Tribe ponders outsourcing closer role
Beleaguered bullpen offers few options to fill important spot
ANAHEIM -- Indians manager Eric Wedge likes to say that a bullpen starts with a closer.A team without a true closer, then, has plenty of questions to answer in its bullpen. That's the situation Wedge's Indians find themselves in. With Joe Borowski long gone, Masa Kobayashi is the current closer, by default. But the Indians feel Kobayashi is best suited for the setup role, and they have to be careful with how often he's used down the stretch -- as, with 46 1/3 innings under his belt entering Wednesday, he's already one inning shy of his 2007 season total in Japan. Wedge and the rest of the Indians' brass have no real confidence that their 2009 closer is in the current 'pen. "A lot would have to happen with the people we have down there now for us to not go out and get somebody," Wedge said. "Somebody would have to grab the role, really lock into it and prove that we can count on them. That's a lot to happen in two and a half months." But the Indians can use these two and a half months to evaluate the bullpen's other spots. Wedge has been impressed with the transition Kobayashi has made to the Majors, both on and off the field. "He's made a quicker and easier adjustment than maybe anybody," Wedge said. "You can't adapt better than he has. He hasn't missed a beat." On Monday night, Kobayashi earned his sixth save by striking out the side in the ninth. "How many times have we seen that?" Wedge asked with a laugh, the memories of Borowski's edge-of-your-seat outings no doubt still fresh in his mind. As for what Wedge has seen from the rest of his relief corps, he's happy with the way left-hander Rafael Perez has progressed after a rough April, and the way Ed Mujica has evolved into more of a setup role. But the key to the bullpen's demise this season was the unexpectedly sour first half turned in by setup man Rafael Betancourt, who remains a work in progress. Wedge has resigned himself to the notion that Betancourt might never again be the dominant eighth-inning arm he was in 2007, simply because his numbers from that season were so extraordinary, but he still has hope that Betancourt will be an effective reliever. "Last year was an incredible year," Wedge said. "But I feel that Betancourt can get back on track and be somebody we can count on late in the game. I do believe that, but I don't think it's going to happen overnight." The same goes for young right-handers Jensen Lewis and Tom Mastny. Lewis' velocity and command problems earned him a month's stay at Triple-A Buffalo, and he still hasn't fully righted himself. "He shows signs," Wedge said, "but not consistently." Mastny showed Wedge and the Indians quite a bit with his memorable appearance in extra innings against the Red Sox in Game 2 of last year's American League Championship Series. But he's struggled to take that type of focus and confidence into his 2008 big league outings. "It's just a matter of being able to go and get it every time he gets to the mound," Wedge said. Wedge hasn't seen enough of the newly added Juan Rincon to know how far the veteran right-hander has come from his travails with the Twins. But Rincon's scoreless eighth inning against the Angels in a one-run ballgame Tuesday night was certainly a step in the right direction. And all Wedge is looking for from his beleaguered bullpen -- which sported the second-highest relief ERA (4.98) in the AL entering Wednesday -- is steps in the right direction down the stretch. "The roles are wide open," Wedge said. "But I do see signs. We've got plenty of time to continue to look at these guys. They're going to have an opportunity to step up and figure out if they can play a prominent role in this thing." But the most prominent of bullpen roles, closer, will likely go to an outsider.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.