GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) — Dan Otero is a man of words. Not just because the steady reliever fills out crossword puzzles, but because he chooses words carefully, as in politely noting the operative word for the Indians’ bullpen status is “reconfiguration” as opposed to “rebuild.”
Following an injury-plagued, sub-par 2018 performance and the loss of career saves leader Cody Allen and left-handed virtuoso Andrew Miller to free agency, the three-time defending AL Central champions are intent on improving the back end of their bullpen.
Cleveland relievers had a 4.60 ERA last season, a substantial drop from a successful run — 2.89 in 2017, 3.45 in 2016, and 3.12 in 2015 and 2014.
Otero is confident the corps can return to past form.
“We have all the pieces here to be a successful bullpen,” he said Thursday in the clubhouse on a rare rainy day at camp. “And most, if not everyone, was here last year at some point and in some capacity. And everyone has had prominent success in the big leagues, maybe not sustained as much as we like, but everybody has had prominent success.”
That number includes former two-time All-Star Tyler Clippard, who agreed Wednesday to sign a minor league deal, pending a physical. Clippard’s expected arrival boosts the non-roster pitcher number to 12, nine of whom have MLB relief experience.
“Any time you get a chance to get a major league pitcher ... it’s kind of hard to not want to bring him in,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “We’re really excited to bring him in and get a look at him and see where it could go. He’ll go right into that mix of that group competing for bullpen spots.”
With 15 more relievers on the 40-man camp roster, evaluating the best bullpen candidates before the March 28 season opener at Minnesota will be incredibly challenging for Francona, beginning his seventh season with Cleveland.
“You can make some really bad mistakes with looking at ERAs, things like that,” he said. “For guys that have track records, it is a little easier because you can go back and say, ‘Is this the same guy? Is his velocity down?’”
Francona used Otero as an example. In spring training 2016, his ERA was over 6.0, but “every groundball found its way through the infield,” Francona said. “But we thought he pitched very well.”
Otero wound up with 1.53 ERA, the best in the ’pen.
The skipper also pointed out that in spring training games, the late-inning batters — facing Francona’s bullpen candidates — are often long shots to make rosters.
“They’re facing No. 99; we don’t know who they are,” Francona said. “That might be the biggest at-bat of their life. They’re going to call home after that at-bat and tell mom and dad that they faced Tyler Clippard. It’s hard. You try to see who can pitch to a scouting report.”
As for combining the eye test with spin rates from data collecting technology Francona said, “it’s just another way of getting to the answer; you try not to guess. There is really good technology out there that we use and believe in.”
The human element is always part of the equation, as players who are more comfortable tend to perform better. That might be the case for Adam Cimber and closer Brad Hand, who were acquired last July from San Diego.
“It’s human nature, you’re not introducing yourself to people, you are reacquainting yourself,” Francona said.
As Hand revealed, he made a quick adjustment, in part, because he’s changed teams previously, from the Marlins to San Diego in 2016. In contrast, Cimber had only known the Padres.
“When you leave your first team, that’s as close to family as you are ever going to get in a professional setting,” Francona said. “So, the first time it can be a little challenging, especially in the middle of the year.”
While Allen and Miller left massive holes, Francona does have some reliable arms coming back he knows he can count on.
Veteran left-hander Oliver Perez was solid during most of his 51 appearances last season after he signed in June following his release while in the minors with the Yankees. Nick Goody and Tyler Olson, two dominant relievers from 2017, might factor in with bounce back years, and Jon Edwards showed promise in brief appearances late last season.
Edwards said he is focusing on spin efficiency, among other aspects, in spring training. Certainly, Indians relievers seek a return to past dominance.
“There’s an eagerness among guys, including myself, to pick that up and show we can help the team win and be a stabilizer at the back part of the game,” Edwards said.