Cleveland Indians: The bullpen’s wide range of outcomes

(Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images) /

The Indians can safely rely on their offense, defense, and starting rotation in 2020. The bullpen could be great, terrible, or anything in between.

The top three pitchers in the Cleveland Indians‘ starting rotation should be solid, if not dominant, in 2020. Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Carlos Santana should help carry the Indians offensively, with top-10 MVP upside potentially awaiting all three.

Roberto Perez should once again be a defensive stalwart behind the plate; his best-case scenario is another turn as the league’s best defensive player. Franmil Reyes should be able to hit 35 home runs in a full serving of plate appearances; a couple surges here and there could get him close to 50.

These are a handful of the ranges of outcomes for Indians players in 2020. Of course, any of the players mentioned could get hurt or inexplicably spiral out of control from a performance standpoint, but the extremes in each instance are widely considered to be relatively close in proximity.

It would be surprising to see Mike Clevinger finish the season with a 5.20 ERA; it would be surprising to see Lindor or Ramirez slash .255/.305/.415; it would be surprising for Perez to suddenly become a defensive liability. We can generally count on the floors of these players while hoping for the ceilings.

The Indians bullpen provides no such level of perceived certainty. There are enough variables at play that this unit could theoretically be one of the best in the league, or one of the worst. And neither outcome would qualify as astounding.

Cleveland’s bullpen operated effectively for most of the first half of 2019. By the end of the season, it looked more like a wounded war vessel, taking on water and desperately trying to make landfall before succumbing to the sea. The pitcher who found himself most in need of a life raft was Brad Hand.

It can be argued that the turning point in Hand’s season was a blown save on June 25 against the Royals. The Indians headed into the top of the ninth inning with a 6-3 lead, and wound up losing the game by the score of 8-6 when Hand gave up five runs without recording an out.

Hand’s numbers from the start of the season through June 24 were beyond impressive: 1.05 ERA, 1.55 FIP, 39.1% strikeout rate in 34 1/3 innings. With the exception of some concerning batted-ball trends, there wasn’t much to pick apart in Hand’s All-Star-caliber first half.

From that fateful June 25 outing on, however, it was as though Hand was replaced by an entirely different person on the mound. He gave up 17 earned runs in 23 innings, including the five he surrendered in the blown save to the Royals. His strikeout rate dropped nearly 10%, which, even at 29.8%, should not have been all that much of a detriment.

But his tendency to give up fly balls finally started to rear its head, as his 41.8% fly ball rate translated into a 17.9% HR/FB clip. For comparison’s sake, he was allowing flies on 42.6% of batted balls prior to June 25, but only 3.4% of those cleared the fence. Such a trend was always due for some regression; it just happened to arrive all at once for the Tribe closer. He blew five saves in his final 25 appearances.

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With Hand’s tale of two seasons having undeniably influenced the bigger picture in 2019, it’s fair to predict that his effectiveness in 2020 will dictate the course of the bullpen as a whole. At the same time, it’s also fair to question how much help he’s going to get from his teammates among Cleveland’s corps of relievers.

James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase are two electrifying flamethrowers who, ideally, could develop into one of the game’s best one-two punches as setup men. Both are also young, raw players, so it’s entirely plausible that 2020 will serve as more of a developmental stage than a true breakout for either.

Nick Wittgren is one of the few reliable holdovers from last year’s bullpen, and it is worth noting the experience he gained as Terry Francona‘s workhorse. Wittgren led all Indians relievers in innings pitched at 57 2/3, one-third of an inning more than Hand. Wittgren’s 2019 campaign involved its own ups and downs, though he avoided regularly visiting one extreme end of the spectrum or the other.

The most glaring negative on Wittgren’s 2019 resume was his 49.4% rate of hard contact allowed. It’s difficult for any reliever to survive such a clip over the long term.

Adam Cimber‘s wacky delivery is dependent almost entirely upon inducing weak contact. He does not possess the velocity to challenge hitters over the plate or record a ton of strikeouts. Cimber has made his fair share of mistakes with location, and it’s not unreasonable to feel apprehensive late in games with a reliever whose arsenal of pitches tops out in the high 80’s.

Lefty Oliver Perez has provided the Indians with a level of dependability, but at the age of 38, it’s fair to question the extent of his upside.

It’s not far-fetched to suggest at least one of Karinchak or Clase can emerge as the next Josh Hader; that Wittgren and Perez can remain dependable, with the former perhaps even taking a significant step forward; that Cimber can improve his command and keep hitters from squaring up his low-velocity offerings. It’s also possible that none of these things happen.

There will undoubtedly be battles in spring training, and some of the relievers discussed above may not break camp with the MLB roster. A strong Cactus League showing from the likes of Phil Maton or James Hoyt, among others, could give the Indians something to think about. As it stands now, though, is there any reason to feel more optimistic toward pitchers in this echelon than the ones the Indians utilized heavily last year?

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The best-case scenario for the Indians’ bullpen in 2020 is for Hand to reassert himself as one of the game’s more dominant closers, with the rest of his teammates following suit. The worst possible development is one in which Hand never regains his form, and none of his teammates prove effective enough to replace him. There is a myriad of possibilities in between.