A Reliable Relief Corps
Cody Allen (2012-18)
Cody Allen is the all-time franchise leader in saves. Saves are something of an arbitrary and overrated stat, but a pitcher can’t earn the most of them in his club’s history without being a consistently dependable option late in games. Allen served as the Indians’ primary closer from 2014-18, a span in which he finished off 147 victories.
He played a key role in the 2016 World Series that almost was, surrendering zero runs and striking out 43.6% of hitters over 13 2/3 innings. His tenure in Cleveland ended regrettably, as he struggled to hold the fort in 2018 the way he had in years prior. That one rough season should by no means overshadow how important he was to the Tribe during some of the most exciting baseball in the club’s recent history.
Andrew Miller (2016-18)
Andrew Miller spent just two-and-a-half years with the Indians, but he became a folk hero in Cleveland during the 2016 postseason. Acquired in a deadline trade from the Yankees, Miller immediately made an impact on the Indians bullpen en route to their first World Series appearance since 1997. Miller’s signature wipeout slider and fiery mound presence–along with his imposing, six-foot-seven frame–combined to give the city of Cleveland arguably its most iconic and feared reliever of the past three decades.
Miller posted a career-best 1.44 ERA in 2017 as the Indians put up their highest win total since 1954. Though his time in Cleveland was short-lived and he’s played for seven teams in his 14-year career, he will always be remembered as an Indian.
Jose Mesa (1992-98)
Jose Mesa’s 46 saves in 1995 are the most by any Indians pitcher in a single season. Mesa was traded from Baltimore to Cleveland in 1992, a time at which he was still a starting pitcher. In 1994, he transitioned to the bullpen, and was the club’s full-time closer in 1995-96. In just those two years, Mesa earned 85 saves. The Indians won 199 games in 1995-96, meaning Mesa closed out nearly 43% of them.
Unfortunately, part of Mesa’s lasting legacy in an Indians uniform is that he gave up the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the ’97 World Series against the Marlins. That said, the Indians of the mid-to-late-90’s were an absolute powerhouse in the American League, and Mesa earned his spot as a treasured cornerstone in this era of franchise history.
Bob Wickman (2000-06)
The reliever herd starts to thin in a hurry after Allen, Miller, and Mesa, especially in the closer department. Bob Wickman makes the team by merit of trailing only Allen for the franchise lead in saves, and for the role he played in getting the Indians to the playoffs in 2001.
Wickman’s tenure in Cleveland was marred by injury to the extent that one might wonder what could have been if he had been healthy for the duration. Wickman missed chunks of the 2002 and 2004 seasons, and sat out of the 2003 campaign entirely. In 2001 and 2005, he recorded 77 combined saves, including a career-best 45 the latter year. Cleveland finished with 93 wins in 2005, which is normally good enough to make the playoffs, but the eventual World Series champion White Sox won the division with 99.
Eric Plunk (1992-98)
Truth be told, we could make a case for ending our bullpen with four pitchers if we are basing this entirely on merit. As I mentioned above, the Indians have had a revolving door of late-game relievers since 1994, and it hasn’t always been pretty. But in the interest of paying my respects to an unsung contributor from this era, allow me to jog your memory by bringing up the name of Eric Plunk.
To arrive at this decision, I compared the Cleveland careers of five relievers using the player comparison tool on Baseball Reference. The relievers in question are Plunk, Chris Perez, Rafael Betancourt, Bryan Shaw, and Paul Assenmacher.
Plunk posted the highest bWAR of any of the five. He had three straight years, from 1994-96, of two-plus WAR on Baseball Reference. He finished with a mark of 10.2 in his tenure with the Indians. These aren’t easy numbers for a relief pitcher to compile.
For reference, Hall-of-Fame closer Trevor Hoffman achieved the two-win threshold six times in his 18-year career. Plunk did it thrice as a role-player, and all three instances took place in Cleveland.
Bryan Shaw (2013-17)
Bryan Shaw was a polarizing figure in this era of Indians baseball, which is putting it lightly. His career ERA in Cleveland was 3.11, and he was Terry Francona’s go-to bullpen workhorse for years on end. Yet in the minds of fans, the times he fell short always seemed to drastically outweigh the many more times he came through.
Shaw logged nearly 360 innings with the Tribe from 2013-17; he ranks eighth all time in mound appearances despite spending just five years in Cleveland. Among the other players discussed here, only Allen appeared in more games. There’s something to be said for that.
Shaw never held the glorious closer role for the Indians, but he was a mainstay in one of the league’s best bullpens during the back half of his time in Cleveland. He began to trail off in 2017, and letting him sign with Colorado the following year was probably the correct move on the part of the front office. Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Indians’ bullpen was one of the worst in baseball the year after he left; maybe it isn’t.
You would normally select one more reliever for a full roster, but unless you’re simply going to select the longest-tenured closers in this stretch, you’re likely going to be grasping at straws among some of the remaining options. (I mean, I already took some liberties with two of the relievers I did choose.) So instead we are going with the totally unconventional six-man ‘pen. Moreover, I’m confident that complete games, shutouts, and double-digit offense would be routine occurrences with this version of the Indians. I’m not sure we necessarily need a deep bullpen.