Consider Cleveland's bullpen last season. The dynamic duo of years past, closer Chris Perez and setup man Vinnie Pestano, dealt with injuries and on-field struggles. It could have been enough to derail the Tribe's year, but the club patched some holes, changed some roles and made the postseason.
This winter, the Indians have retooled their bullpen by bringing in a new closer in John Axford, trading for lefty Josh Outman and inviting an assortment of arms to Spring Training as non-roster options. Cleveland lost a considerable chunk of innings to free agency, but the club believes the pieces still in place can make up the difference.
"Whether the names are the same or not, you never quite know going into a year," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "Last year, we went in and we were all raving about Vinnie, and Vinnie struggled. And C.P. had his ups and downs. So sometimes the names change, sometimes they don't, but bullpens kind of make themselves over every year. It's always interesting."
Perez (third on Cleveland's all-time list with 124 career saves) was released in October, ending the polarizing closer's run with the club. He and setup man Joe Smith headed to Los Angeles -- Perez to the Dodgers on a one-year deal and Smith to the Angels on a three-year pact. Also gone are righty Matt Albers (one-year deal with the Astros) and lefty Rich Hill (still a free agent).
That foursome represents 218 2/3 innings lost, which made it a priority for the Indians to address their bullpen this winter. Cleveland inked Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million contract, which includes another $1.75 million available through incentives, with the hope that he can rekindle his career as a closer. In December, the Tribe also dealt outfielder Drew Stubbs to the Rockies to land Outman.
As things currently stand, the Indians have five perceived locks for the bullpen in Axford, Outman, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Marc Rzepczynski. Pestano will be given every opportunity to win a job this spring, along with a long list of other arms. Depending on how the Indians align their bench, the team could leave camp with seven or eight relievers.
"We feel the bullpen's improved from where it was at the start of the offseason," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "I feel like we brought in a couple guys externally who we think are going to contribute, but we're also counting upon a number of guys from within the organization who we think are ready to contribute in more meaningful roles."
The five relievers viewed as virtual locks for the staff combined for a 3.42 ERA with a 1.33 WHIP, 2.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 295 innings last season. In comparison, the four relievers who hit the open market had a 3.75 ERA with a 1.38 WHIP, 2.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings in '13.
In the upcoming season, Allen (2.43 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings last year) and Shaw (3.24 ERA in 75 innings) will likely see time in the seventh and eighth inning, setting up Axford. The closer had a 4.02 ERA in 65 innings with the Brewers and Cardinals last year, but he posted a 2.92 ERA in his final 61 2/3 innings -- including a 1.74 ERA in 13 games after being traded to St. Louis.
Rzepczynski and Outman combined for a .192 (32-for-167) average against left-handed hitters last season, potentially giving Cleveland a pair of solid matchup options.
"We've got so many good arms out there in the 'pen," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "All those guys can do any role that we want them to. Obviously, Axford is going to close, and we're very excited about that. Tito's probaby going to throw different guys out there whenever we need to. We've got Rzepczynski out there. We've got Outman now, if we've got some lefties coming up in that slow.
"We like Cody Allen, what he's been doing, coming in and putting out fires with men on base and getting those big outs -- those big strikeouts -- that we need. So we have confidence that a number of those guys can fill [setup duties]."
The Indians are also hopeful that Pestano, who had a 2.45 ERA with 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 137 games across the 2011-12 seasons, is over the right elbow woes that hindered him last year. Pestano was a fixture in the eighth for the Tribe prior to last season, when he posted career highs in ERA (4.08) and WHIP (1.64), and faced a demotion to Triple-A.
"It was kind of a lost year," Francona said of Pestano. "Hopefully, we get the Vinnie back that you guys remember from a couple years ago. That would be awesome. You could stick him in that eighth inning and you have a lock-down guy. There's nothing better."
Other bullpen options include: right-handers Frank Herrmann and Blake Wood (both returning from Tommy John elbow surgery); rostered lefties Nick Hagadone, Scott Barnes and Colt Hynes; prospects C.C. Lee, Preston Guilmet, Austin Adams and Bryan Price; and non-roster invitees such as Matt Capps, David Aardsma, Scott Atchison and J.C. Ramirez, among others.
Starting candidates Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin might also figure into the mix if they do not make the Opening Day rotation.
"Every manager has a different opinion on the bullpen," Francona said. "Mine is: I don't care about having a long man. Those games where you get beat up, I'd rather struggle through it, because you're going to lose anyway. You want to have seven or eight usable guys in the bullpen. That's what we did last year, I thought, very effectively."