Indians have one of the worst bullpens in MLB, but here's how they can turn it around

On Tuesday night, the Cleveland Indians suffered another crushing loss (DET 9, CLE 8) in a month full of crushing losses. The bullpen blew an 8-3 lead to the rebuilding Detroit Tigers to drop the Indians to 5-9 in May. They are 20-21 on the season and somehow still on top of the thoroughly mediocre AL Central.

Here is video of Detroit's go-ahead five-run rally in the seventh inning:

Andrew Miller, in his third game back from a hamstring injury, faced six batters and retired one. He walked three -- it was his first three-walk outing as a reliever since August 2010, and that was a long relief appearance in which he threw four innings -- and allowed two doubles. Dan Otero faced four batters and retired one. Yuck.

The bullpen has been and continues to be a problem for the Indians, and it is the No. 1 reason they are sitting one game below .500 a quarter of the way through the season. Their bullpen ranks:

  • ERA: 5.73 (30th in MLB)
  • WHIP: 1.45 (26th)
  • Strikeout Rate: 22.6 percent (22nd)
  • Walk Rate: 9.2 percent (16th)
  • Shutdowns: 33 (6th fewest)
  • Meltdowns: 26 (5th most)
  • WAR: -0.3 (29th)

Shutdowns and Meltdowns are relief appearances that sway win probability by at least six percent. Shutdowns are good (increased win probability) and meltdowns are bad (reduced win probability). The Indians are near the bottom of the league in basically every meaningful bullpen metric. Tuesday's disaster was hardly the first for Cleveland.

Miller has been hurt and rusty. Cody Allen crumbled when he took on an increased workload during Miller's absence. Otero, Zach McAllister, and Tyler Olson have been inconsistent at best and outright terrible at worst. Nick Goody is injured. Bryan Shaw was not replaced after he left as a free agent. There are real problems in manager Terry Francona's bullpen.

The first 41 games of the season are in the books. The only thing the Indians can do now it work to improve their bullpen, which is easier said than done, but not impossible. Contenders rebuild bullpens on the fly all the time. Last year the Los Angeles Dodgers added Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, and Tony Cingrani during the summer, remember.

The Indians do not have the same resources as the Dodgers, but clearly, the bullpen needs an overhaul. Here are four ways the Tribe can revamp their relief corps to give them their best chance to win the World Series.

Just be patient

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers
Andrew Miller probably won't be this ineffective for long. USATSI

Do nothing is always an option. Not necessarily a great option, but an option. Miller is still trying to get back into a groove following the hamstring injury and he's so good that I have to think it'll happen sooner rather than later. Allen won't have to work as much now that Miller has returned too, which will help him. Is Otero a true talent 7.47 ERA pitcher? Almost certainly not.

No one likes to hear this, but sometimes the best thing a team can do is be patient. Wait for Miller and Allen (and Otero) to right the ship and pitch to their career norms. With Miller and Allen, there's not much the Indians can do other than be patient anyway. They're not going anywhere. Other guys like Otero and McAllister and Olson are more at risk of losing their jobs. Don't overreact and hope these guys turn it around soon. An option? Absolutely. A good option? Eh.

Bring Salazar back as a reliever

Right-hander Danny Salazar has yet to pitch this season due to a shoulder impingement, and he recently received a platelet-rich plasma injection. There is no timetable for his return, but the Indians do expect him back at some point, and whenever he does return, they could use Salazar in relief to help their bullpen. He's pitched in relief before. It wouldn't be new to him.

There are three potential problems with this, however. One, when will Salazar return? The Indians don't know for sure. Two, will he even be effective following the shoulder injury? He might come back with reduced stuff not suited for late game situations. And three, Salazar in the bullpen means Josh Tomlin would have to remain in the rotation. Tomlin has a 7.84 ERA with 15 homers allowed in 31 innings this year. Yikes.

On the other hand, bringing Salazar back as a reliever could hasten his return. He wouldn't have to get stretched out to 90-ish pitches during his rehab work. Get him stretched out to 40-ish pitches and bring him back that much quicker. Point is, at some point Salazar is expected to join the Indians this year, and given the current state of affairs, he might be most useful to the team in the bullpen.

Give the kids a chance

There's nothing quite like some live-armed prospects to give the bullpen a shot in the arm. The Indians are not blessed with the deepest farm system, though they do have some arms in the minors who could help them in relief. 

Most notably, right-hander Shane Bieber owns a 1.43 ERA with a 46/3 K/BB in 50 1/3 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A this season. Baseball America ranks him as the 92nd best prospect in baseball and notes his fastball "now sits 92-94 and touched 96" and his curveball "got sharper and more consistent."

Righty Aaron Civale, who owns a 2.51 ERA with a 32/4 K/BB in 32 1/3 innings at Double-A, could be another call-up option once he returns from the disabled list. He's currently out with a sore shoulder. Fellow righty Adam Plutko pitched well in a spot start earlier this month and may be worth a longer look in relief.

The Indians do not have a Josh Hader or an Edwin Diaz they can call up and put in their bullpen. That top pitching prospect who could come in and blow hitters away for an inning or two at a time. Bieber is their best available young hurler -- top pitching prospect Triston McKenzie is currently out with a forearm issue -- and at some point it might be worth considering him in relief. He would hardly be the first starting pitching prospect to break into the big leagues as a reliever.

Make a trade

It always come back to this, doesn't it? Given their bullpen to date, I would be shocked if the Indians didn't trade for a reliever at some point this summer. Maybe it won't be a Miller caliber addition, but adding another bullpen arm or three wouldn't be a bad idea. Some super early potential trade candidates:

  • Brad Brach & Zach Britton, Orioles: Both impending free agents. The Orioles are pretty terrible and they figure to deal away several players at the deadline.
  • Brad Hand, Padres: The Padres are rebuilding and Hand is very good, and, as an added bonus, he is signed affordably through 2021. Kirby Yates could be a lower cost Padres target.
  • Raisel Iglesias, Reds: Iglesias would be a significant addition. He's quite good and he's signed affordably through 2020.
  • Joakim Soria, White Sox: Soria is no longer the ace reliever he once was, but he'll come cheap and would bring late-game experience, if nothing else.
  • Brad Ziegler, Marlins: Veteran submariner has experience in every role and is an impending free agent, so you know the Marlins will look to move him.

As always, plenty of other relievers will become available in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, including guys no one saw coming. Did anyone really think the Yankees would trade Miller and Aroldis Chapman on this date in 2016? Nope. The summer trade season is still a few weeks away from heating up, but once it does, the Indians figure to be very active.


Keep in mind the Indians are a small market team with a fairly defined window of contention. It's right now, before Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer get expensive through arbitration, before Michael Brantley and Miller and Allen become free agents, and while Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco are in their primes. This is their best chance to win the World Series. Right now. This year.

Because of that, I expect the Indians to be aggressive on multiple fronts to improve their bullpen. Call-ups and trades, etc. They have a pragmatic front office that understands the team's current situation and what's on the line. Getting to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was a tremendous accomplishment, but the Indians do not want that to be their high water mark with this group. 

Cleveland might be able to survive and win a weak AL Central without significant bullpen upgrades. They want to win a title though, and to do so, they'll have to fix the bullpen sooner rather than later.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories
    24/7 Scores, News, Highlights
    FREE ON ALL YOUR DEVICES