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01/14/10 7:16 PM EST

Around the Horn: Bullpen

Indians cautiously optimistic about relief corps

While you might not know it from that $600 home heating bill you just received, Spring Training is right around the corner. With that in mind, we're gearing up for the 2010 season by taking a position-by-position look at the Tribe's roster. Each week between now and when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 21, we'll examine one area of the ballclub, continuing this week with the bullpen.

CLEVELAND -- On the off chance you haven't learned your lesson from previous Tribe bullpens, here's an important public service announcement:

Take everything you're about to read with a grain of salt.

Now that we have that established, let's get to the gist of the story: The Indians feel pretty good about their assembled relief corps.

This is, of course, not a concrete feeling. Because the Indians' front-office decision-makers know as well as anyone how unpredictable the 'pen can be. Last year at this time, on the heels of the signing of closer Kerry Wood, the Tribe had plenty of reason to believe in its bullpen. But when that 'pen had a major meltdown in the first half of the season, the club's postseason hopes were compromised.

The Indians aren't entering 2010 with visions of postseason grandeur. What they want to see, more than anything, is positive development in the pitching department, and that would include a more consistent workload for Wood and some major steps forward for the young arms in the bullpen.

Some of those steps were taken in the second half of 2009, when the 'pen became a more consistent, effective unit.

"I feel as good as you can feel about the bullpen," general manager Mark Shapiro said, "in light of the progress our guys made in the second half."

The big question this year is whether any of the Tribe's young relievers will be asked to progress into the closer's role. Because while Wood is locked into a contract that pays him $10.5 million this year with a vesting option worth $11 million next season (the option kicks in if Wood finishes 55 games in 2010), it's no secret the Indians are open to trading him.

At present, however, the Indians would not be able to move Wood without eating a huge chunk of his contract, thus defeating the purpose. They seem content with paying Wood to anchor the back end while some other guys develop in less-prominent roles, and the situation will likely be reevaluated at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, when contenders might come calling for Kerry.

Last season, Wood did not deliver the type of back-end dominance the Indians had hoped for when they inked him to their most high-profile free-agent contract in recent memory. Part of Wood's early season struggles were attributable to his lack of consistent work, and part were attributable to his inconsistent stuff. He struggled to get a feel for his slider in the first half.

For the season, Wood logged 58 appearances but had only 26 save opportunities. He converted 20 of them, finishing in a tie for 11th place in the AL in saves. He posted a 4.25 ERA, struck out 63 batters in 55 innings and walked 28.

"His component performance was still very good," Shapiro said. "He struck out a lot and didn't walk too many people. His challenge was three-fold: He's still evolving in the closer role, it was his first time ever playing for another team (after 10 years with the Cubs), and, most importantly, we didn't get him a lot of consistent work. So I'd hope that all three of those things can be addressed this year, because he certainly has the stuff and potential to be a dominant closer."

If Wood is moved or gets injured, who would step into that closer role? The most obvious candidate would be Chris Perez, who was acquired in last year's trade that sent Mark DeRosa to the Cardinals.

Perez had some experience closing for the Cards, and, after some hiccups his first two times out with the Tribe, he had a strong second half in '09. He didn't allow a run over 20 appearances from July 8 to Sept. 5, and he posted a 2.90 ERA from July 8 through the end of the season.

Look for the right-handed Perez to serve as a setup man to Wood.

"He was dominant for us with dominant stuff," Shapiro said. "That's what we hoped for when we acquired him."

Aside from Wood and Chris Perez, the only other sure things in the bullpen's makeup appear to be right-hander Joe Smith and left-hander Rafael Perez.

We barely got to know Smith last year, because his first season with the Tribe following his arrival in a trade with the Mets was marred by various injuries and ailments. He missed much of Spring Training with a viral infection, went on the disabled list in April with a right rotator cuff strain and was back on the DL in September with a left knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery.

Smith figures to be back and at full health this year, and the Indians hope to see a more sustained version of the glimpses of success he displayed in '09, when he posted a 3.44 ERA in 37 appearances.

