mound with the worst run support of his long career. Last season, the 3.1 runs of support he received on average in his starts did nothing to help the problems he ran into on his own on the hill. That’s how a pitcher can wind up with a 9-17 record.

What does it all mean? It means that righting the ship for Lowe might be as simple as an adjustment in his pitch use in 2012. He still induced grounders at a strong rate. He still kept the ball in the yard and he kept the line-drive percentage on par with his career average.

The Indians have made a lot of gambles this winter, including acquiring Lowe after a down season. Given the peripheral numbers from last year and years past, it looks like Lowe is a good candidate to turn things around for the most part. It is one of the many “ifs” that the Indians are banking on this year.

As always, big thanks to fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com for the stats.

–JB

Lonnie Baseball vs. Supermanahan

I did a highly unscientific poll recently. I asked my followers in Twitter who they thought should be the Indians’ Opening Day third baseman: Lonnie Chisenhall or Jack Hannahan?

At the time that I cut off the responses, and tallied it all up, Hannahan got the nod from fans by a count of 95 to 93.

I figured it would be close, but that was surprisingly close. That alone is evidence of how difficult a decision this could be for Cleveland this spring. There will be battles for the rotation, bullpen and bench, but the situation at third base could be one of the more intriguing storylines to follow through February and March.

The case for Chisenhall: he is considered the long-term option for third base. He is believed to be a cornerstone piece within the club’s young core, and his Minor League track record seemingly indicates better success than he showed in his brief stay in the Majors last year.

The case against Chisenhall: he was rushed to the Majors in 2011 due to injury and offensive problems in Cleveland. He was inconsistent in his first tour with the Tribe and showed plenty of room for further development, especially in terms of his strike zone discipline.

The case for Hannahan: he is one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball and Cleveland has a pitching staff that relies heavily on creating contact and ground balls. He showed flashes of offensive improvement last season, especially over the final two months of the season.

The case against Hannahan: his career numbers in the batter’s box paint him as a subpar hitter who will continue to have flashes of success, but probably not sustained success. He is best used as a utility man off the bench or a late-inning defensive specialist.

The trick for the Indians is determining which of these pros and cons outweigh the others.

Examining Chisenhall

The biggest issue facing Chisenhall right now appears to be his strike zone discipline. Heading into last year — before he tasted the big leagues — the main concern was his transition to third base from shortstop. Chisenhall’s UZR/150 with the Tribe was 3.7, which is better than average, but not near Hannahan’s ability.

Right now, Cleveland isn’t as concerned with Chisenhall’s defense as it was a year ago. What was striking last season was the third baseman’s increased strikeout rate and decreased walk rate in the Majors compared to his Minor League performance. That is what will be monitored closely this spring.

“With Lonnie,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said recently, “clearly an area that he needs to improve is his strike zone discipline. In the Minor Leagues, he was a guy that didn’t strike out all that much. His strikeout rates were far lower than they were at the Major League level, so we have reason to believe that he’ll be better.

“That’s clearly an area of focus in his offensive development to be an effective Major League hitter.”

Consider that Chisenhall’s walk rate went from 9.6% at Triple-A last year to 3.6% in the Majors. His strikeout rate climbed from 16.1% at Triple-A to 22% with the Indians. As a result, Chisenhall’s on-base percentage dropped from .353 at Triple-A to just .284 in his time in the big leagues.

As a quick footnote, over the past 10 seasons, there have been 131 American League rookies to have at least as many at-bats (212) in a season as Chisenhall did in 2011. Among that group, Chisenhall’s .282 on-base percentage is the 14th-lowest single-season showing.

Worth noting is the fact that Chisenhall had a .300 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) at Triple-A and a .299 BABIP in the Majors in 2011. So his results when making contact were very similar. He just didn’t put the ball in play nearly as much in the Majors as he did in the Minors.

With all of this said, I will admit that 212 at-bats is hardly the kind of sample size that can accurately predict career production. It is also worth pointing out that the Indians admitted that Chisenhall was rushed to the big leagues slightly ahead of the team’s schedule.

There was also the fact that Chisenhall was hit in the face by a pitch on July 7 — only nine games into his time with the Indians. Following a week off, he returned and hit .211 (.574 OPS) over his next 38 games. In his last 19 games, however, Chisenhall rebounded to hit .315 (.854). That was a promising way to end the season.

Examining Hannahan

Hannahan joined the Indians on a Minor League contract last winter and a Spring Training injury to Jason Donald paved the way for the third baseman to make the Indians’ roster. Now, he’s signed to a $1.135 million deal and seems a lock to be on the Opening Day squad one way or another.

Hannahan’s skill on defense makes him an asset, whether that’s as a starter or as a role player off the bench. Don’t forget that he can also play first base and he’s manned shortstop a handful of times over the years. The Tribe even worked Hannahan out at short on occasion last spring.

