SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There is a black shirt hanging from a hook on the right side of closer Chris Perez's locker. It is easy to spot inside the Indians' clubhouse at the team's player development complex, and the white script on the front is immediately recognizable.
The font stretching across the chest is borrowed from movie posters from the film "The Godfather" -- complete with a hand gripping the strings of a marionette. The shirt that Perez has proudly on display, however, is not a piece of movie memorabilia. It's a two-word symbol of both the unity and confidence found within Cleveland's relief corps.
The nickname came up early last season, when a fan jokingly referred to the Tribe's cast of relievers as the "Bullpen Mafia" because of how many of the pitchers were active on Twitter. From there, it took on a life of its own, becoming a frequent part of the relievers' social-media presence as they embraced the collective title.
For the majority of the past two years, the Indians' bullpen has been one of the better groups in the American League. With the core group of relievers still in place -- anchored by Perez -- the 'pen seems a safe bet to be a strength for the ballclub once again, even if bullpens are considered one of the more volatile aspects of any roster.
"I know that people always say that bullpens come and go," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "But usually, they come and go because you have moving pieces. These five guys, they're still young, they're part of our club, they're affordable and they're here together. As long as they're healthy, I think they're going to pitch well."
The five guys referred to by Acta include Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith and Rafael Perez. Both Perezs, along with Smith, are still in their arbitration years. Pestano and Sipp are still under control for the league minimum. Still, that core -- with the exception of Pestano -- has been together in the Tribe's bullpen since 2009.
This spring, the final two spots in the bullpen are up for grabs with a handful of arms in the mix. Frank Herrmann, Nick Hagadone, Jeremy Accardo, Dan Wheeler and Chris Ray are among those vying for the jobs.
As for the core group, they have grown together over the past few years, which included Pestano entering the mix as a September callup in 2010 and then emerging as one of the game's top setup men last season. Their youthful energy, easygoing personalities and increasing experience has helped form a group that has its confidence soaring as the '12 campaign approaches.
"Everybody that's down there," Pestano said, "we're young and we're having a good time. We have that little swagger about us."
It is easy to see why, too.
Dating back to the All-Star break in the 2010 season, the Indians' bullpen has fashioned a 3.68 ERA, which ranks fifth in the league over that span. Among those top-ranked teams, only Red Sox relievers have logged more than Cleveland's 492 relief innings. The Tribe's bullpen has limited hitters to a .316 on-base percentage (third in the AL) in that same period.
Acta believes the bullpen's success has a lot to do with the variety of pitching styles hitters are forced to see. Smith throws a hard sinker from a low sidearm angle. Pestano uses a slightly unorthodox three-quarter arm slot with a strong fastball. For the lefties, Sipp throws over the top, and Rafael Perez's release point is a bit lower.
"It's not a comfortable two or three innings for the other team," Chris Perez said. "It can't be. We don't have like any cookie-cutter relievers going out there."
Perez has his own theory on why the Tribe's bullpen has developed into such a sound group, though.
"We're good," he said with a laugh. "Everybody is asking where the success has come from. We're good pitchers. We have good arms. We have good stuff. We should be successful. We should be doing what we do."
That, and the pitchers are accepting of their roles, never flinching when one relievers gets the call to the mound over another.
All of the pitchers are quick to praise the work of Scott Radinsky, who was promoted to the role of pitching coach after serving as the bullpen coach a year ago. Radinsky laughed when asked if he was still going to be allowed to be the "Godfather" for the bullpen.
"I hope so, man," Radinsky said. "I told them they've got a made man on the inside now."
Last year, Smith developed into one of baseball's top relievers with a 2.01 ERA across 71 appearances. Pestano was not far behind with a 2.32 ERA and a team-high 84 strikeouts out of the bullpen. Rafael Perez (3.00 ERA in 71 games) and Sipp (3.03 ERA in 69 games) held their own as well, helping bridge the gap to Chris Perez.
Perez earned a spot on the AL All-Star team and ended the season with 36 saves in 40 opportunities. He is quick to credit his fellow bullpen teammates for the success he has experienced in less than two seasons as the Indians' full-time closer.
"Without them, how many save opportunities would I get?" Perez said. "They're doing their job so I can do my job. When I made the All-Star team, that was more a reflection of our staff than just me. It's pretty cool that it's not just closer Chris Perez. It's the Mafia. It's our bullpen. That's good."
The pitchers believe the nickname is a representation of their unity.
It also gives fans a little bit of insight into the dynamic of a big league team. Relievers have a tendency to stick together, creating their own little "team within a team," as Pestano phrased it. Smith described it as a small family -- one in which no one person is more important than another.
"The Bullpen Mafia, I don't think of it as pressure," Smith said, "but it's another thing to pitch good for, because now it's not like you pitch good for you and your stats. We're a group. We're a family out there. If somebody's not doing good and the bullpen is blowing games, now it's, 'Oh, the Bullpen Mafia is blowing games.' You don't feel singled out.
"When you're out there, you're obviously pitching for the team, but you're also pitching for our little family out there, too. It gives you a little extra incentive."
Pestano added that his hope is that baseball fans will one day look back on this Indians bullpen and consider it as one of the great groups in history. He referenced the "Nasty Boys" trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers, who helped lead the Reds to a World Series title in 1990.
That is the kind of heights Pestano wants this Cleveland bullpen to reach.
"To do that, the main thing is always going to be about winning," Pestano said. "To get to that upper echelon, to get to that status of being almost immortal in baseball eyes, to be one of the best bullpens, we've got to win.
"Even if we have the best bullpen in the league, if you don't go to the playoffs or win the World Series, you're not going to be remembered."
And if the Indians do reach their ultimate goal, those "Bullpen Mafia" shirts might become more visible outside the team's locker room.
"Hopefully," Acta said, "they can continue to do it and take the Mafia legacy to the next level."