Rafael Perez, who is eligible for his first round of arbitration, is coming off a disastrous '09 in which he posted a 7.31 ERA in 54 appearances and was twice demoted to Triple-A Columbus, but the Indians believe that was an anomaly. In 2007 and '08, Perez was a highly effective and, at times, unhittable presence in the back end.

"His struggles last year were almost inexplicable, based on his track record and his stuff," Shapiro said.

Perez looked much more like his old self this offseason in the Dominican Winter League, where he dominated as a starter.

Another lefty, Tony Sipp, is not guaranteed a spot but has a strong chance of making the club after a favorable first impression last season. Sipp, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, spent three stints with the Tribe and was one of the club's most effective relievers in the second half. For the season, he was 2-0 with a 2.93 ERA in 46 appearances, striking out 48 and walking 25 in 40 innings.

Beyond those five guys -- Wood, the two Perezes, Smith and Sipp -- it's virtually impossible to predict which relievers will be on the Opening Day roster.

Right-hander Jensen Lewis has had flashes of brilliance over the last three years, including a strong stint as closer at the tail end of the '08 season. The Indians hoped he'd be a setup man in '09, but he instead found himself demoted to Columbus midseason. He returned in August in a more limited role.

For the season, Lewis went 2-4 with a 4.61 ERA in 47 appearances. What troubled the Indians most was his home run total. He allowed 13 homers in 66 1/3 innings.

Jess Todd, like Chris Perez, was a highly touted relief acquisition in the DeRosa trade, but his contributions at the big league level left a bit to be desired. Todd made his Tribe debut in August and allowed 17 runs in 20 2/3 innings over 19 appearances. He might head back to Columbus for a bit more seasoning, as 2009 was only his second full professional season.

Three new names have been added to the bullpen mix this winter, and the Indians will have to use Spring Training to determine if they're worthy of a roster spot.

The most intriguing name of the bunch is right-hander Hector Ambriz, who became the Tribe's first Rule 5 Draft pickup in 15 years. Ambriz, 25, will have to make the Opening Day roster or else be offered back to the D-backs. The Indians like his power fastball, curve and slider. The bullpen will be new to him.

"Ambriz is a guy that we felt could be a dark-horse candidate to impact in a bullpen role," Shapiro said.

The Indians have also, to this point, added two non-roster invitees to the mix -- right-handers Jason Grilli and Saul Rivera.

The Tribe has a history with Grilli, having opposed him quite a bit when he served a regular role in the Tigers' bullpen in 2006 and '07. And new manager Manny Acta has a history with Rivera, having managed him while with the Nationals.

Grilli, 33, logged a total of 52 appearances with the Rockies and Rangers last year, posting a 5.32 ERA. He struck out 49 and walked 27 in 45 2/3 innings.

"Grilli's a guy that has had very good stuff and good results," Shapiro said. "He has some experience in our division and experience in general. He's certainly a guy with potential to be a meaningful part of our bullpen."

The 32-year-old Rivera split '09 between Washington, where he was 1-3 with a 6.10 ERA in 30 appearances, and Triple-A Syracuse, where he was 2-5 with a 3.55 ERA in 30 games. He made 85 appearances with the Nats in '07 and 76 appearances with them in '08.

"[Acta] speaks highly of [Rivera's] competitiveness," Shapiro said. "He has had success in the Major Leagues. If he's healthy, he has a chance to be a meaningful contributor."

And in looking at the bullpen options, don't forget left-hander Jeremy Sowers and newly acquired right-hander Mitch Talbot, both of whom are out of options and could land in the 'pen if they don't make the rotation. Between the two, Talbot is more likely to latch on in a relief role, by virtue of his stuff.

The above names are the most likely candidates for the Opening Day bullpen. Down the road, keep an eye on right-handers Josh Judy, Frank Herrmann, Connor Graham, Zach Putnam, Carlton Smith and Steven Wright in the Minors.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.