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Tribe aim to not fall short of playoffs

By Nate Pentecost
On April 5, 2012

One would be hard pressed to find a better feel-good story through the first four months of last season than that which unfolded in Cleveland.

But while postseason hopes lasted longer than usual, they ultimately faded to a familiar bitter despair as the playoff picture took shape.

The Tribe took first place in the AL Central by force early in 2011, opening the season with a 14-2 tear at home and a 30-15 record through May 23.

Injuries, though, took their toll and resulted in a miserable second half of the season. The team plunged to an 80-82 final record, up 11 games from 2010 but still 15 games behind the division-winning Tigers.

Spring turned a new page for arguably the most tortured city in sports, but a bolstered Detroit roster, which includes penning All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal, will not make it any easier for the Indians to make their mark in the Central.

The Good — The ‘Bullpen Mafia’

The nickname came about early last season when a fan jokingly referred to Cleveland’s relievers as the “Bullpen Mafia” because of how many of the pitchers were active on Twitter.

The relievers embraced the moniker, and earned it on the field as well, knocking off batters with a vengeance. What has developed into one of the best relief corps in the League will feature virtually the same cast as last season.

It is hard to believe Vinnie Pestano was a darkhorse to make the pen entering Spring Training in 2011 considering the numbers he put up during his rookie campaign. The 27-year old struck out 84 batters in 62 innings, posting a 2.32 ERA in 62 appearances last season. But while Pestano is now mentioned in the same breath as some of the best setup men in baseball, he will likely start the year as the closer with Chris Perez’s availability uncertain due to an oblique injury he suffered in Spring Training.

Though Perez had a career-high 36 saves last year, his other numbers (31 strikeouts and a 3.32 ERA) dropped significantly from the season before. Should ‘The Don’ remain healthy upon his return (he also dealt with forearm inflammation most of the year) the Tribe could see their closer turn in a campaign like 2010 when he struck out 61 batters and recorded a dominant 1.71 ERA in 63 innings.

Presumably joining Pestano in setting up Perez is Tony Sipp, a 45th-round draft pick who put up a 3.03 ERA in 69 innings of work in 2011. Sidearmer Joe Smith (2.01 ERA in 71 games) and lefty Rafael Perez provide additional firepower for a bullpen that should once again have the depth and variety to keep hitters on their toes. With a starting rotation defined by its unreliability, the Bullpen Mafia should see plenty of action too.

The Bad — Ubaldo and ‘Carmona’

Amidst the Indians division race with Detroit last season, Cleveland’s front office made what many regarded as a desperation move, acquiring hard-throwing Ubaldo Jimenez from the Rockies for a pair of blue chip prospects.

If the Indians were expecting the Jimenez who notched 19 wins and a 2.88 ERA the previous season, they gave little thought to the first two-thirds of the right-hander’s 2011 run in which he went 6-9 with a 4.46 ERA in 21 starts with Colorado.

Unsurprisingly, upon his arrival Jimenez failed to deliver the turnaround Cleveland hoped for, posting a 4-4 record in 11 outings with a 5.10 ERA.

The Tribe has a wealth of young talent in their lineup in Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, but the club will need Jimenez to be closer to the pitcher he was two years ago in Colorado to make a push for the playoffs.

The acquisition of inning-eater Derek Lowe could take some of the pressure off Jimenez and the bullpen, but the veteran righty and Cleveland’s sinkerball pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona (Roberto Hernandez) combined for 32 losses last season.

Since the Indians last playoff appearance in 2007, the year that Hernandez fashioned a career-best 3.07 ERA with 19 wins and 137 strikeouts, the Dominican native has averaged an ERA above five.

Hernandez’s string of disappointing seasons includes the 2009 campaign in which he posted an unspeakable 6.32 ERA with 70 walks to 79 strikeouts in 24 starts.

Then came his January arrest and deportation for using a false identity when he applied for a visa to the United States under the name Fausto Carmona.

The news broke Monday that Hernandez, who it turns out is 31 rather than 28, will receive a visa to return to the U.S. But in addition to restructuring his contract with Cleveland to receive $4.5 million less in guaranteed money — one of the few favors Hernandez has done for Cleveland lately — he will reportedly be facing a six week suspension from MLB.

Regardless of when he takes the mound for the Tribe, a return to even his 2010 form (3.77 ERA, 124 strikeouts and 4 complete games) would go a long way to solidifying a potentially unstable rotation.12

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