His best attribute is clearly his defense. Last year, Hannahan’s 13.6 UZR/150 rated 4th-best among AL third basemen with at least 500 innings in the field. His 5.9 ErrR (visit fangraphs.com’s glossary for more info) was tied for the best in baseball. Hannahan’s .983 fielding percentage was the best in the Majors at third.

This is a bit of cherry picking here statistically, but this next number is interesting nonetheless. Last season, sinkerballer Justin Masterson had a 2.65 ERA in starts with Hannahan at third base and a 3.94 ERA in starts with someone else at third base.

With Hannahan at third base and Casey Kotchman (best all-time fielding percentage at first base among players with at least 700 games at the position) across the diamond, Indians pitchers would have a little more confidence out on that mound. Defense will be critical for this pitching staff.

There is the matter of Hannahan’s offense, though.

On the whole, Hannahan hit .250 with eight homers and 40 RBIs in 110 games. He lost some time due to hamstring and calf injuries, and a mid-season slump helped pave the way for Chisenhall’s arrival. Still, it was Hannahan’s best showing at the plate since 2007, when he was with the A’s.

You could break down Hannahan’s season into three parts. He hit .231 (.673 OPS) from April 1-June 2 before the hamstring injury popped up. He missed a few games and then played through the issue for much of the rest of the year. From June 6-Aug. 4, Hannahan hit .179 (.559). Chisenhall made his debut on June 27.

Following the birth of his son in early August, Hannahan had some time to rest before rejoining the team. Upon his return, Hannahan hit .368 (.991) from Aug. 12-Sept. 28. Within that stretch, he missed time due to a calf injury. But, his hamstring was feeling better and he made a change at the plate.

Hannahan started using a slightly heavier bat, which helped alter his timing.

“It’s almost like I’m starting my swing so early that it’s almost uncomfortable,” Hannahan explained at the end of the season. “But that’s really what gets me on time. I’ve had hitting coaches or my dad or my brother all tell me, ‘You’re not getting down on time.’ It took me getting a [heavier] bat in my hand.

“The only way I could swing that bat was to get down that early. Since I’ve been doing it, it’s like I’m a completely different hitter.”

Hannahan felt he turned a corner, but his career slash line still reads .231/.317/.358 no matter how he says he feels. Cleveland knows what he can do in the field. This spring, the team will be looking closely at his timing and approach at the plate  to find evidence that he did really turn the corner he thinks he did.

Who has the edge?

It’s hard to say who is the favorite for the everyday job at third this season. Like I said earlier, I think Hannahan is on the roster (barring injury) one way or the other. If Hannahan gets the nod as the starter, I think it’s unlikely that Chisenhall will make the team as a bench player.

Chisenhall is still viewed as the third baseman of the future for the Indians, so he needs to be playing every day — whether that’s in the Majors or Minors. If he is thrown into the fire with the Tribe, put Hannahan on the bench as a utility man. If Hannahan gets the job, send Chisenhall to Triple-A Columbus to continue his development.

It’ll be an interesting battle this spring.

–JB

Santana + Kotchman = ?

MLB.com rolled out its 2012 fantasy baseball preview on Monday. Of note for Tribe fans was the player that was rated as the No. 1 catcher in baseball…

Cleveland’s Carlos Santana.

Santana is coming off his first full season in the big leagues and, even though he went through some growing pains (see: .239 average), he still clubbed 27 homers, drove in 79 runs, drew 97 walks and posted a .351 on-base percentage.

The MLB.com projections have Santana hitting .277 with 28 homers, 95 RBIs, 89 runs scored, a .378 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage (.878 OPS) this season with the Indians. Have to think the Tribe would be happy with that production.

It is still worth noting that the Indians plan on having Santana spend some time at first base and designated hitter this year in order to keep his bat in the lineup on a daily basis. Last year, Santana started 88 games at catcher, 63 at first and 1 at DH. I’d wager that the 1B starts will drop and the DH starts will climb this year.

The reason I say that is Santana saw more action than perhaps was planned last season due to the struggles of Matt LaPorta. This year, Cleveland has added a new first baseman in Casey Kotchman to handle the bulk of the playing time. I could see Santana occasionally spelling Travis Hafner at DH more often this year.

This got me thinking about what the production at first base might look like with a Kotchman-Santana combination in the works. Kotchman (a lefty) will start against right-handed pitching while Santana (a switch hitter) would get the nod against lefties throughout the year.

That being the case, I decided to project what they would do under that scenario. Looking back at the past five years, the Indians have faced an average of 116 right-handed starters and 46 left-handers each season. For the sake of this experiment, I projected Santana for 46 games and Kotchman for 116.

