With full deck in bullpen, Francona has more cards to play than ever

Tribe skipper can mix and match how he pleases

Alex Hooper
August 05, 2018 - 7:06 pm
Aug 5, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Brad Hand (33) and catcher Roberto Perez (55) celebrate after the Indians beat the Los Angeles Angels at Progressive Field.

© Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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Cleveland, OH (92.3 The Fan) – There’s no Wild Thing, but it’s starting to come together, Pepper.

The Cleveland Indians bullpen is far from a finished product with lefty Andrew Miller still looking to get fully right, but baseball’s worst relief corps have the makings of now being one of the best in the game. With the well-rounded depth afforded to Manager Terry Francona, his vision for the ‘pen could soon be fulfilled.

Sunday was a prime example.

The days of Bryan Shaw to Miller to Cody Allen are gone, and so too could be the chain of Miller and Allen at the back end. New addition Brad Hand earned his third save on Sunday, though it was the first game he entered in the 9th inning since being traded from San Diego.

While Miller struggles through some command issues, the southpaw has pitched in two low-leverage situations since his return, including entering with a two-run lead in the top of the 7th on Sunday. Miller again struggled to locate, retiring leadoff hitter Kole Calhoun on a 98.8 mph rocket to center field before allowing a single to pinch hitter Justin Upton and hitting Shohei Ohtani.

Miller’s struggles forced an extremely high-leverage situation, the two plate appearances with the highest leverage index of the game at 4.44 and 4.55. Francona decided to turn the ball over to Allen, who flourished, forcing Andrelton Simmons to pop out and David Fletcher to ground into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.

It took just five pitches. The 8th took just 10.

“That was big to be able to go out there and be efficient,” Allen said. “And then kind of -- I don’t think I threw too many in the eighth, just to be able to be available tomorrow.”

Francona did not even need a bridge from Sunday starter Shane Bieber’s 5 2/3 innings to the back end of the bullpen because submarining right-hander specialist Adam Cimber is an equal part of the back end. If he does, Neil Ramirez and Oliver Perez have proven capable in the middle innings.

Hand did not cruise through the 9th by any means, allowing a pair of singles, a run and a wild pitch, but only needed 15 pitches himself to close the game. Francona can use his quartet all over again on Monday.

This was not the world that the skipper had been living in prior to late June.

Since the addition of Hand on July 19, the Indians bullpen ranks 6th in baseball with a 3.49 ERA, though their workload is 1/3 on an inning off of the lightest in the game.

It is that last bit that was what made the deal so important. Tribe starters already shorten the game better than just about any rotation, they just needed someone to anchor them. Now with Miller, Cimber and (ahem) Hand in hand, the men handling those high leverage innings are in a more advantageous position.

If the high-leverage outs come in the 6th or 7th, Francona can turn to Hand and Allen early before going to Cimber and Miller to finish things off. If Hand or Miller struggle for a stretch, the other is of the quality to handle those innings instead.

“There are a lot of ways that our bullpen can come at you, different looks, we can match guys up really, really well,” Allen said. “But there’s a lot of guys down there. Cimber, he has great numbers against righties, but I mean, in San Diego, they were using him 1-2 innings and he was getting lefties and righties out. Same with Neil. There’s a lot of different looks.”

Options are a good thing, and Francona somehow has more options than ever. It just took awhile.