September 19, 2014

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Chris Assenheimer: Indians have to stabilize their bullpen

It must seem a lot like 2006 for Indians manager Eric Wedge where his bullpen is concerned.
That was the year Wedge could turn to few members of his relief corps without it blowing up in his face — the pen’s pitiful performance playing a large part in the team’s overall lack of success.
It’s been much of the same this year, with the fifth-year manager able to call on only a handful of his seven relievers without receiving unfavorable results.  
“You come into the season with reserve,” said Wedge of the always-fickle business of bullpen construction. “We’ve had to make some adjustments due to injury and performance. We’ve still got a lot of work to do in the bullpen, as far as figuring out roles.
“I’m not satisfied. I think some guys are doing a decent job and others aren’t.”
Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s bullpen was a strong suit in 2007, as the team returned to the postseason for the first time since 2001 and came a win short of reaching the World Series.
It looked to be strong again this year before closer Joe Borowski imploded and was sent to the disabled list with a mysterious strained triceps injury.
As shaky as Borowski was last year, he did lead the American League with 45 saves and, as the ninth-inning guy, allowed the rest of his pen pals to settle into their comfortable roles.
Now that he’s away, Rafael Betancourt has moved from setup man to closer with his job now falling to a committee — one that has largely stumbled to adapt.
It’s left Wedge with only a few arms that he can trust — Betancourt and late-inning relievers Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis. The last two flourished at the end of 2007, but even they have scuffled out of the gate.
Only now has Wedge begun to go to high-priced Japanese acquisition Masa Kobayashi, with the Indians choosing to treat the 33-year-old veteran of nine Japanese Pacific League seasons as a rookie. It’s another sign that Wedge has little trust in anyone outside of the three aforementioned relievers.
Offseason acquisition Jorge Julio has seen plenty of innings, but most often at mop-up time. The veteran right-hander shows no reason to warrant anything more.
Craig Breslow and Tom Mastny? Are they even still on the team?
It’s still early, but the Indians need to figure out their bullpen situation before the season gets too deep. As is the case with a number of teams throughout recent history, the performance of the relief corps can make or break a season. It’s likely that the Indians will have to be at least average in that department to return to the postseason.
No one’s panicking yet, except for maybe Wedge.   
“It’s a process, a day-to-day thing,” Lewis said. “When you play 162 games, you’re not going to have it figured out in the first 30.”

Closer for keeps?

Here’s a little prediction: If Betancourt continues to perform effectively in the closer role — he had converted his first two save opportunities through Friday — Borowski is never getting the job back.
If he does, the Indians deserve everything they get for what happens.
My guess is that Borowski will return from the disabled list and be worked in gradually. But unless Betancourt folds, he’ll stay out of the closer loop, with the Indians shoving him off into the sunset at the end of the season.

Minor details

Entering Friday, Triple-A Buffalo (7-15) didn’t have a player on its roster hitting .300. Infielder Andy Gonzalez, who was impressive in big league training camp, led the Bisons with a .296 average.
After a hot start, Cleveland’s opening-day second baseman, Josh Barfield, had cooled to .236 with a team-leading 22 strikeouts in 89 at-bats. The Indians’ fifth starter at the end of last season, Aaron Laffey was off to a 3-1 start with a 2.77 ERA in five outings.
This may sound crazy, but other than outfielder Stephen Head, who has played in four games, Double-A Akron (7-12) didn’t have a .300 hitter through Thursday, either.
Third baseman Wes Hodges (second-round draft pick in 2006) is off to a hot start, though, batting a respectable .276 with a team-leading five home runs and 18 RBIs through his first 19 games. Touted prospect Chuck Lofgren is off to a slow start, 11 runs on 20 hits through his first three starts, covering 13 innings.  

Power rankings

1. Boston Red Sox: After a slow start, the defending world champs look primed for a repeat performance.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks: Have the pitching to contend with Boston if either gets that far.
3. Chicago Cubs: Lineup looks good and so do the Cubbies early on.
4. Los Angeles Angels: Maintaining their traditional spot atop the AL West standings.
5. St. Louis Cardinals: LaRussa has the Cards off to a solid start.
6. Oakland A’s: Four of their wins have come against the Indians.
7. Chicago White Sox: With former Indian Jim Thome flexing his muscles, the Sox are atop the Central Division.
8. Milwaukee Brewers: Have cooled a bit since a sizzling start.
9. Florida Marlins: Somehow have managed to start fast after so many offseason losses.
10. Baltimore Orioles: Upstart is beginning to come back down to earth a bit.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com.