The elephant in the room is the lack of an elephant in the bullpen.
If you’re looking for something to be nervous about as the Indians prepare to face Houston in the Division Series, this is it.
The Indians’ biggest strength from 2016-17 is their biggest weakness in 2018. Their timing couldn’t be worse. The Astros have statistically the best bullpen in the American League, and the Indians have arguably the worst.
Is this any way to make it to the ALCS? We’re about to find out. Indians manager Terry Francona, one of the great bullpen maestros in the game, is sufficiently concerned about his orchestra of relievers that Trevor Bauer, who might have won the
Cy Young Award had he not gotten hurt, and whose 1.93 ERA in three late-September appearances indicates he’s ready for a return to the rotation, is instead being sent to the bullpen for the first two games of the Division Series.
Bauer, the ultimate gunslinger, is a willing and sublime slinger in any role, but Francona’s decision to use him in the bullpen, at least initially, hints at the manager’s unease with the depth in the pen.
Only two relievers from the postseason roster last year, when the Indians had the best bullpen in the American League, are on the Division Series roster this year: Cody Allen and Andrew Miller.
Both are coming off the worst regular seasons of their careers. The other relievers on the Division Series roster are Brad Hand, Oliver Perez, Adam Cimber, Dan Otero, and wildcard Shane Bieber.
Hand, fortuitously acquired in a midseason trade with San Diego, has been outstanding since coming to Cleveland, and not a blown save too soon, as he appears to have replaced the shaky Allen as the closer. Perez has been almost untouchable in 51 situational appearances.
Cimber and Otero are a box of chocolates, particularly Otero, whose presence on the postseason roster speaks to the flotsam and jetsam that are the unchosen bullpen candidates.
A dependable and underrated bullpen piece in the last two years when he pitched to ERA’s of 1.53 in 62 appearances in 2016 and 2.85 in 52 games last year, Otero’s combustible 5.22 ERA this year — he allowed more home runs (12) in 58 innings than Bauer did in 175 (nine) — shouldn’t even have been a consideration for the postseason roster this year. But there he is.
Of primary concern, however, is the uncertain status of Miller and Allen, the winged warriors who were the primary chess pieces Francona adroitly maneuvered around the board in 2016, when Tito redefined how bullpens are viewed and used.
Miller has been physically hurt for much of this season — three separate trips to the disabled list — and his unsightly 4.24 ERA reflects as much. Allen appears to be psychologically wounded, unable to get on a roll, much less maintain it. In 46 appearances since June 1 he has five losses, four blown saves and a 5.65 ERA.
So what Francona has here is a bullpen with question marks everywhere, including, and especially the closer’s role. Hand has been great, but he’s never thrown a single pitch in a postseason game in his career.
How does he handle facing George Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth?
Now you know why Bauer is starting in the bullpen. He could be in the role Miller filled in 2016: a break glass in case of emergency closer-at-large, for use by Francona anytime he smells smoke during the game.
If you’re looking for some solace, be confident in the fact that Francona has a Ph.D. in bullpen usage. He invented the art of creative postseason bullpen deployment, and those skills may be tested immediately, and to the extreme, against the defending world champs.
On paper, the bullpen matchup is a mismatch. In bullpen ERA, Houston is first and the Indians are third from the bottom in the American League. Houston’s relievers have the lowest opponents’ batting average, the Indians are eighth. Astros relievers have given up the fewest home runs, while Indians relievers have given up the fifth most.
There are many more ugly numbers, but you get the idea.
So Bauer starts in the bullpen. The best-case scenario for the Indians would be they win one or both of the first two games, without having to use Bauer. That would allow Francona to unleash his pitching machine as the starter in Game 4.
The Indians’ worst-case scenario? You don’t want to know.
The Indians’ safety net could be their elite starting rotation. If the starters can pitch deep into games, it would minimize the Indians’ bullpen shortcomings.
Or, who knows? Maybe Allen and Miller suddenly recapture the rapture, pitch like they did in 2016 — and shoo the elephant out of the room.
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