October 21, 2014

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Scott Petrak: Indians on the right track with better bullpen

LORAIN — The recipe for success for a big league team is complex: a powerful offense, a deep rotation, a solid defense and a dependable bullpen.
The formula for disaster is much simpler: an unreliable relief corps.
Nothing can sink a team faster than a bad bullpen. And it starts at the finish.
A lights-out closer shortens the game by at least three outs, 11 percent of the game. He emboldens his teammates while demoralizing the opposition. The other team knows the seventh and eighth innings are their last chances to rally, so they feel the pressure earlier.
Enter Kerry Wood, the Indians’ top free-agent signing.
He saved 34 games for the Cubs in 2008, posting a 3.26 ERA and striking out 84 in 661/3 innings.
“He’s going to make our team so much better,” right-handed reliever Jensen Lewis said Thursday at the Tribe’s annual press tour stop at DeLuca’s Place in the Park. “He’s an intimidating force in the back end we obviously haven’t had the last few years.”
If Wood can stay healthy — there’s always an “if” for the budget-conscious Indians — he should not only calm the waters in the ninth inning, but lower the collective blood pressure of Indians fans.
After years watching Bob Wickman and Joe Borowski, a 1-2-3 ninth inning without drama will be a welcome sight at Progressive Field. So will a 94 mph fastball.
“I love it,” first baseman Ryan Garko said this week. “Knowing that Kerry Wood’s in the back end of our bullpen, it’s going to change the way everyone comes to the ballpark, knowing we have someone like that to finish games.”
As the Indians learned last year, the opposite is also true. A shaky closer — or worse, a revolving door in the ninth inning — begins the dominos spilling across the dugout.
The 27 outs required for a win feel like 30. The opponent never loses hope, no matter how large the deficit. Meanwhile, the balky closer’s team never feels comfortable.
Borowski’s right arm gave out last year, starting a chain of events that led to a miserable bullpen performance that sabotaged the team’s playoff hopes. Rafael Betancourt and Masahide Kobayashi couldn’t fill the void, and it wasn’t until Lewis stepped into the closer’s role late in the year that the bullpen stabilized and the Indians began to string wins.
The Indians finished 27th in the league with 31 saves, and they blew 20 chances.
The brutal numbers weren’t lost on general manager Mark Shapiro, who made finding a closer priority No. 1. Shapiro has repeatedly said that a bullpen is the most difficult part of the team to build, and its success the toughest to predict.
Yet it can’t be ignored.
“With the bullpen, every year is a new year,” Shapiro said after signing Wood to a two-year, $20.5 million deal. “Kerry Wood was our first choice. He’s a prototypical closer who throws in the mid-90s with a power breaking ball. He has dominant stuff.
“We believe you start with a closer and build back from there. We think we have the pieces to put together what could be a very good bullpen.”
Shapiro isn’t just whistling the happy tune that accompanies the approach of spring training.
The Indians are deep in the bullpen, which gives them options. Betancourt — who figures to return to form after a mind-boggling flop last year — Lewis and newly acquired Joe Smith have had success in the eighth inning and could be interchangeable depending on who’s got the hot hand. Left-hander Rafael Perez was among the best at his craft last year (86 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings, 3.54 ERA in 2008), and Kobayashi is an exciting option in the sixth inning, as he should be better in his second season in America.
“It’s almost like you pick names out of a hat now, because guys have had experience in all the situations,” Lewis said. “It allows us to shorten games, which is what a bullpen wants to do.
“It also allows the starters to let everything hang out. They don’t have to worry about saving energy. They’ll know we’re ready.”
If Lewis and Shapiro are right about the bullpen — and there’s reason to think they are — the Indians will be one giant step closer to contending again in the AL Central.
Then they’d only have to worry about depth in the rotation, Jhonny Peralta’s range at shortstop and the health of Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez in the middle of the lineup.
Welcome to another Indians season.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.