Saturday, January 06, 2007

Depth Charges

With Keith Foulke in the fold (and Brian Sikorski outrighted off of the 40-man), the Indians’ bullpen is vastly improved in terms of the quantity of experienced arms available in 2007. The importance of having those experienced arms, obviously, is that the Indians are not relying upon young pitchers unprepared to make an impact at the Major League level.

The “trickle-down effect” of the signing of Foulke, etc. is not just that it allows the likes of Betancourt and Cabrera to slot lower in the bullpen, but also those below them in the organization. In the second half of 2006, the Indians exposed some of their young, talented (if not quite polished) bullpen arms to see how they responded to the bright lights of the Majors.

Some sizzled, then fizzled (Carmona, Mastny), some could never find their footing (Mujica), and some showed promise, albeit inconsistently (Perez, Lara). Their performances showed that they possessed talent; they just needed a little bit more shine on their apple.

So, what does these pieces of unpolished fruit provide for this year for the Indians?
Essentially, depth.

A depth that was painfully lacking as the 2006 bullpen came off the tracks. After last year’s season-changing game in Baltimore, in which Betancourt and Miller BOTH were injured in the same inning (forcing the Indians to depend upon the likes of Gas Can Graves in situations he was not best suited for), that depth can’t be underestimated.

Considering that Cabrera hit the DL 5 days before Betancourt and Miller did last year, the Indians replaced 3 of their 7 relievers in 6 days in April last year, with little depth to replace it. It was a roadblock that proved insurmountable and the organizational depth this year at least dictates that the Indians have some better options to contribute.

For the sake of analyzing that depth in the minors, let’s assume that Jason Davis fills the final bullpen spot (due to him being out of options and his ability to serve as the long reliever) instead of Matt Miller.

With Miller starting the year in Buffalo and the Foulke signing, the Buffalo bullpen starts the 2007 season like this:
LHP Rafael Perez
LHP Juan Lara
RHP Matt Miller
RHP Dan Denham
RHP Ed Mujica
RHP Tom Mastny
LHP Tony Sipp

Obviously Miller could start the season in Cleveland as the fact that he DOES have an option remaining would allow the Indians to shuffle pitchers in and out of that 7th bullpen spot in Cleveland.

That is, if the bullpen is exhausted during a particular series, Miller could be sent down for, say, Rafael Perez in case of emergency – thus allowing the Indians to keep a fresh arm in the pen. If Davis throws 4 innings of long relief in a game and the starter lasts only 2 innings the next, the Indians are handcuffed in that no reliever on the team would have an option to take the trip up I-90 and be replaced by a fresh arm.

But, I digress. There’s plenty of time to debate the merits of Miller and Davis going forward.

The main point remains that, by looking at the names on the Bisons’ staff, it illustrates how promising these names are. While they may not have been able to contribute consistently for the Indians last year, their return to Buffalo allows them to mature and improve outside of the glare of the Majors. If any of the pitchers shows the maturation and improvement that forces the Indians to make a decision, it only improves the Indians’ overall strength.

That is, if Aaron Fultz proves to be ineffective by mid-May, the Indians will have some a few months of Buffalo results to decide if Perez, Lara, or Sipp would best fill the hole. Or, if Roberto Hernandez goes Gilly Mota in the middle of the season, the Indians have Mujica or Mastny (with an idea of their 2007 is progressing) to take his place.

What the bullpen additions in the off-season have done is allow these young pitchers to mature in the minors, away from the bright lights of MLB, and prove themselves worthy of a roster spot as opposed to simply being the “best remaining option”. If Mastny or Sipp proves himself to be worthy of a spot in the bullpen, at least they’ve earned it instead of having it handed to them.

The lesson of the 2006 bullpen is still fresh, and the depth that the off-season signings have given the Indians for 2007 is another by-product of the Indians’ philosophy that volume is the key.

Of course, we could always top 2006 and see THREE pitchers hit the DL in ONE inning.
I can’t believe I just said that, somebody find some wood…quick!

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