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April 25, 2005

Prospectus Today

Buying Low

by Joe Sheehan

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It was a fairly innocuous move, buried in last week's Transaction Analysis:

Optioned RHP Matt Miller to Buffalo; activated LHP C.C. Sabathia from the 15-day DL. [4/16]
The Indians needed some space on what is already a 12-man staff, and Miller had an option, allowing them, as Chris Kahrl explained, to keep Jason Davis as a true long man.

What's notable about this is that in less than a year, the Indians have gone from having the worst bullpen in the AL to having one of the best. They can discard Miller, who would have been far and away their most effective reliever at this time last year, because Mark Shapiro has done an amazing job of revamping the unit on the fly, turning it from an arson squad to a true competitive advantage.

A year ago, the Indians were losing on a regular basis because of their awful bullpen. David Riske, so effective in '03, opened the year by allowing runs in eight of his first 12 appearances, blowing the closer job. Jose Jimenez, a curious offseason signing given his performance trend, was handed the job and was just as bad as Riske. Despite this, he was being used as the closer deep into June, even while posting an ERA only Boeing could love. Rafael Betancourt, a sleeper candidate coming into the '04 season, was putting up a great strikeout-to-walk ratio but allowing a tremendous number of hits on balls in play. An attempt to give him some high-leverage innings in the wake of Riske's failings was short-lived.

The only Tribe reliever who was even remotely effective in the first half was veteran Rick White, who pitched fairly well in low-leverage relief. Everyone else, including an assortment of C prospects and retreads such as Jack Cressend and Scott Stewart, bled runs.

The key moment for the pen was the first week of July. In a six-day span, injury cases Bob Wickman and Bobby Howry came off of the disabled list, and Jimenez was released. Getting back the nominal closer, Wickman, was less important than just getting back an effective pitcher. Wickman would pitch very well for two months before tiring a bit down the stretch, perhaps a symptom of his rapid return from Tommy John surgery. Howry, also coming off of elbow surgery, was the set-up man by September. Add in the specialist tandem of Miller and Cliff Bartosh, along with the return to form of Riske, and by the end of the season, the Indians' bullpen was a completely different entity, actually the best part of the team over the season's last six weeks.

The changes continued over the winter. Mark Shapiro dealt from his depth to bolster the pen, sending outfielder Matt Lawton to the Pirates for southpaw Arthur Rhodes. Coming off a second straight rough season, Rhodes was available in what amounted to a dump by the Pirates; it was a reasonable risk, as even the in-season shuffling hadn't left the Indians with lefty relief to match its depth from the right side.

"Buying low," in fact, is a reasonable description of all of Shapiro's relief moves. Last week, I marveled at the Dodgers' bullpen, which includes four guys who have virtually no major-league track record. Shapiro has applied the general principle--relief pitching is fungible and can be acquired cheaply--in a slightly different way, making a number of small bets on guys coming off of bad years or injuries. The Red Sox have been doing this as well, but with much less success.

The Indians' bullpen currently includes four pitchers--Howry, Rhodes, Betancourt and Scott Sauerbeck--who were acquired at perhaps the lowest perceived value of their careers. Wickman was the team's closer for a number of seasons, but the '03 elbow surgery kept his cost down in 2005. Riske and Davis, the only home-grown Tribe relievers, round out the group, and are both inexpensive.

The biggest factor in the bullpen's success has been its command. Through yesterday, Tribe relievers have a 2.36 ERA in 53 1/3 innings, a figure driven by a 43/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and not one Indians' reliever has walked more than two men. Their collective hit rate is a bit low (37 in 53 1/3 IP), reflecting both an improved Indians' defense and some luck. The luck is unlikely to hold, but as long as this group can keep throwing strikes, the Indians can worry about other things, like finding the key to the batter's box.

Put it this way: No one, and I mean no one, is pining for Jose Jimenez.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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