GOODYEAR, ARIZ.: You can’t blame manager Manny Acta for being dissatisfied with the way the Indians’ competition for bullpen jobs is progressing — or maybe regressing.
Ostensibly, six pitchers are battling to be the sixth and seventh relievers: Frank Herrmann, Nick Hagadone, Jeremy Accardo, Dan Wheeler, Chris Ray and Robinson Tejeda, who pitched for the first time Monday in a Triple-A game after missing virtually the entire camp with a strained calf.
Herrmann is a special case: He will be the No. 6 man in the bullpen unless he pitches himself out of a job. So far he has given up five runs and 11 hits in seven innings but has walked only one and struck out eight.
Hagadone has allowed just one run, seven hits and no walks in seven innings, but he is the least experienced of the group. Other contenders have been mediocre or worse.
So Acta threw the following concept into the conversation after starter Jeanmar Gomez delivered his fourth scoreless outing of the spring Monday.
“At the end of the day, if we feel one of these guys can be useful out of the bullpen, we can go that way, if none of those other pitchers grab hold of their opportunity,” Acta said. “I told you I would find two [relievers].”
In other words, the four pitchers contending for the fifth spot in the rotation are suddenly available to pitch as relievers. In addition to Gomez, they are Kevin Slowey, Zach McAllister and David Huff.
Slowey and Gomez have made it a two-man race for the rotation, Slowey because of his record of success with the Minnesota Twins, and Gomez because, as Acta said, “He probably is throwing the best of anyone in camp.”
When Acta talked about a starter moving into the bullpen, he meant Gomez specifically. Gomez has two career appearances as a reliever, once in rookie ball in 2006 and once last year at Triple-A Columbus.
But Acta doesn’t want to waste someone who is pitching well. He has no reason to believe that Gomez can’t succeed in the bullpen while his long-term prospects remain as a starter. Moreover, it doesn’t hurt to throw a little scare into the pitchers who have yet to wake up to their opportunity to make the roster as relievers.
Acta made it clear that he has not made a decision to throw one of the “real” relievers under the bus in favor of Gomez. At the moment, it is only a potential solution to the problem.
“First things first,” Acta said. “Gomez is still competing for a job as a starter. But he fits very well as a reliever. He throws strikes, and he can throw more than one inning. But for now, I’m not looking at him as a reliever at all.”
Gomez has come a long way in a relatively short time. As a raw 22-year-old, he was summoned to the Indians in 2010 to make a spot start and ended up getting 11 starts, posting a 4-5 record and 4.68 ERA in 57‚ innings. Even though he lacked polish, he was able to hold his own against major-league hitters.
Last year, when he still needed more seasoning, Gomez was called up again out of necessity and eventually made 10 starts and one relief appearance, compiling a 5-3 record and 4.47 ERA in 58· innings.
The only significant statistical difference from 2010 to 2011 was his rate of walks. Two years ago, he averaged 3.4 walks per nine innings; last season, the average dropped to 2.3 walks per nine innings.
During the current exhibition season, Gomez has yet to allow a run in 11 innings. He also has limited opposing batters to four hits, three walks and a .111 batting average.
“What has improved are his secondary pitches,” Acta said. “They were not as sharp. His slider was the one we worried about two years ago, but he developed that pitch starting last spring. This year, he knew he was coming to camp to contend for the rotation and he was sharp. Clearly, he came to camp ready to go.”
Because Gomez has performed at a high level this spring, and the collection of relievers vying for two bullpen vacancies has been waning, Gomez has two ways to make the team — at least for now.