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01/13/12 10:57 AM EST

Around the Horn: Indians' bullpen

Tribe's relief corps might be club's strongest asset

This is the second story in a six-part Around the Horn series, examining aspects of the Indians' roster as Spring Training approaches. Today we'll take a look at Cleveland's bullpen.

CLEVELAND -- Vinnie Pestano was a darkhorse candidate to crack the Indians' bullpen when Spring Training opened a year ago. These days, he is arguably one of the top setup men in baseball and has shown the potential to be a future closer.

Pestano is an example of why Cleveland's bullpen is considered the club's strength.

Over the past two seasons, the Indians have watched their relief corps develop into one of the best groups in the American League. It is a youthful group -- one nicknamed the "Bullpen Mafia" last season -- that has been assembled primarily through trades, non-drafted free-agent signings and the First-Year Player Draft.

"We feel good about the group that we have," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said.

For good reason, too.

Last season, the Indians' bullpen ranked fifth in the league (first in the AL Central) with a 3.71 ERA. Dating back to the All-Star break during the 2010 campaign, Tribe relievers have combined for a 3.68 ERA, which also ranks fifth in the league and first in the division over that span.

Anchoring the 'pen is closer Chris Perez, who was acquired in a trade with the Cardinals during the 2009 season. Perez made his first All-Star team last season, when he saved 36 games for Cleveland. The right-hander has saved 52 of 57 games over the past season and a half, marking the third-best save percentage (91.2) in the AL over that span.

Having an All-Star closer such as Perez for the ninth inning has helped define the other roles within the bullpen.

"We've got so many weapons," Pestano said. "So many different looks."

That includes Pestano, who emerged as Cleveland's main right-handed setup man early in the 2011 season. The reliever has a deceptive motion -- helped by his slightly lowered arm angle -- that helped him strike out 84 hitters in 62 innings as a rookie. By the end of the year, Pestano had a 2.32 ERA in 62 appearances.

It was a breakout showing that gave the Tribe hope that its bullpen could continue to have success in the season to come.

"Vinnie's progress last year and his contributions to our team," Antonetti said, "certainly were probably one of the highlights of our season. They way he solidified the eighth inning for us, and helped bridge that gap to Chris, really was a big part of some of the success we had last year."

And it left Pestano craving more.

"It's been fun to finally get up here after working your whole life to get here," said the pitcher. "But then you get here, and you get that first taste of success, and you want more. It's been really exciting, especially with the year we had. I think we turned a lot of heads."

Cleveland has the luxury of featuring virtually the same bullpen in 2012.

Perez will be back in the ninth with Pestano (selected in the 20th round of the 2006 Draft) and left-hander Tony Sipp (a 45th-round pick in the '04 Draft) serving as the main setup combination. Sidearmer Joe Smith, who fashioned a 2.01 ERA in 71 games last season, and lefty Rafael Perez provide the next layer of depth.

Behind that group is right-hander Frank Herrmann, who had an inconsistent showing in 2011, but can light up the radar gun and provide the Indians with a long reliever to back up the rotation. Then, there is a slew of Minor Leaguers (lefty prospect Nick Hagadone among them) who will be vying for a spot this spring.

This winter, Cleveland has also added experienced arms in Chris Ray and Robinson Tejeda on Minor League contracts, hoping to possibly catch lightning in a bottle with a low-risk reclamation project.

The bottom line is that the Indians have ample bullpen depth and variety.

"What we try to do as we build the bullpen," Antonetti said, "is not only have guys that have very good stuff and the right attributes to pitch in the back of the game, but also to vary the type of looks you can give hitters.

"Whether that's arm angle, or some deception in their delivery, or the stuff, or how they mix their pitches, the tempo of their delivery, all of those things contribute to throwing off a hitter's timing and getting outs.

"To the extent that you can have guys that give different looks in the bullpen, it's certainly an advantage."

And potentially a formula for continued success in late innings.

"We're our own little team within a team down there," Pestano said.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.