Indians preview capsules: The relief pitchers, part one
Axford, Allen figure to lock down the late innings in 2014
As a part of IBI's beginning of season festivities, we have preview capsules on all 54 players currently in major league camp with at least some chance of helping the big league team. The next batch of these running today are part one of the relief pitchers on the 40-man roster.
There is just not much more to it; spring training is here and real baseball is just around the corner. Enjoy!
Cody Allen, RHP
Despite a major league debut in 2012 that was good but not great (3.72 ERA, 3.68 FIP in 29.0 innings), Cody Allen came into his own in 2013. The right-hander was arguably the best reliever in Cleveland's bullpen, posting a 2.43 ERA, a 1.0 fWAR, and a 88:26 SO:BB in 70.1 innings. With the departures of Chris Perez and Joe Smith, Allen will feature into the back-end of the bullpen and could threaten to take over as the closer in the near future.
When Allen is in the game he uses his potent fastball-curveball combination to get results. The right-hander threw those two pitches 96.9 percent of the time last year, most often going with the fastball (71.5 percent). That is a lot of fastballs, but Allen gets away with it by averaging over 95 miles per hour with the pitch and getting some decent movement on it. Hitters only made contact against Allen 73.7 percent of the time last year and that swing-and-miss stuff is what made him one of the better relievers in the game.
One thing that makes Allen a prime candidate for a back-end role is his lack of an extreme platoon split. While left-handed batters do hit for more power against him (collectively posting a .226/.301/.416 line in 195 plate appearances), Allen actually struck them out at a higher rate than right-handers. Allen decimates right-handed power while pitching (right-handed batters own a .245/.328/.337 line against him), though righties have managed to get on base at a decent rate. In the end though, while left-handers can hit with some power and right-handers have managed to get on base, the overall picture from both sides is below-average offense and positive results for Allen.
It is always risky projecting relievers, but if you are going to bet on one, Allen is a good pick. He has the type of power combination that gets results, and while he did undergo Tommy John surgery in 2008, he worked his way back and is healthy now. The plan is not to have the right-hander close in 2014 -- that job belongs to John Axford for now -- but Allen will be a key cog in holding down the late innings no matter when he pitches.
John Axford, RHP
Cleveland let one mercurial closer go this offseason in Chris Perez and added another, signing John Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million contract. The right-hander is under team control through 2016, however, potentially adding value to the deal if Axford performs better than in the recent past.
Following a 2.19 ERA and a 2.29 FIP in 2010 and 2011, Axford saw both marks rise to 4.35 and 4.20 respectively in 2012 and 2013. That inflation led to the right-hander being removed from the closer's role in Milwaukee and ultimately being traded to St. Louis in late August. There is some talk that Axford's rebound in St. Louis (1.74 ERA, 2.08 FIP in 10.1 innings) is the benefit of the Cardinals' coaching staff letting the right-hander know that he was tipping his pitches, though time will tell if any adjustments made in St. Louis will allow Axford to consistently pitch like he did in 2010 and 2011 again.
Axford never lost the ability to get strikeouts, but what went wrong for the right-hander revolved around an inability to throw strikes. After throwing a first-pitch strike to 61.6 percent of batters in 2011, Axford saw that mark decrease to 54.2 and 53.3 percent in 2012 and 2013. Pitching from behind more often left Axford open to getting shelled, which was a large part of his struggles. Additionally, Axford stopped throwing his off-speed offerings for strikes low-and-away, seeing those pitches frequently end up being called for balls. If pitching coach Mickey Callaway can find a way to get Axford throwing strikes again (and possibly scrapping his slider, something that happened in St. Louis), the right-hander may be able to ride his fastball-curveball combination back to relevance.
For now, Axford's presence should allow the dynamic duo of Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen to secure the seventh and eighth innings respectively, giving them more time to potentially grow into the closer role. Assuming Axford regains at least part of what made him successful in Milwaukee (which is not a guarantee), his addition will help replace the loss of back-end stalwart Joe Smith.
Nick Hagadone, LHP
When opposing hitters are facing Nick Hagadone, they know what they are going to get: in his 67.2 career major league innings, the left-hander has thrown his mid-90s fastball over 75 percent of the time. Unfortunately for Hagadone and his teammates, opposing hitters also know that the left-hander is likely going to struggle to get the ball into the strike zone. Hagadone has 42 walks in those 67.2 innings and threw less than half of his pitches in the strike zone in 2013. The left-hander has a big arm but is yet to learn how to consistently throw strikes.