I chose to use Santana’s 2011 splits against left-handed starters and Kotchman’s 2011 splits against right-handed starters. This is somewhat of a best-base scenario, considering the ups and downs of Kotchman’s career and the fact that Santana has only one full season (2011) under his belt. So, yes, my math is inherently flawed.

That said, what I did was I took Santana’s numbers in 44 games vs. lefty starters and projected them over 46 games, and then I took Kotchman’s production in 102 games last year against righty starters and projected that across 116 games. Have I lost any of you, yet? Either way, let’s move on.

What I came up for Kotchman and Santana was this:

.303/.384/.460/.844, 15 HR, 38 2B, 68 BB, 580 AB, 662 PA

Indians first basemen combined in 2011 looked like this:

.247/.319/.444/.763, 22 HR, 44 2B, 59 BB, 588 AB, 659 PA

What you see is an improvement in average and on-base ability, which should be a given if Kotchman can come close to his 2011 output. The price you pay is a drop-off in power production. I left out the projects RBI or run totals because that is too dependant on the rest of the lineup.

The hope would be that bounceback seasons by players such as Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Hafner — combined with good showings from youngsters like Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall — would help add to the RBI and run-scoring opportunities for Santana/Kotchman.

Another factor that I’ve obviously left out is the reality that others will probably see time at first base at various points this season. Depending on injuries or other issues, players such as Shelley Duncan or Jack Hannahan could see action at first base. That would clearly influence any projections.

If Kotchman reverts back to his 2009-10 form, the Indians could run into another troublesome year of offensive production at first base.

ABOUT THAT LINEUP: Much is being made about the Indians’ lefty-heavy lineup, and for good reason. It’s not every day that a team has the ability to use an exclusively left-handed batting order. I discuss this issue a little bit in the latest Inbox on Indians.com

What I didn’t delve into was what the Indians’ lineup might look like against left-handed pitching. The way I see it, Cleveland could go with 5L/4R, 4L/4R or even 3L/6R depending on manager Manny Acta’s mood.

Santana and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera will hit right-handed against lefties, so there are two. Right-handed-hitting Lou Marson would start behind the plate on days Santana is at first base, so there’s another.

Then, Acta could spell an outfielder (Brantley or Sizemore) with a righty like Shelley Duncan, Aaron Cunningham, Russ Canzler or even Jason Donald, depending on who makes the team off the bench. Acta could also spell Hafner similarly at DH, or give a day off here and there to Kipnis at second base, or Chisenhall/Jack Hannahan at third base).

Twitter Power Rankings

Decided to switch up the format a bit this week. I am breaking this into two categories now, including one called “Top Twitter Prospects.” I’ll pick three each week and those rankings will be limited to Indians players who have no Major League time under their belt yet. Let’s have at it.

Week 3: Major League Rankings

1. @VinnieP52 (Vinnie Pestano) – Last week: 1 (3)
2. @TheJK_Kid (Jason Kipnis) – Last week: 3
3. @thethree8 (Joe Smith) – Last week: 4
4. @ChrisPerez54 (Chris Perez) – Last week: 2
5. @SippTony (Tony Sipp) – Last week: NR

Sixth Man: @FrankHerrmann56 - Last week: NR

Comment: Sipp’s #countrytweet last week vaulted him into the top 5. Chris Perez was quiet for much of the week, but I can’t blame him. He was spending one of his final weeks of the offseason chilling in the Bahamas. It was a rare chance for others to push up the rankings. Pestano held strong, adding #tweetsfromthetop to his Twitter repertoire. Well played, sir.

Top Twitter Prospects

1. @C_M_Cook (Cole Cook)
2. @TDaddyNeal (Thomas Neal)
3. @L_wash (LeVon Washington)

Comment: Cook has had a strong offseason in the Twittersphere and he really stood out this week with some entertaining twit pics. Neal can also be applauded for his consistency on Twitter. But where was #WashTime this week? He cracked the big league rankings last week and then went quiet. It looked like he hijacked @TonyWolters‘ account at one point, though.

–JB

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.

The Numbers

Chris Perez
Ninth innings: 2.58 ERA (15 ER/52.1 IP)
Extra innings: 8.59 ERA (7 ER/7.1 IP)

Vinnie Pestano
Eighth innings: 1.89 ERA (8 ER/38 IP)
Other innings: 3.00 ERA (8 ER/24 IP)

Tony Sipp
Eighth innings: 2.02 ERA (6 ER/26.2 IP)
Other innings: 3.79 ERA (15 ER/35.2 IP)

Rafael Perez
Seventh/Eighth: 2.76 ERA (13 ER/42.1 IP)
Other innings: 3.48 ERA (8 ER/20.2 IP)

Joe Smith
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.

–JB

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