TORONTO -- The Indians know and like what they have at the back of their bullpen between closer Chris Perez and setup men Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith. It is the rest of the relief corps that will take time to sort out in the early portion of this season.
"What we have is a collection of guys that have pretty good arms," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "There's not one guy in our bullpen that we need to stay away from. Everybody has a strength that they do, and we'll try to use that."
Besides the late-inning trio, Cleveland's Opening Day bullpen will include right-handers Cody Allen, Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw and lefties Rich Hill and Nick Hagadone. Francona mentioned Hill as a candidate for high-leverage situations against left-handed hitters, and said the rest of the arms will likely be mixed and matched based on in-game developments.
What the Indians are trying to accomplish is improving the performance of their middle-relief group. Last season, Perez, Pestano and Smith combined for a 3.01 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched), but the rest of the 'pen posted a 4.56 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP, which gave the Tribe the American League's 13th-ranked bullpen ERA (3.99) as a whole.
The Indians are currently carrying eight relievers, but will likely revert to a traditional seven-man bullpen when left-handed starter Scott Kazmir is added to the active roster to serve as the team's fifth starter on Saturday. The relievers who have Minor League options -- including Allen, Shaw and Hagadone -- are most vulnerable for a trip back to Triple-A.
"That'll be a hard one, because I like the idea of going with eight," Francona said. "Every manager probably feels that way. We don't have a typical long [reliever], and that's by choice. We have guys that we feel all have strengths."
Cleveland is confident that the combination of Perez, Pestano and Smith will once again provide a solid anchor for the staff. Last season, when the Indians lost 94 games, the club went 52-8 in games in which it held a lead after six innings, and posted a 24-12 record in one-run contests.
"In one-run games, they still had one of the best records in baseball," Francona said. "That says a lot about them. There's a lot of times where, if you get to a bullpen before you want to, you struggle. I'm hoping that's not the case here."