"We've always had a set way of doing things here and tried to respect. But now I think we've got to have a little greater sense of urgency where those things are not going to be as important." - Indians GM Mark Shapiro
Wow, what a crazy day yesterday in Tribe Land with all the roster moves, mostly in conjunction with an organization looking for answers for the major league bullpen. It was a monumental day in that for maybe the first time under GM Mark Shapiro's leadership we see real signs that the organization is willing to think outside of the box for solutions and also has a sense of urgency to fix an issue with a team still barely a month into the season.
In the past, the Indians have notoriously been extremely slow to make moves or respond to problem areas of the team in-season mostly because of their even keel and patient approach of doing things. They often have waited for that 40-game mark to consider moves, but with how the bullpen has imploded this year and is absolutely ruining this season for the team (with an average bullpen effort they are probably in first place), the Indians have been active making move after move trying to find a way to right the ship. Love him or hate him, you have to like what Shapiro is doing here or at the least the message it is sending.
The big news of the day yesterday evening was the Indians decision to move left-handed starter Aaron Laffey to the bullpen and call up left-hander Jeremy Sowers from Triple-A Columbus to fill Laffey's spot in the rotation. The Indians also said good-bye to right-hander Vinnie Chulk, optioned out left-hander Rafael Perez to Columbus to get him straightened out, and added veteran right-hander Matt Herges from Columbus as well.
Shapiro said yesterday that there are limited external alternatives for the Indians to fix their bullpen issues, which is true because a lot of teams have bullpen problems they would like to fix too. Plus, no one is dumping any relief help of significance this early in the season. He also implied that the well is pretty dry in Columbus as far as immediate help is concerned internally. With Adam Miller and Joe Smith on the disabled list, Jeff Stevens traded in the offseason, John Meloan struggling with his command, and a mix of past their prime veterans or too green prospects, there is virtually nothing left to pull from in Columbus.
This led to the bold decision to move Laffey into the bullpen, a decision that came out of nowhere. While many people contemplated the Indians options in the bullpen over the past week, I don't think anyone thought about putting Laffey in the pen and using an area of strength - starting pitching in Columbus - as a possible solution to the bullpen problems. While the well may have dried up as far as relievers go in Columbus, the Indians still had two very good starting options in lefties Jeremy Sowers and David Huff. With the surplus of starting pitching, they needed to figure out a way to get their best available options in Columbus - Sowers and Huff - to Cleveland, hence the Laffey move to the bullpen.
Laffey, theoretically at this point obviously, could be just what the doctor ordered for the bullpen. Some may wonder why the Indians would move Laffey to the bullpen, especially with how he has been one of the better starters on the staff in the early going. This came down to versatility and need, and of the five guys in the rotation Laffey is best suited for a bullpen role. Cliff Lee obviously would not be moved to the pen, as well as Fausto Carmona. Pavano has pitched well of late and was not an option either. The only other candidate would have been Reyes, but he just made a start the previous night so was unavailable for a few days anyway if he was even considered at all.
Also, some may wonder why not put Sowers into the bullpen and keep Laffey in the rotation? Bottom line, the goal is to stop the bleeding in the bullpen. If this is the case, who would you have more confidence in using in such a role late in games to get outs, Laffey or Sowers? Enough said. Or, would you rather keep Laffey in the rotation and try more of the retread options like Rich Rundles, Zach Jackson, Tomo Ohka, or whatever in the bullpen instead? They needed to put someone in the pen who they know can get consistent outs, and when they weighed all the options it looks Laffey came out on top as the best option.
Again, while the move itself is questionable, I like the boldness of it and the risk the Indians are taking. I think it is a well calculated risk. It may or may not work, but the Indians are at the point of desperation. With no solutions in Columbus to turn to, they made the bold move of taking one of their more versatile starters and more importantly one of their more composed, mentally tough starters and pushed him to the pen. This allowed them to use the depth of starting pitching in Columbus to an advantage and used them instead to fill the rotation.
Sowers has looked very good in Columbus so far, and some of the people I have talked to in and out of the organization say he looks like he is ready to get another shot to pitch and perform at the big league level. He was 1-1 in four starts there with a 2.25 ERA, but more importantly in 24.0 innings had only allowed 5 walks and 23 hits while striking out 22. His command was good, and his velocity was up to 92-93 MPH. Now that he is in Cleveland, time will tell. Even if he falters, it now opens the door for Huff to get an opportunity, and with right-hander Jake Westbrook nearing a return likely in about five to seven weeks, the Indians have a surplus of starting options still at their disposal.