Given that Hagadone is both left-handed and capable of throwing hard, he will get another chance to prove himself in 2014. The 28-year-old has likely been passed by Marc Rzepczynski and Josh Outman in the left-handed relief depth chart, but Hagadone should be given a legitimate chance in spring training to prove he belongs.
Of course, proving he belongs will simply come down to getting the ball over the plate. When Hagadone does get the ball over the plate, the results are typically pretty strong. The left-hander always struck out quite a few batters (8.91 SO/9 for his career) and generated some weak contact against left-handed hitters in his short career, as they have posted a .186/.296/.302 line against him. The overall picture remains drab but parts of Hagadone's game show promise.
I hate to beat a dead horse, but for Hagadone, it really just comes down to whether or not he can throw strikes. Pitchers just cannot survive with walk rates like Hagadone's, and though he has another minor league option, Cleveland will not be able to wait around much longer on the left-hander. Hagadone had a chance to claim the left-handed relief role in 2013 while Rich Hill stumbled through the season, but another year of poor control combined with the acquisition of Rzepczynski might have closed the door. There will be room for Hagadone if he can start throwing strikes, but as of right now, that is a pretty big if.
Frank Herrmann, RHP
Frank Herrmann continued to prove that the human arm is not meant to throw a baseball as the right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2013. Herrmann was one of the solid arms that supported the 2010-2012 bullpens (4.26 ERA, 4.14 FIP in 120.1 innings), and while he was not dominant by any stretch, having decent, reliable arms is definitely a valuable thing.
With a 5.39 SO/9 and 2.17 BB/9 in his major league career, Herrmann has never been confused for an overpowering flamethrowing reliever. But while Herrmann does not have the strikeouts of a flamethrower, his fastball velocity is actually pretty good. Herrmann's average fastball velocity in his major league career in just over 94 miles per hour, far from the soft-tossing reputation his strikeout count suggests.
Of course, there is a lot more to getting strikeouts than throwing a big fastball. Herrmann is very reliant on that fastball -- he throws it nearly 80 percent of the time -- allowing hitters to expect it. Hitters make contact with Herrmann's fastball 86.7 percent of the time, and while it is not a super-straight pitch, knowing the fastball is coming seems to be allowing hitters to make a lot of contact. Throwing different pitches might help Herrmann, though it could be hard for the 29-year-old to make that change while returning from Tommy John surgery.
Given that Herrmann underwent the surgery last March, there is a chance that the right-hander will not be ready for the start of the season. The timing of Herrmann's surgery could see him sent out on a minor league rehab assignment early in the year before he is ready to contribute to the major league team. Herrmann still has two minor league options left -- meaning he can be stashed in Columbus until a real need arises in Cleveland -- but the right-hander will likely need time to build himself back up anyway after missing a year. No one is blown away by Herrmann, but even though he is not a dominant back-end relief arm, the right-hander should fill a critical substitute role throughout the year for Terry Francona.
Austin Adams, RHP
After missing the entirety of the 2012 season following shoulder surgery, Austin Adams came back and reminded everyone of how dominant he can be. Adams was ultimately rewarded for his strong showing by being added to the 40-man roster in the offseason.
Listed at 5'11", 190 pounds, durability was always bound to be a question for Adams, and 2012 was that question changing into full-blown concern. The front office was careful in bringing the right-hander back, moving his from the rotation to the bullpen, a move that could be permanent. It is a shame that Adams will likely be in the bullpen full-time -- there are not many starters who can hit 100 miles per hour with an above-average power curveball -- but keeping the right-hander healthy is the key now. Additionally, Adams is already lacking pitching reps since he was a shortstop in college; pitching out of the bullpen would allow Adams to simplify his path to the majors.
Out of the bullpen Adams' stuff plays up in some absolutely dominant ways (he had 76 strikeouts in 55.0 innings in 2013 with Double-A Akron) and, if needed, could help the big league club almost immediately. The right-hander still needs to work on his control (those 76 strikeouts came with 4.75 BB/9), but being another year removed from shoulder surgery should help.
Scott Barnes, LHP
Approaching two full years of recovering from a torn ACL in July 2011 and looking primed to spend significant time in the major league bullpen in 2013, things went off the rails for Scott Barnes last year. He struggled in limited time in Triple-A (6.51 BB/9, 7.81 ERA, 4.83 FIP in 27.2 innings) and suffered a wrist injury that cut his season short. In a year in which Cleveland desperately needed left-handed relievers, Barnes' issues were poorly timed for him and the team.
