In order to fix a bullpen that’s been by far the worst in baseball this season, the Indians should revolutionize the way they use their pitching staff… again.
To put you in the proper mindset for this article, here’s a snapshot of the Tribe relievers and their run prevention results so far in 2018.
Angry yet? Good. The more emotional you are, the more you might be willing to buy into the wildly outlandish solution I’m going to suggest; one that can give the Indians one of MLB’s best bullpens once again, without requiring them to spend any extra money.
At the top of the above Table of Depression, you’ll notice a cluster of waiver-fodder relievers who’ve passed through the revolving door that is the deep end of the Tribe ‘pen. After watching Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith reach free agency at the end of last season, the Cleveland front office elected to sit tight and watch as all the reliable relievers flew off the board faster than any other commodity on the market, then pick up Matt Belisle off the scrap heap and try to strike gold on the waiver wire.
In truth, it wasn’t that bad of a strategy. After all, the Tribe’s pitching staff was so deep last year that Zach McAllister, Nick Goody and Dan Otero all missed the cut for the ALDS roster despite posting these numbers in the regular season:
Furthermore, the front office had proven adept in recent years at unearthing bullpen treasures at the low price of league minimum salary, or close to it. Otero and Goody themselves were prime examples of that, along with Jeff Manship and Tyler Olson. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that the bullpen simply wasn’t an area worth spending real money on.
Then this happened:
And on Sunday, it led to this:
Evan Marshall joined the Indians from Triple-A on Saturday. On Sunday, he’s tasked with protecting a one-run lead in the eighth inning with two runners on and the reigning MVP at the plate.
That’s not how a bullpen should have to operate. That’s on the front office.
— Zack Meisel (@ZackMeisel) May 27, 2018
Add in the fact that Andrew Miller just landed on the DL for the second time this season and suddenly doesn’t seem like a guarantee to return to form this year, and the bullpen outlook seemingly couldn’t get much worse. The Indians’ rotation has, as expected, been one of the best staffs in baseball, but that doesn’t matter a whole lot if the bullpen can’t bridge the gap to the 27th out.
Luckily, there’s a solution for this catastrophe waiting inside the organization. Or rather, three separate solutions, together capable of transforming the Tribe’s ‘pen from worst to first.
Let’s turn our gaze back to the Tribe’s starters for a minute or so. They haven’t just been good. They’ve been unthinkably dominant, beyond even the lofty expectations placed upon them prior to Opening Day. To put this in context, here’s a table that illustrates the performance of the American League’s 15 best starters by fWAR.
You’ll notice that all four (that’s right, all four) members of the Tribe’s projected playoff rotation appear on this list. Only two other AL teams have multiple top-fifteen starters at this juncture, and six are void of representatives entirely.
Beyond them, Adam Plutko has stepped up in place of the home run butler Josh Tomlin to toss 13 1/3 innings across his first two starts while allowing just three earned runs, good for a 2.03 ERA. That includes shutting out the best offense in baseball by fWAR (the Cubs) in his start on Wednesday. His peripherals don’t paint a pretty picture, and he’s already given up five runs to the White Sox as I’m writing this, but on the whole he’s gotten the job done. It’s hard to ask for too much more from a fifth starter.
The depth beyond Plutko is spectacular, too. Right-hander Shane Bieber, fresh off a rain-shortened no-hitter, has been flat-out spectacular in ten starts between Akron and Columbus, earning him the No. 100 spot on MLB.com’s top prospect rankings. Southpaw Triston McKenzie, meanwhile, comes in at number 22 on that list, and is nearing his season debut after sitting out the first quarter of the season due to injury. Not much further off from a return to health is righty Cody Anderson, a former AL Pitcher of the Month who added 3 MPH to his fastball headed into 2016 but ultimately succumbed to a cornucopia of injuries that culminated in a Tommy John surgery.
It’s almost hilarious that the Indians have such elite starter depth but can’t seem to find a single reliever capable of consistently getting outs. Until you realize that it isn’t hilarious at all; it’s actually a very serious answer to a problem that’s looked unsolvable all season.
