Cody Allen will be closing games for the Los Angeles Angels next season, but the long-time fixture of the Cleveland bullpen may still add some value to the Indians’ 2019 bullpen: as a scout. It was Allen who first brought Jon Edwards to the attention of the Cleveland front office after working out at the same facility as the right-hander, per the Athletic’s Zack Meisel. Edwards, 30, made 9 appearances for the Indians last season after making his way back to the game, missing all of 2017 and almost leaving baseball altogether. Now Edwards is one of the arms that manager Tito Francona will turn to as the Indians’ bullpen tries to make up for the loss of both Allen and Andrew Miller in free agency.
The glass half-full approach might look at the 2.9 WAR totaled by the Indians bullpen in 2018 and say there’s not all that much room to make up. Still, the bullpen unit earned 6.9 WAR in 2017 after fueling the Indians’ World Series run in 2016, and they’ve helped spark an evolution of the bullpen league-wide. It’s an uncertain unit this time around, with Edwards, Adam Cimber, Nick Goody, Dan Otero, Neil Ramirez and Tyler Olson the most established arms set to pitch in front of closer Brad Hand. Former starters Danny Salazar and Cody Anderson may get the Collin McHugh treatment if they can get healthy this season and contribute as McHugh did for the Astros last year. Salazar is a particularly interesting wrinkle as his career 10.51 K/9 could move even higher in shorter stints out of the pen. He was a top-3 pitcher in their rotation before getting injured. Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber may have usurped his spot in the rotation, but Salazar has the opportunity to be an impact arm where Cleveland needs the help most.
Newly-acquired youngsters Jefry Rodriguez and Chih-Wei Hu have added to the organization’s overall depth, and they’ll compete with veteran castoffs like James Hoyt, Justin Grimm, and A.J. Cole to claim the open spots in Cleveland’s pen. It’s a long season, and just as often as a veteran bullpener falls apart, a new stud develops out of nowhere. There’s a case to be made that the Indians collection of arms is more than enough to put together a dominant bullpen, it’s just unclear which 7-10 names are most likely to be a part of it. The Indians may feel that the risk of paying significant money to tired, veteran arms isn’t any more risky than relying on a large group of high-end hopefuls to develop confidence and dependability in the nine months from when pitchers and catchers report in February to the playoffs in October. There’s high-end potential in the names above, and they have another reason to be optimistic as well: top prospect Triston McKenzie has risen steadily through the system, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the 21-year-old could be ready for an Adam Wainwright/David Price style call up if he continues to succeed in Triple A.
Francona may cull together a functional group from the arms already in-house, but no matter how you slice it, it’s a far cry from the back-end dependability the AL Central champs have leaned on throughout this current run atop the division. There are other issues at hand for the Indians as well, who are facing a significant amount of roster churn. There’s a leadership void to fill around Francisco Lindor, and it’s unclear at this time who will step up, per Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes. Lindor certainly has the talent to be “the guy” in the clubhouse, but it’s tough for the best on-field producer to also shoulder the load of managing the clubhouse as a lone sheriff. Allen has been a big-time leader in the bullpen, and Rajai Davis a vocal veteran leader who will no longer be with the club as well. They may have more of a fight on their hands for the AL Central crown too, as the Twins added a ton of right-handed power as they look to rebound, and the White Sox rebuild is nearing a crescendo.
Even if they capture their fourth straight division title, the Indians will have a tough time surviving the playoff gauntlet in a top-heavy American League if they don’t get some reliability and shutdown firepower from their bullpen. The Yankees have not been shy about investing heavily in their bullpen for a couple of seasons, and the rest of the league is starting to follow suit, but as of right now, the Indians, as well as some other contenders like the Red Sox and Cubs, are holding steady with the arms they’ve got in-house. In the past it’s been unwise to invest in the bullpen, an area of notoriously fickle year-to-year performance, but the tide has turned and the Indians run the risk of seeming painfully out-of-step. The rotation remains stacked, but given that it only took one year, $8.5MM for LA to lock down Allen, it’s fair to wonder if the Indians are playing a little too fast and loose with their bullpen.
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