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It has been a difficult and frustrating season for the Cleveland Indians.
While the lineup has produced as expected, the pitching as a whole has been very inconsistent as well as snake-bitten with injuries and poor performance up and down the staff. There are many areas of the team that have struggled, but the main area of frustration has been the bullpen.
The Indians have used up just about every bullpen option they have available to them in the system, and have looked under every rock and in every dark corner outside the organization for a solution to the bullpen mess. While all this has been going on, it has been puzzling why Triple-A Columbus right-handed reliever John Meloan has yet to get a call to Cleveland.
Meloan, 24, came to the Indians at the end of July last year in the Casey Blake deal that also brought catcher Carlos Santana to the organization. While Santana gets all the hype and pub as an impact prospect, Meloan himself was a crucial pickup in the deal because the Indians felt they were getting a legit arm that could be a part of the major league bullpen for many years.
Meloan throws a fastball that typically sits at 91-93 MPH and tops out around 94-95 MPH, and he complements it with a nasty slider that is his out pitch. In addition to his talent, one of the big selling points for Meloan when he was acquired was how much of a competitor he is on the mound as well as his off the charts makeup.
With his pitching repertoire to go along with his makeup, in the offseason he was viewed as having the makings of a dominant backend reliever down the road, perhaps even a closer. The Indians liked what they had in him and fellow power-armed right-hander Adam Miller so much that they traded another power-armed right-hander Jeff Stevens along with two other high upside arms lower in the system in the deal on New Year's Eve for the versatile Mark DeRosa.
When Stevens was traded and then later on in spring training Miller went on the shelf with a recurrence of his finger injury, while Meloan did not make the major league bullpen out of spring training it was pretty much considered a given that he would be the first option called upon once a need in the bullpen arose.
Yet, here we are almost three full months into the season, and after a plethora of moves with the bullpen Meloan has still not been seen. To date, in 24 appearances with Triple-A Columbus this season Meloan is 0-0 with a 5.65 ERA. In 43.0 innings he has allowed 52 hits, 17 walks, and has 35 strikeouts.
So far, the season has not gone as Meloan thought it would back when he first reported to spring training in mid-February. With his standing in the organization appearing to be solid, and his stock as an up-and-coming bullpen arm as high as it really ever has been, he thought this season would show more promise than it has to date.
"No, this is definitely not what I wanted so far," said Meloan in an interview over the weekend in the confines of Huntington Park. "I have had some good outings and lot of bad ones this year. Just as a matter of consistency and trying to find something you can feel comfortable with and take into the gameplan, and not focusing on what is wrong and what you have to do to get hitters out on a regular basis. It has been a roller coaster ride so far, and I think it is starting to level out. Things are looking better and hopefully I will finish strong the second half of the season."
Yes, things of late have looked better. So far in seven June appearances he has a 2.92 ERA, having allowed 12 hits, three walks, and punched out eight batters in 12.1 innings of work.
Through all the struggles he has had the first few months of the season it hasn't had anything to do with him not being healthy. While there have been some reports from other places that his velocity has been very inconsistent and has dropped, Meloan insists he feels fine physically and is as healthy and strong as he has ever been.
His biggest supporter, Columbus Manager Torey Lovullo, agrees.
"We have seen his velocity as high as 93-94 MPH this year and we have seen it as low as 88 MPH," said Lovullo. "It is not consistent, but it is fine as long as he is throwing strikes. I think earlier in the year he was fresh, ready for the season and excited for it, so was throwing the ball very well in terms of velocity. But now he is throwing 89-91, which is fine as that is average major league stuff when talking about a fastball. He just needs to continue to work on solidifying his delivery and he will get his opportunity."
Yes, an opportunity that seems to escape him every time.
As players are shuffling in and out of the roster and going up and down I-71 between Cleveland and Columbus, Meloan has had to sit back and watch player after player get called into Lovullo's office with the good news that they have been called up to Cleveland.
"It's a good feeling to know that you have an opportunity, but it does add a little extra pressure knowing that at anytime you can go up," said Meloan. "That has kind of played into the up and down of this season thinking that I shouldn't be here or I wish I wasn't here and if I just had two good outings I'd be out of here. I finally got to the point where you just can't worry about that. Those decisions are out of your hands. Just focus on what you can focus on and what you can control and after that it is up to [GM Mark] Shapiro, [manager Eric] Wedge, [Assistant GM Chris] Antonetti and all those guys."
Lovullo says that Meloan has been in the mix for a callup several times this season.
"He has had some good moments, but he has had some moments where he is learning," said Lovullo. "He certainly has had some consideration as one of the names we have thrown around to go to Cleveland and help them out. Right now he is working on some things with solidifying his delivery and repeating his delivery, and it is coming along. We feel like in time he is going to be able to go up there and help that club out."
Consider for a moment the opening day bullpen at Triple-A Columbus this year: Greg Aquino, Vinnie Chulk, Matt Herges, Meloan, Tomo Ohka, Rich Rundles, and Tony Sipp.