Barnes still has some upside, and at 26 years old, he still has the chance to reach it. Outside of some problems with the long ball (1.30 HR/9), the left-hander's brief stays in the major leagues have been relatively successful (26:10 SO:BB in 27.2 innings). Well, as successful as someone with a 5.20 ERA and 4.71 FIP can be.
Point being, despite some bumps in the road, Barnes has still shown flashes of being a capable major league reliever. Plus, having a minor league option left and being left-handed will allow him plenty of chances to hang around and try to figure things out. The results have not been pretty so far, but Barnes could be close to putting it all together.
Preston Guilmet, RHP
No one mistakes Preston Guilmet's stuff as Aroldis Chapman's, but you could not necessarily tell by the results. Guilmet's ERA in Low-A in 2010: 2.25. Guilmet's ERA in High-A in 2011: 2.16. Guilmet's ERA in Double-A in 2012: 2.39. And Guilmet's ERA in Triple-A in 2013: 2.39. Plus, Guilmet's FIP never finished above 3.00 in any season.
Of course, if Guilmet put up those numbers attached to stuff like Chapman, he would be one of the highest regarded relievers in baseball. Guilmet does not overpower anyone, instead relying on pouring strikes into the zone and a straight-over-the-top throwing motion. The knock on Guilmet has long been that lack of raw stuff will eventually catch up with the right-hander and if you are of that mind, Guilmet's 10.13 ERA and 1:3 SO:BB in 5.1 major league innings is proof.
Now, 5.1 innings is far too small of a sample to judge Guilmet's entire major league future on, but he will need to find a way to make his high strikeout-low walk combination from the minor leagues transition to the majors. Guilmet has found success everywhere he has been, and now he will try to do the same in Cleveland.
Colt Hynes, LHP
When Cleveland acquired Colt Hynes for cash considerations in late October, it decided to bet on upside and recent results. A 31st round pick in the 2007 draft, Hynes never rated among Baseball America's top 30 prospects for the Padres and routinely posted so-so strikeout rates as a reliever. But after spending part of 2012 as a starter, the left-handed Hynes saw something click in 47.1 minor league innings, posting a 1.52 ERA, a 1.06 FIP, and 58:2 SO:BB between Double-A and Triple-A. The results were less encouraging in 17.0 major league innings (9.00 ERA, 5.58 FIP in 17.0 innings), but with six years of control and all three minor league options, he is an intriguing lefty arm to keep around.
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That's another reason I want Hagadone in the bullpen. It's much easier to spell.
Axford takes over as closer and does not look back.
Pestano-Shaw-Allen form the RH side of the set up crew.
Outman and Hagadone for the LH side.
Hagadone just has such good stuff he should be a major focus of Calloway this spring training. He has the stuff to not only be a weapon vs lefties but vs right handers as well.
Harang, Marcum or even Bauer or Tomlin grab the 5th spot in the rotation.
This allows Carlos Carrasco to become the 7th man out of the bullpen. His stuff could really play up there and he could be an extension of the starting rotation. Allowing Tito to not over extend guys. Even if a starter does not have "IT" we could still stand a solid chance as Carrasco could just come on in.
If Carrasco is needed in the rotation you still have tons of options for the final bullpen spot. I really like Matt Capps if he is healthy. Even Josh Tomlin could factor into the bullpen at some point this season. CC Lee, Adams and Preston are the most interesting prospect options I feel. Under the radar you also have Armstrong and Crockett.
And I always forget about Bryan Price. See we really do have some pretty nice depth for the bullpen. The rotation will probably sink or swim our season.
And Herrmann isn't Craig Kimbrel, but he is an adequate sub. In terms of being the guy who gets called up when someone gets hurt, he is not a bad option. He might not be one of the top seven or eight relievers, but you need 11, 12, sometimes more to get through the year. Herrmann can be one of those.
Unless Frank suddenly starts to do something dramatically different this time, I have a VERY hard time believing there is going to be anything close to "critical" ever attached to his name.
The guy can throw pretty hard, and obviously he is smart, but has had zero success getting major league hitters out. So to me, he is about as uncritical to the Tribe's success as anyone can possibly be at this point in the game.
Also, Axford is replacing closer Chris Perez AND replacing the loss of back-end stalwart Joe Smith? That's a lot to ask of a guy who hasn't been good (way worse than Perez) for two years, except in limited action last year. I actually think this was a good signing, as his value was at a low point and he's still young and throws hard, but I have serious doubts about whether Axford can thrive in the closer role here. I wouldn't be surprised to see him crash and burn a couple of times and for Terry to use other people in that role at various times this year.