Bullpen Tribe's biggest spring concern

Bullpen Tribe's biggest Spring Training concern

CLEVELAND -- On the whole, Mark Shapiro likes the majority of the arms his bullpen should have available this season.

Really, he does.

It's just that Shapiro knows enough about the mercurial nature of baseball -- and, more specifically, relief pitching -- to not be overly confident in his bullpen as the Indians head to Winter Haven, Fla., for Spring Training.

"Going in, our biggest concern is the bullpen," Shapiro said. "If we had brought back the exact same bullpen as last year, I'd still have concerns about it, because of the studies we've done that show the volatility of bullpens from year to year, and the inconsistencies that relief pitchers usually have from year to year."

Shapiro has tried to be proactive in his approach to ensuring his bullpen is stable this coming season by putting a multitude of arms in the mix.

With Bob Wickman, Scott Sauerbeck, Rafael Betancourt, Fernando Cabrera, Matt Miller and the newly acquired Guillermo Mota pretty much assured jobs -- dependent on health -- the Indians might only have one or two spots available.

Fighting for those spots will be veterans Steve Karsay and Danny Graves, both of whom are non-roster invites, and Andrew Brown and Jason Davis. Shapiro has even tossed the name of right-hander Tony Sipp, a 45th-round selection in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, out there as a possible contender.

In short, manager Eric Wedge, pitching coach Carl Willis and bullpen coach Luis Isaac will have a lot of talent to sort through when Grapefruit League play begins.

"It'll be a good challenge to have," Wedge said. "There may only be one spot available. Maybe two, but probably just one. There will be some pretty good competition there."

That's precisely what the Indians are hoping for.

"We want competition," Wedge added. "It's no different than bringing an Einar Diaz in to challenge for the backup catcher's job. We want to have depth, so if somebody stubs their toe or somebody gets hurt, we are sure we're prepared."

Shapiro seemed prepared to accept the fact that the odds of his bullpen repeating last year's performance, in which it notched the American League's best relief ERA at 2.80, are slim.

"But I still feel like we've got the pieces to put together a good bullpen," he said. "We're going to have to put in the time and energy in Spring Training and beyond to do that."

Karsay and Graves will be putting in the time and energy to revive their big league careers, and they'll certainly be two intriguing players to watch as camp opens.

The 33-year-old Karsay had some strong outings toward the end of the '05 season for the Rangers, but his history of shoulder problems and his 7.06 ERA over 20 appearances last season make him a big question mark.

"Steve was a guy who, at the end of the year, was throwing really well," Shapiro said. "Our scouting reports looked good. But it's been a while since he's been fully healthy, so we're looking for durability with him."

"We'll look to get him established, then we'll look to increase how meaningful his appearances are."
-- GM Mark Shapiro on young reliever Fernando Cabrera

Graves was durable last season, but he was hardly effective. The Reds cut him loose after he compiled a 7.36 ERA in 20 appearances as their closer over April and May. He latched on with the Mets but was used sparingly the remainder of the season.

Shapiro thinks Graves has a chance to turn his career around if he can get some life back in his fastball.

"Obviously, his stuff has declined consistently," Shapiro said. "No matter how much courage he has, no matter how tough he is, he's going to need more weapons to attack Major League hitters. He's made a commitment toward working hard, but we're going to have to see some return, even if it's not all the way, to the quality, sharpness and velocity of his stuff."

As if Shapiro's demands aren't pressing enough, Graves and Karsay will be challenged by the young, hard-throwing Davis, who will come to Winter Haven eager to avoid more grooming time at Triple-A Buffalo.

Though the Indians still believe in Davis' starting potential, he'll be competing for a bullpen spot at the outset of camp.

The same goes for Brown, who was the player to be named in the 2004 trade that sent Milton Bradley to the Dodgers. Brown went 4-2 with four saves and a 3.36 ERA with Buffalo last season.

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"He's a guy who, as we went through last year, we felt he'd get an opportunity this year to transition to the big leagues," Shapiro said.

For Sipp's name to be in the mix might come as a surprise, but his numbers between Single-A Lake County and Kinston last year -- 6-3 with a 2.40 ERA in 35 appearances -- were equally surprising. The Indians like what he's accomplished since adding a changeup to his repertoire.

Beyond figuring out what personnel will round out the relief corps, the Indians must also get a feel for how their bullpen will be set up.

Wickman will obviously be the closer. Mota is expected to take over Arthur Rhodes' duties as the eighth-inning setup man, but he must prove his shoulder is back to full strength.

Sauerbeck will handle late-inning lefties, and Betancourt should also be toward the back end. But the Indians aren't as sure what they'll see out of Miller, who's coming off a major elbow injury, or Cabrera. Both will probably work in middle relief.

Cabrera could find himself at the back end by the time all is said and done this season. Many feel he will be the Tribe's closer of the future.

"We'll look to get him established, then we'll look to increase how meaningful his appearances are," Shapiro said. "He's a guy who has the potential ability and makeup to pitch in an impact role in the bullpen. But until he blows a save and you see how he reacts, I don't think you know how he's going to handle closing."

And until Shapiro sees what this mass of arms is capable of in Spring Training, he won't know how his bullpen will handle its job.

"I have some concerns about the personnel in the bullpen," he said. "But the reality is you're going to go in with some uncertainty in the bullpen, no matter what. It's not genius when you build the best bullpen, and it's not idiocy when you have a bullpen that's struggling. It's a challenging area to build."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.