CLEVELAND -- Last offseason, the Indians witnessed the departure of four experienced relief men in Joe Smith, Rich Hill, Carlos Perez and Matt Albers. As a result, the question became who could replace those players and whether they would do it effectively.
The Tribe bullpen, as it turns out, has become an unquestionable strength of the team in 2014. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Marc Rzepczynski have emerged as workhorses at the back end -- all three have at least 40 appearances. Kyle Crockett has been a pleasant surprise after his lightning-quick ascension through the Minors. Even Carlos Carrasco has posted a 1.67 ERA in 18 outings since losing his spot in the starting rotation.
Entering Thursday, Cleveland's relievers had combined for a 3.05 ERA -- the third-best mark in the American League -- while registering 289 strikeouts in 297 2/3 innings. The group also saw its 18-inning scoreless streak snapped on Wednesday night after Jacoby Ellsbury's 14th-inning homer off Vinnie Pestano.
"You have to have guys that can pitch, and they have to somewhat complement each other, also. Sometimes it can go under the radar, and you can't always have it like that," Indians skipper Terry Francona said. "They don't always match up perfect. But when it does, I think you can take a bullpen and make it better. We have a number of guys that are capable of snuffing out rallies."
Part of the Tribe's relief pitching success, Francona notes, has been the bullpen's flexibility, allowing the team emphasizing matchups over defined roles. So while Allen has more or less been the de facto closer since John Axford was removed from the role, the team has also gotten saves out of Shaw, Scott Atchison and even Carrasco.
"Sometimes they're etched into innings. I get that. Sometimes it's good," Francona said. "For whatever reason, we went away from Ax as a closer. When we did that, it just seemed to make sense to explain to them we can have a really good bullpen if they're willing to pitch, whether it's the sixth, seventh, eighth."
Alec Shirkey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.