In case you haven’t had your “aha” moment yet, I’m pointing out that the only thing standing in the way of the Indians having potentially one of the best bullpens in all of baseball is the silliness of the labels “starter” and “reliever”.
As I outlined here, the game of baseball could be headed towards a format in which pitcher roles are no longer labeled based on the part of the game in which a pitcher is called upon to get outs. The only rules for a pitching staff are that a pitcher who’s left the game can’t return to it later, and that he must face at least one hitter when he takes the mound. That’s it. Beyond that, the only objective for a pitching staff is to get 27 outs in any way possible. In other words, the Indians aren’t in desperate need of relievers, they’re in desperate need of pitchers who can get outs.
If that’s the case (and it absolutely is), then there’s no real reason the Indians shouldn’t start preparing to use McKenzie, Anderson and Bieber for multiple innings out of the bullpen later in the season. If McKenzie do an Amir Garrett impression, if Anderson can be even 80% of Josh Hader, and if Bieber can throw three or four quality frames every few days, then the Tribe suddenly ceases to have any real weakness in its pitching staff. Why even bother rostering guys like Neil Ramirez and Evan Marshall when you can instead call upon one of these guys to face five to nine batters at a time and likely achieve far better results?
“Shouldn’t these guys stay stretched out so they can serve as rotation depth? They’re much more valuable as starters.”
No. They’re much more valuable helping out the Indians at the major league level. I’m asking you to shed your urge to define anyone as a “starter”, and instead think of him as a “pitcher”. Again, the only thing a pitching staff needs to worry about is finding ways to get from zero outs to 27. If one of the Tribe’s four aces gets hurt, they can always stretch one of the above pitchers out at that time.
“Bieber and McKenzie have never played in the majors. What if they struggle?”
That’s why they should be given half a season to adjust to major league pitching prior to the playoffs. Would you rather continue to watch a rotating cast of other teams’ throwaways struggle? At least Bieber and McKenzie have upside; I can live with seeing them implode a few times if it means seeing what we have in a top prospect prior to October.
“This goes against traditions, and is bad for the game of baseball.”
Get rid of your VHS player and trade in your landline for an iPhone, already. Baseball is changing, and I want to see the Indians win a freaking World Series before I have to watch Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer get pilfered by large-market jerkwad teams in free agency.
“What about roster and service time considerations?”
Have Neil Ramirez, Ben Taylor and Evan Marshall really done anything to secure their places on the active or even expanded roster? They’re almost inevitably going to get designated for assignment at some point this season anyway, so I don’t see the downside of cutting bait sooner rather than later. Would it really be that hard for Chernoff and co. to find someone of similar caliber on waivers later in the season if they had to? And as for service time considerations, the Super Two cutoff is probably less than two weeks away. That would be the perfect time to bring up Bieber and McKenzie, and I don’t think anyone is concerned with Anderson’s service time at this point. I’d rather have them up helping this year’s time than wait to get another year of team control over them that could ultimately come in a rebuilding season. I want to see the Indians win a freaking World Series before I have to watch Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer get pilfered by large-market jerkwad teams in free agency.
Imagine upgrading (Neil) Ramirez, Taylor and Marshall to Garrett, Hader and something close to the 2013 iteration Jeff Samardzija. That’s not necessarily the most probable outcome, but it’s the upside of adding McKenzie, Anderson and Bieber to the pitching staff. The alternative is to watch and groan as the Indians shuffle through more quad-A types while desperately clinging to the hope that one of them will become a slightly above-average single-inning guy. Call me crazy, but I think I speak for all Indians fans when I say we deserve to watch a more interesting storyline.
EDIT: Approximately 16 seconds after this article was published, Robert Murray of FanRag Sports tweeted that the Indians plan to call up Bieber to start on Thursday. Hopefully this means he’ll be used out of the bullpen in the 2018 playoffs, though a lot can change before then.
Photo courtesy of Erik Drost, via Flickr