CLEVELAND -- Drained mentally and looking forward to not looking back, Vinnie Pestano had a plan for this winter. The Indians reliever would head somewhere warm, soak in some sun and enjoy an ocean breeze with a cold drink in hand.
"I was thinking about finding a beach," Pestano said, "and just forgetting about a lot of stuff and just leaving it there."
Pestano never got to that beach. Instead, he found himself crouched inside a cramped duck blind in late November, shotgun in hand, waiting for the call to aim and fire. The hunting trip was a first for Pestano, but he vowed to spend the offseason accepting invitations rather than worrying too much about past struggles or opportunities awaiting in the spring.
There was a trip to Seattle to see an old Minor League teammate and a stop in Chicago to catch up with his good buddy Jason Kipnis, Cleveland's second baseman. At this particular moment, though, Pestano was sitting alongside fellow Tribe pitchers Cody Allen and Josh Tomlin, decked out in camouflage, trying to stay warm and shoot true.
Prior to the trip, Pestano's only duck hunting experience came via Nintendo.
"Now I've got hunting stories to tell," Pestano said with a laugh. "It was good to get away and see friends, and not put a lot of time in thinking about the past."
It is the more recent past that caused the right-hander so much anguish.
Last year, Pestano entered the season as one of the game's top setup men and was widely viewed as the closer-in-waiting for the Indians. Pestano did close for a bit in June, but the right elbow issue that flared in late April had a ripple effect on the months that followed. By July, Pestano was removed from the eighth-inning role, and then sent to Triple-A Columbus.
Pestano's 2.45 ERA over the 2011-12 seasons ballooned to a career-worst 4.08 in '13. He made just 37 appearances last year after logging 137 in the previous two campaigns. Pestano suffered a drop in velocity, could no longer live in the upper half of the strike zone and saw hitters feast on pitches that resulted in whiffs in prior seasons.
Pestano has never had pristine pitching mechanics, so trying to identify the proper fix became a difficult task.
"I really just kind of felt lost," Pestano said. "I think that was one of the main things last year, is we kept looking for answers and looking for problems to solve and, without having any mechanical basis to go off in the past, we really didn't know which adjustment to make. It just had to be on feel, and the feeling obviously wasn't there."
The Indians hope the 28-year-old Pestano regains his feel for the upcoming season, but the club has contingency plans in place. Allen and Bryan Shaw are poised to return as the primary setup men for new closer John Axford (signed to a one-year deal this winter). Lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Josh Outman are virtual locks for the 'pen as well.
The Tribe might look to add even more reinforcements to the bullpen in the weeks before camp opens.
This spring, there will also be non-roster invitees such as Matt Capps and Scott Atchison vying for jobs, youngsters such as C.C. Lee and Preston Guilmet trying to turn heads and comeback candidates aplenty (Frank Herrmann and Blake Wood, for example). Pestano understands that he has slipped into the last category and is aiming to correct that before Opening Day.
"His mind-set is in a good spot," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "He's anticipating going to the complex and working hard to put himself in a better position coming into this season. He is set on having a much better year this year than he did last year."
Selected in the 20th round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, and a veteran of Tommy John elbow surgery, Pestano is used to having the deck stacked against him. Pestano, who lives in Arizona, has already been going to the Indians' complex in Goodyear, Ariz., regularly. He has resumed throwing and is eager for the team's Feb. 11 reporting date to arrive.
"I'm coming into camp feeling like I kind of did a few years ago," Pestano said. "I've got something to prove. I don't think by any means, with the way last year ended, that I've got any sort of certainty of being on that team when camp starts. It's kind of a tough transition to make. You don't expect after three years that you're going to be back trying to climb the ladder again, but that's kind of where I find myself.
"But, I've always kind of been an underdog. I think last year was really the first time I didn't have that label. This is probably where I belong, trying to prove people wrong and proving I belong. Having that motivating factor is going to be good for me."
Entering the New Year helped, too.
"Seeing the calendar on '14 and not on '13 anymore, that felt good," Pestano said. "You can start anew the day after something happens, but there's something about that calendar rolling over that helps you try to forget about things in the past."