Of those seven pitchers, three of them - Meloan, Rundles and Sipp - were on the 40-man roster. To date, however, only one of those pitchers has yet to spend a day in the big leagues this year: John Meloan.
Aside from Meloan, every single one of the bullpen arms that opened the season in Columbus has pitched in Cleveland this year at some point. In fact, four of those arms were not even on the 40-man roster and ended up leapfrogging Meloan to get placed on the roster and go to the big leagues. In addition, others like Mike Gosling, Jose Veras, and Jose Vizcaino who were not in the organization at the start of the season were picked off the scrap pile and have been added to the 40-man roster and made at least one appearance in Cleveland.
In all, as many as nine relievers have been given their shot to help fix the problems in the Cleveland bullpen, but to date Meloan still has not been given an opportunity. When you were one of the top options available when the season started, but have sat by the wayside and watched nine others get a crack before you, it can lead to a lot of doubt, frustration, and even anger to settle in.
"Yeah, it's tough," said Meloan about watching so many others get the call. "I felt like I was in a great position to start off the season and I felt like it could have been just a few weeks or a month and I could have been out of here. All of a sudden I just started going downhill and I know I am not even close to consideration [for a callup]. Slowly I have just forgotten about those things, but for awhile it tore me up. I was happy for my teammates, but meanwhile I want what is best for myself and my career as well. It's tough seeing everyone just leave and leave and leave, and all of sudden you look around and you are the only one here since the beginning of the season. I'm just trying to eliminate all those things in my head and just worry about one thing and that is going out and getting outs."
This is one of the hardest jobs a manager has at the Triple-A level, and that is dealing with what amounts to a roster full of players who feel they should be at the next level. Whether they are a young prospect or a veteran holding onto their career, all of them in some way feel they should not be in Triple-A and should be in the big leagues.
With what is going on in Cleveland at the moment with so many injuries and poor performance from the pitching staff, really everyone on the Columbus roster is an option at this point. Every player is seeing guys move up and down and dealing with that in their own way. The players and coaches at Columbus understand that the Indians don't go out and trade for people and sign free agents to help fill gaps, instead they pull directly from their holding tank at the Triple-A level.
Some players and situations are easier to manage than others, but it is a situation like Meloan's which is a real test for a manager and how he can effectively convey to the player that the organization still has faith in them even though said player may not have gotten the call they think they deserve. In the game of baseball a player's psyche is one of the most important things to maintain, and in the case of Meloan they have to be careful with it.
"I think each situation has to be dealt with individually," said Lovullo about how Meloan may be dealing with the disappointment of not being called up. "I can't speak for how he is coping with it and dealing with it. Everybody has to be a good self evaluator. That is something we talk about. If you are doing your job and you get passed over maybe you can show a little frustration, but if you are not doing your job and you get passed over I think it is a way to say ‘hey I need to do a little better'. I think everybody in that room has their own way to motivate themselves, and I know John is very intense and he has a great mentality and that is what has made him special over the years. I know that he feels like he is ready at times, but for right now we are here together and working on some things and the idea is to get him to the big leagues as fast as possible."
Meloan is working hard to make the adjustments to his delivery so he can better maintain his stuff appearance to appearance as well as pitch to pitch. For a player who had a career 11.3 K/9 and 7.3 H/9 rate coming into the season, to see the K/9 drop to 7.3 and the H/9 jump to 10.9 this season is alarming. It shows there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than just the mechanics, and that maybe he has been the victim of some of the mental toll the game can have on a pitcher between and outside the lines.
"Early in the season I was working on everything," said Meloan. "Every day I was trying to find something that feels comfortable and trying to find a game plan of what to do with my strengths, and I think it got into my head a lot and it created too many negative thoughts in my head. Lately I have cut all that back and really simplified it, and it has really helped a lot. Honestly, the last year for me has just been a mental figuring out year. I have had a lot of success in Double-A and Triple-A, it has just been frustrating because I have been the one to hold myself back and not necessarily the hitters or the environment and everything like that. I have really held myself back from having success and it's tough as I have had it before."
Through all the struggles and frustration, whether a callup was deserved or not, Meloan is now starting to feel it again and his confidence is flowing.
"The last two of three weeks, even though there are times I have given up a run or two, the amount of quality pitches I have thrown have gotten a lot better and a lot more consistent," said Meloan. "The more quality pitches I make, if I can continue to build on that, the more good things are going to happen. I feel comfortable out there, I feel like I have the ability to execute pitches whereas there were times earlier in the season where I was not as confident. Now I feel good. I am healthy and strong. It is the middle part of the season and time to kind of hit your stride and hopefully finish up on a good note."
With the Indians mired in a season long slump and no longer in contention mode for 2009 and instead in evaluation mode for the rest of the season, Meloan should get the call to Cleveland soon so the club can see if he is in their bullpen plans for 2010.
"Obviously, that is my goal to hopefully establish myself as a solid pitcher here and get an opportunity to go up and get some innings [in Cleveland]," said Meloan. "I don't know when it is going to happen, but hopefully it does.