CLEVELAND -- The Indians were tasked this offseason with rebuilding a bullpen that began to come apart at the seams last summer. Even before the winter arrived, and a group of Tribe relievers entered free agency, multiple roles in the bullpen were in flux.
Two areas in need of attention this offseason were strengthening the left-handed relief options and finding a new closer. Cleveland addressed the former issue Wednesday by acquiring lefty Josh Outman from the Rockies in exchange for outfielder Drew Stubbs. As for the latter, a solution is in the works, with free-agent closer John Axford having agreed to a one-year contract with the Indians.
Axford was scheduled to undergo a physical on Wednesday to complete the signing process.
"Our job is trying to piece together the best bullpen we can, and we feel we've had some progress," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "We'll continue to look to improve if we can. I feel good about the group that we have and I feel as though we're improved from where we were at the start of the offseason.
"But, again, there's a lot of time left between now and Spring Training and we'll do what we can to try to improve."
Antonetti was not willing to address the addition of Axford, who will earn $4.5 million in 2014 with another $1.75 million possible through incentives, according to multiple sources. Once the signing of Axford is made official, he will assume the ninth-inning role vacated by Chris Perez, who lost his job as the closer in September and was released by Cleveland in October.
Joining Perez in free agency this winter were setup man Joe Smith (three years, $15.75 million with Angels), ground-ball specialist Matt Albers (one year, $2.25 million with Astros) and lefty Rich Hill. Antonetti noted that the Indians have kept in contact with Hill, though Outman is poised to assume the left-on-left role that the veteran held last year with Cleveland.
"We haven't closed the door on Rich," Antonetti said. "But Josh could fill that role."
The 29-year-old Outman -- eligible for arbitration for the second time this winter and under contractual control through 2015 -- joins Marc Rzepczynski as the Indians' top two lefties out of the bullpen now. Cleveland also has young left-hander Nick Hagadone in the fold, but he has one Minor League option and has battled inconsistency over the past two seasons.
Stubbs became expendable for the Tribe after the signing of veteran outfielder David Murphy to a two-year, $12 million contract in November. With Murphy, Cleveland had three players for right field (Ryan Raburn being the third) and Stubbs became the odd-man out. The Indians acquired Stubbs from the Reds as part of a three-team, nine-player trade last offseason with the idea that he could thrive as a full-time right fielder.
In 146 games for Cleveland, Stubbs hit .233 with 10 home runs and 45 RBIs, but his defense took a step back after shifting out of center field, and he did not run nearly as much as in the past. Stubbs ended with 17 stolen bases after swiping 100 in the previous three seasons with Cincinnati. Down the stretch, the Indians limited Stubbs' role, using him mainly against left-handed pitching.
It became increasingly clear that Cleveland could use Stubbs as potential trade bait to address a need on the pitching staff.
The Indians actually had interest in Outman at last season's July 31 Trade Deadline, but could not align on a deal with Colorado, and then reeled in Rzepczynski in a trade with St. Louis. Excluding Rzepczynski, Cleveland's lefty relievers posted a combined 6.24 ERA in 83 2/3 innings last season, making that an area in need of upgrading.
Rzepczynski helped solidify that aspect of the bullpen down the stretch, turning in a 0.89 ERA while holding lefties to a .128 (5-for-39) average in his time with the Tribe last year. By adding Outman, the Indians hope they now have two proven left-handed specialists within their relief corps.
"One of our focuses this offseason was to really try to improve our pitching," Antonetti said. "[Outman] is a left-handed pitcher with really good arm strength that's had a lot of success against left-handers at the Major League level. So we feel he'll fit into the bullpen and be a meaningful contributor for us this year."
After working as a long man and spot starter in parts of the 2008-12 seasons with the A's and Rockies, Outman finally served as a full-time reliever in '13. In 61 appearances, the left-hander turned in a 4.33 ERA with 53 strikeouts against 23 walks in 54 innings. Across five big league seasons, Outman has a 4.61 ERA, 2.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.43 WHIP.
Outman's area of expertise is facing lefties, who combined for a .198/.278/.261 slash line against the southpaw last season. Righties, however, feasted off the pitcher, posting a .347/.423/.459 line against him in 2013. For his career, Outman has limited left-handed batters to a .189 average (.523 OPS), compared to a .303 average (.844) for right-handed hitters.
Outman features primarily a three-pitch mix consisting of a fastball (92.4 mph on average in 2013, according to fangraphs.com), slider (83.1 mph) and changeup (80.8 mph).
"We'll try to leverage him as best we can to allow him to be successful," Antonetti said, "and allow our team to win as many games as possible. The role will still be determined, but I would envision him pitching more against left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters."