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Indians Indians Archive Indians Roundtable: The Bullpen
Written by Rich Swerbinsky

Rich Swerbinsky

 This is a new feature we are going to run in spots throughout the course of the Indians season.  It is the transcripts from a roundtable discussion between the Indians writers for Swerbs Blurbs.  And as always, great Indians discussion in taking place constantly in the Swerb's Blurbs Indians message forum.

SWERB: Welcome fellas. Here we are, a couple weeks away from the beginning of what has the makings to be a very exciting season of Indians baseball.  Present for this discussion are the following Swerb's Blurbs Indians writers: Steve Buffum, Tony Lastoria, Jarad Regano, and Mark Melnik. I am Rich Swerbinsky, and will be moderating the discussion in addition to chiming in with my thoughts.

Let's start things this way. Mark Shapiro is on the record as saying the bullpen is his greatest area of concern for this season. He cited the losses of guys like Howry and Riske, and the overall year to year volatility of relief pitchers as his main concerns. We've seen both ends of the spectrum here, with the leagues worst bullpen ruining our hopes in 2004, and the leagues best bullpen leading us to 93 wins in 2005.

Are you as concerned as Shapiro is about the bullpen this year?

JARAD REGANO: Shapiro had always said that the bullpen is the "easiest" area to address. This, however, was before the debacle that was the 2004 bullpen featuring the likes of Jose Jimenez and Scott Stewart.

I think the Tribe is counting heavily on rookies with good arms (Cabrera, Brown) to take the place of established vets like Arthur Rhodes and Bobby Howry. While I do share Shapiro's concerns, I personally feel that another big bat continues to be the Tribe's biggest weakness heading into 06.

STEVE BUFFUM: Well, it's certainly the most volatile element on the team. The rotation looks largely the same. The lineup looks largely the same. But the bullpen is replacing three guys who performed (at least in parts) very well last season.

Forget the roles for a moment: I want to know if the guys are actually healthy. To me, a healthy Matt Miller makes up for David Riske, and Riske was pretty damn good. (Miller keeps the ball in the park better, though, which is a plus.) And Mota? Who the hell knows which Mota shows up?

TONY LASTORIA: Who isn’t concerned about the bullpen? Bullpens in general are up and down in nature around baseball, so Shapiro isn’t the only GM with sweaty palms over this issue. The White Sox traded away two key bullpen guys in Marte and Vizcaino, so I am sure there is some concern there too. And, is Jenks for real? Etc.

The Indians lost three integral pieces in Howry, Rhodes and Riske to the bullpen. Howry was arguably THE best right-handed setup man in baseball last year. Replacing that is going to be tough. So, why not replace the best right-handed setup man in 2005 with arguably the best right-handed setup man in 2003 and 2004 in Mota?

MARK MELNIK: While I am concerned about some individual performances, I think there are enough quality arms in the bullpen to make this a better than average group. When healthy, Miller has shown to be an excellent reliever. Betancourt has been effective too and has a really live arm (though appears to wear down sometimes). I am really, really excited about Cabrera and his stuff too (though he had a habit of putting too many guys on base at times last year---I expect him to take a lump or two this year). I don't see any reason why Miller, Betancourt, Cabrera, and Mota can't be effective in those 6th/7th/8th inning roles. Can they be as effective as Howry, Riske, and Rhodes were last year? While it is unlikely, I don't think they have to be very far off. In addition, there really aren't any more questions about this group than the group going into last season. With that, I am not that concerned about the group as a whole.

SWERB: You bring up a good point Mark.  Betancourt has electric stuff at times, and was statistically dominant last season, especially down the stretch.  Yet no one seems to mention his name when talking about who will pick up the slack caused by the departures of Rhodes, Riske, and Howry this season.  What do you guys expect from Betancourt this year?

BUFFUM: Betancourt strikes out more than a hitter an inning and sports a pretty brisk 4-to-1 K-to-BB ratio. That's superior. Why is he any less than what Howry was in 2005? He's no spring chicken, but you let Miller be Riske, Raffy be Howry, and Cabrera take over Raffy's innings, and the only missing element is Rhodes.

Which, of course, we don't have, unless you think Wedge can let Miller's numbers against lefties override his vision of Miller's weird delivery.

LASTORIA: The only problem with Raffy is he typically loses a lot of his effectiveness when used on consecutive days. As a setup man, you'll be used on back to back nights often, and sometimes three days in a row.

MELNIK:  I don't have any stats on Betancourt’s back-to-back efforts, but I felt the same way about him last year.  One thing, though, is that we don't need to have an 8th inning closer like Howry. If we try and recreate role, that could lead to problems. I see no problem in playing this like the beginning of 2001 when Shuey and Karsay would take turns setting up Wickman. You can use any combination to get to Wickman now. In fact, that was the way Wedge was doing it until Howry really emerged.

My point being, Betancourt can still be a set up guy without pitching a lot of back-to-backs.

SWERB: One of the things that scares me most about this bullpen is the arm problems that Wickman and Mota have had over the last three years.  And I think that’s why Shapiro constantly frets publicly about the pen.  These are our back end guys, and both have had major arm problems as of late.

Wickie and Mota both have been incredibly effective when healthy, and have the potential to be one of the most effective 1-2 punches in the league late in games. They also would top my list of "AL relief pitchers least likely to avoid the DL".

If we get the '05 Wickie and '03 Mota, we won't have to worry as much about Betancourt on back to backs, Miller being able to replicate last year, and Cabrera's development.

BUFFUM: I'm not worried about Wickman's health. I'm worried about Wickman's effectiveness. Shoot, he's two years removed from elbow surgery, I consider him healed from that. What health issue does he have? Bad HDL/LDL ratios?

For the record, I'd like something better than the 2005 of Wickman's stats. The luck, I'll take.

LASTORIA:  I think for any team, the health of their 8th inning setup man and closer is the key to success for a bullpen. But, I will agree with Buffum in that I want *more* from Wickman next year as far as performance goes. The guy really was lucky a lot last year, which scares the bejesus out of me this year. That luck thing tends to flip on you in a hurry.

SWERB:  Wickman has been effective as long as he's been healthy. He's always been a guy that gives up more hits/walks than other guys he listed at the top of the save leaders with. He's never had their stuff.

He's a guy that is willing to put guys on base for the sake of achieving the ultimate goal: getting the last three outs before the opponent can tie the game.

If his elbow remains sound, I see it as likely that Wickie is 85-90% as effective in strictly converting saves this year as he was last, which would still make for a pretty good closer.

In other words, I see the elbow not holding up as more of a risk than his save % plummeting.

MELNIK:  I agree he's always been effective when healthy ... to this point in his career. While Wickman may not have had the "stuff" of some of the top name closers, I don't want to sell him short either. Wickman threw some nasty junk with both his slider and sinker - especially during the apex of this career - which I would argue was 2000-2001.

That said, I think there has been a change in his overall stuff. His slider appeared to flatten out a bit last season. He is far more hittable than he was during his first years in Cleveland...and again, his "Ks per 9 innings" has dropped dramatically.

While Wickman relies on ground balls to get guys out, the movement on his pitches matter. I am hopeful he can produce a similar season compared to last year. To be honest, though, if he gets bombed ... I won't be that surprised.

SWERB:  Thanks for joining me guys.  We’ll reconvene for another one of these, on a new topic, soon.

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