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Cleveland Indians

Bullpen up in arms

By Sheldon Published: March 5, 2009

Adam Miller was not supposed to be the first Indians bullpen contender to fall by the wayside, but that's what could happen.

Tribe officials were hoping that Miller might pitch his way onto a big-league roster for the first time, but a sore right middle finger might delay his major-league debut.

Miller isn't scheduled to start a throwing program anew for at least six days and maybe nine. Even if his program proceeds without incident, he will have only six exhibition games max to win a spot on the roster.

As Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro put it, ‘‘I think at this point, we're not ruling it out.’’

In other words, the GM and probably manager Eric Wedge might be preparing themselves mentally to move on. Of course, even if Miller does not start the season with the Tribe, he could be summoned from Triple-A at any time.

‘‘We know we might have to readjust as we go,’’ Shapiro said.
Ostensibly, there is only one vacancy in the relief corps, but that doesn't mean an injury or non-performance won't alter the composition of the bullpen either in spring training or after the season begins.

Closer Kerry Wood has yet to pitch in an exhibition game, but if not for a lengthier spring training, his sore back might have not kept him off the mound for more than a few days. As it is, he has thrown a simulated game and soon will face an opposing team.

Setup man Rafael Perez is away at the World Baseball Classic pitching for the Dominican Republic. When he returns ` possibly as late as March 24 ` he will still have 12 days to prepare for the season. There is no way to know whether Perez will be underused, overused or neither by his WBC team.

Co-setup man Jensen Lewis has been getting regular work as have middle relievers Masa Kobayashi and Rafael Betancourt. Joe Smith also has been awaded a spot in the bullpen, but a viral infection has kept him off the mound. That should change quickly.

So far, Lewis has Wedge thinking in glowing terms.

‘‘Jensen is really throwing well this spring,’’ said Wedge, who added there has been no recurrence of the problems Lewis had with his velocity last year.
The competition for the final bullpen berth, in the words of Wedge, ‘‘is wide open.’’

It's too early to name a favorite, but at least one reliever will have to make a 180-degree turnaround if he is to make a run at a roster spot. Edward Mujica, who has made 53 major-league appearances over parts of three seasons, has been a disaster in three spring training outings.

Tribe officials insist that there is nothing physically wrong with Mujica, but he has compiled a 19.64 ERA, giving up nine hits and a walk in 3j innings. Four of the hits have been home runs. In his most recent outing against the Kansas City Royals, Mujica entered the game with bases loaded and gave up consecutive longballs.

But Mujica is not the only bullpen contender who must come from behond. Major-league veterans Kirk Saarloos and Tomo Ohka, both non-roster invitees, have acquitted themselves poorly. In three appearances, Saarloos has allowed five earned runs (eight total), five hits and three walks in 3j innings. Ohka has pitched twice, yielding two earned runs (six total) on eight hits.

Neither Wedge nor Shapiro is ready to dismiss the three pitchers who have struggled mightily.

‘‘At this point, it's so early we don't want to react to anything either positive or negative,’’ Shapiro said of Mujica.

If Miller cannot return in time to contend for the final bullpen berth, Juan Salas and John Meloan might have the best shot at making the roster. Salas has pitched twice, delivering two scoreless innings, allowing one hit. Meloan also has made two appearances and allowed neither a run nor a hit in two innings.

‘‘Salas has a lot of action on the plate,’’ Wedge said. ‘‘He has a loose arm, and for the most part, he's down with his pitches. They are mis-hitting the baseball, and that's what you like to see.’’

Salas, 30, pitched in five games with the Tampa Bay Rays last year, giving up five runs in 6i innings. He walked four but struck out eight.

Meloan, 24, was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers last July and made two appearances with the Tribe, working two scoreless innings. He spent the rest of the season in the minors. Others who might break through as contenders: Rich Rundles, Jack Cassel, Vinnie Chulk, Matt Herges, Greg Aquino, Ryan Edell plus highly-regarded minor-leaguers Hector Rondon and Tony Sipp.

TAKING IT SLOWLY -- Wedge wants Travis Hafner to pile up the at-bats this spring, so he is planning to leave Hafner at the designated hitter spot for the entire game today. However, Wedge said Hafner will not play in consecutive games for awhile.

GOOD DECISION -- Miller's persistent finger problems validate the Tribe's decision to make him into a reliever.
Head trainer Lonnie Soloff doesn't think that Miller could throw as many pitches as necessary ` during games and in between-game bullpens ` to be a successful starter.

‘‘I would think the volume of pitches (as a starter) would be a challenge for him,’’ Soloff said. ‘‘Then again, these are uncharted waters for us.’’

WAS THERE ANY DOUBT? -- Omar Vizquel said that if he is elected to the Hall of Fame, his bust will be adorned with an Indians cap.

MARCHING ONWARD -- The Indians play host to the Milwaukee Brewers this afternoon. Cliff Lee will make his first start of the spring against Dave Bush. In the bullpen for the Tribe will be Jeremy Sowers, Betancourt, Kobayashi, Herges, Chulk and Ohka.


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