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For the third time in four years, the Indians have one of the worst bullpens in Baseball. Heading into Saturday's game, they had a 6.58 ERA, ranking 13th in the American League. Hard to believe that any team is below that, but the Angels have made a dramatic fall from one of the best bullpens to the bullpen basement this season.

Let's clear up something that some fans have fixated upon - the bullpen collapse this season is not because the Indians fired coach Luis Isaac. Just as the Indians' poor bullpens in 2008 (5.13 ERA, 13th ranked), 2006 (4.73, 11th) and 2004 (4.90 ERA, 12th) were not the fault of Isaac, the former bullpen coach. Manager Eric Wedge made a mistake firing Isaac because it seemed that he was made a scapegoat for what is a failure of the entire organization.

I absolutely hated the way Wedge went through four pitchers Tuesday trying to get three outs in the seventh inning. It reeked of panic. The manager also used Tony Sipp for the second day in a row, and he was not supposed to do that. Sipp missed all of 2007 with elbow reconstruction surgery. He pitched only 34 innings in the minors last season. They want to be careful with his arm, and that's why he opened at Class AAA Columbus. He is still building up strength, and Wedge's frustration with the other pitchers led him to go against the plan of no back-to-back games for Sipp - who then allowed two home runs, making it worse.

That's just a small sample of what has been a huge problem for the Indians for years. The seasons when they've had strong bullpens - 2005 and 2007 - they've had contending teams. But they can't sustain, and right now, they can't figure out how to replicate it. They have failed to develop relievers in the minors who can be effective for two years in a row. Yes, Raffy Perez was strong in 2007 and 2008, but he has fallen apart this season and is now at Class AAA Columbus. Raffy Betancourt was the best, with ERAs of 2.13, 3.92, 3.81 and 1.47 from 2003 to 2007, but lost it in 2008 with a 5.07 ERA. He has shown signs of life this season.

Consider the closers since Wedge became manager: Danys Baez (2003, 25 saves), Bob Wickman (2004, 13 saves, arm problems), Wickman (2005, 45 saves), Wickman (2006, 15 saves, traded at midseason), Joe Borowski (2007, 45 saves), Jensen Lewis (2008, 13 saves, took over for Borowski). Kerry Wood (2009, five saves). Part of the reason for the different closers is the team not wanting to pay big bucks for one until Wood.

The bottom line on the closer is, no relief pitcher has had back-to-back seasons of at least 25 saves since Mike Jackson in 1998-99, when he saved 79 games over those two years. In three of the past five seasons, no Tribe closer had more than 15 saves. That's why the Indians gave Wood a $21 million deal over two years with an option for $11 million in 2011 if he finished 55 games in 2009 or 2010.

Bullpens are like the offensive line in football: You really don't notice them until they are bad. And when they are bad, they seem to sink the entire team. The Indians last season were brought down by a bullpen failure, and it will happen again this year unless something dramatic happens soon. Things are so bad, I was upset when they cut Vinnie Chulk - preferring to cut him over Masa Kobayashi and some others. Not that Chulk with 10 walks and 10 hits in 12 innings was anything special. He had a 3.75 ERA and threw 92 mph, so I wanted to see more of him.

The Indians thought they could have an every-other-year good bullpen with Wood closing. They also traded for Joe Smith, who had a 9-5 record and 3.51 ERA over two years and 136 appearances with the Mets. His arm has been bothering him. He is supposed to be back soon. They traded Franklin Gutierrez for Smith and Luis Valbuena, and Gutierrez has emerged as Seattle's starting center fielder - bringing excellent defense while hitting a solid .287 (.793 OPS) with three HRs and 13 RBI heading into the weekend. This still can be a good trade for the Tribe. Valbuena is promising, but the immediate payoff from Smith has not appeared.

The Indians thought that between Lewis, Perez and Betancourt, at least two of them could supply some relief. Betancourt has been the best, and he is mediocre or worse. They thought they had Lewis straightened out after he went to the minors early in 2008, and then returned to go 13-of-13 in saves after the All-Star break. Heading into the weekend, he had allowed six homers in 14 2/3 innings. Before this season, it was nine homers in 95 1/3 major-league innings.

Yes, relievers do go up and down. Most pitchers end up in the bullpen because: A) They lack a variety of pitches to start. B) They have a history of arm troubles. C) Their arms wear out from overwork one season, then they fall back the next. Nonetheless, someone had a major scouting misjudgment on Kobayashi, who signed a two-year, $6 million deal to come from Japan. They have been unable to produce relievers in the minors who can be consistently effective. Yes, Wedge and his coaches are partially to blame, but they are hardly the only ones. The front office is very much at fault.

Finally, in the minors, the Indians have made some moves hoping to find relief. Frank Herrmann (11-6, 4.10 ERA in 2008) has been switched from a starter at Class AA Akron to the Class AAA bullpen in Columbus. Steve Wright has been put in the bullpen at Akron, after starting 55 games in his first two pro seasons. They hope 31-year-old Greg Aquino (2-4, 5.40 ERA for his major-league career) can show life at Columbus, where he is recovering from arm problems. So far, there are no plans to put star prospect Hector Rondon (5-0, 1.23 ERA) at Akron from the rotation to the bullpen.

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: May 12, 2009

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