The other thing in play yesterday besides the Laffey move to the pen was a lot of movement in the farm system. With Sowers going to Cleveland, right-hander Frank Herrmann got the well deserved call up from Double-A Akron to Columbus to fill the open spot in the rotation. Herrmann is a legit depth starting option at this point to be considered if Sowers, Huff and eventually Westbrook struggle. In Akron no one has replaced Herrmann in the rotation, though right-handed reliever Erik Stiller is expected to get the temporary starting job until a solution is decided.
One of the more interesting moves of the day was the promotion of right-hander Zach Putnam from High-A Kinston to Akron. Putnam is definitely a guy to watch, as it is no coincidence that he was promoted yesterday and moved to the Akron bullpen and Shapiro made these comments on the same day:
"So, we're going to have to try and be creative. We're going to have to look at things from top to bottom in our system and look for solutions. Those are conversations we're having right now. We are pushing the envelope on internal considerations. The reason we're doing that is we're not going to be able to turn over the whole bullpen from external alternatives. We've got limited external alternatives. We'll continue to be aggressive in pursuing external alternatives, but the reality is the answers are probably going to have to lie internally."
Putnam was a 5th round pick in the 2008 Draft last year out of the University of Michigan. He has limited experience professionally, but was always thought to be a guy who could move quickly through the system - especially as a reliever - because of his advanced pitching approach. At 6'2" 225-pounds he has a big frame to go along with very strong legs and broad shoulders that give him an ideal body to be a workhorse in the bullpen or rotation. He is an aggressive, power pitcher who shows excellent composure in tight games and is a notorious big game player who has that knack of coming through in the clutch, which is something the Indians desperately need in the bullpen right now. He throws two plus pitches, a fastball which sits 92-93 MPH and tops out at 96 MPH and a devastating splitter. The fastball has great movement, and the splitter is nasty and already considered a major league out pitch. He also throws a slider, curveball and changeup, but these would be used sparingly in a bullpen role.
Putnam had been starting in Kinston, but the Indians moved him up to Akron to pitch in the bullpen. In four starts at Kinston he was 2-0 with a 4.13 ERA, and in 24.0 innings had allowed 22 hits and 5 walks while striking out 23. Don't let the ERA fool you, as his performance was much better than that number indicates as he was the victim of a bad first inning in an outing a few weeks ago where seven runs came to the plate on some well placed hits (he came back and shutout the opposition the next four innings).
While Putnam had been pitching out of the rotation in Kinston, he has always been viewed as a dominant late inning bullpen option in the making. He was starting to mostly work on his secondary pitches and get regular work, and he actually would have opened the season in the Kinston bullpen had right-hander Bryce Stowell not come up lame in spring training.
Shapiro also made comments that they may pull someone from Double-A to fill a bullpen void, which immediately puts a guy like Putnam on notice. It also should put a little extra spring in the step of other pitchers in Akron like Stiller, Vinnie Pestano, Josh Tomlin, Chuck Lofgren, Steven Wright, Michael Finocchi, Josh Judy, Carlton Smith and Neil Wagner. The most likely options that may be considered out of that bunch are Tomlin and Wright, with Tomlin someone to have an eye on as well because of his ability to pitch in virtually any role in the bullpen, his makeup, his exceptional command, and his strike throwing ability. He may be our Jensen Lewis of 2007 later in the season.
Some may wonder why I have not mentioned right-hander Hector Rondon as an option from Double-A Akron. In a nutshell, he really is an untouchable as far as the bullpen goes. There is a sliver of a chance anything can happen and he may see bullpen work at some point this year in Cleveland, but it is very, very unlikely. He's still very green, growing, maturing, and has exploded onto the prospect scene as a legit front-of-the-rotation starting pitching prospect, and you don't bounce around a young high-level pitching prospect like that.
I even asked Farm Director Ross Atkins point blank in our sit down last week about the possibility of a bullpen role for Rondon this year, and he emphatically denied that Rondon was an option for the bullpen. Like I said, anything can happen, but a move of Rondon to the bullpen as a short-term fix is extremely unlikely.
With all of this movement, I have to say I am a little perplexed at why they are not giving right-hander Randy Newsom a shot. Yes, he may not be an impact guy or may just be a right-handed version of Rich Rundles, but what else does this guy have to do to get a big league shot? He has had some issues with walks, but I still believe he is a better option to try and use than someone like a Matt Herges. Newsom has great makeup, is made for a bullpen role, has that gimmick submarine pitching style, and has loads of experience in many situations out of the bullpen. Why not try him out, especially with Joe Smith on the disabled list? If he can't get a chance now, he'll never get one.
Anyway, as they say, drastic times call for drastic measures. These are certainly drastic times with the Indians bullpen. Let's hope the moves the Indians made yesterday are the start to getting the bullpen on track to save this once promising season.