Smith’s status an underrated aspect of Indians offseason plans

There are a lot of players that have a key impact on the success of a team over the course of a season. Some impact with their performance, some impact the clubhouse, and some impact by filling key roles when a key player is hurt or underperforms.

This past season the Indians had a lot of players step up in all of those ways, but one in particular maybe had the biggest impact of all on the bullpen and that was right-hander Joe Smith.

Smith, 29, has been a consistent, reliable reliever for the Indians over the past five seasons pitching in 303 games and compiling a 2.76 ERA during that time. Since being acquired in a big 12-player, three-team trade from the Mets in December of 2008, he has been a staple in the Indians bullpen and seen his value and role increase each season starting off as a mid-relief matchup righty in 2009 to becoming the setup man by the end of this season.

This past season Smith arguably had his best season with the Indians as he made 70 appearances and went 6-2 with a 2.29 ERA and had a career best 2.35 K/BB ratio. His strikeouts were up, his walks were down, and he had a career best 86.3-percent strand rate (percentage of inherited runners who did not score).

At the outset of each of the last three seasons the strength of the Indians bullpen was Smith in the seventh inning, Vinnie Pestano in the eighth inning and then Chris Perez in the ninth inning to close the game out. That was about as solid a one-two-three punch as a team could have in the late innings.

But that changed this season as the much maligned Perez suffered a right rotator cuff sprain in late May and went on the disabled list for a month and the once dominant Pestano hit the disabled list in early May for a few weeks because of right elbow tendonitis and appeared to battle with it the rest of the season.

The Indians continued to use Pestano in high leverage relief situations in June and July even though he was clearly not the same pitcher as far as his stuff and effectiveness went. When Perez returned he actually pitched well in July before things went haywire in August and September.

While Pestano and Perez struggled with injury and performance issues all season, Smith along with the help of Cody Allen were the most reliable arms in the bullpen. Because of that consistency manager Terry Francona made a big decision in late July to move Smith into the setup role and option Pestano to Columbus, a decision that proved to be a jump off point to the bullpen’s success the rest of the year.

Allen, Smith and even Bryan Shaw and late addition Marc Rzepczynski were the keys to the Indians strong bullpen unit late in the season, but it was the consistency from Smith all season and his ability to slide right into the setup role without even a hiccup which made him the most valuable pen arm for the Indians.

And of course, with that value to the Indians now well established, Smith is a free agent and about to get paid handsomely by someone. He was the glue that held the bullpen together for the Indians this season and has been a mainstay for several years, so he has more than earned the right to seek out the best possible contract he can get.

It remains to be seen how much effort the Indians will make in trying to resign Smith since he could be looking at a three-year deal for around $5-6 million a year. That’s the going rate for a good setup man and might be too pricey for the Indians considering they have bigger fish to fry in trying to retain the likes of Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez this offseason and also trying to extend Justin Masterson to avoid free agency with him next offseason.

To make matters worse, the Indians are also expected to non-tender Perez, and Pestano’s health and reliability is a complete unknown for next season. So the way things stand at the moment that one-two-three punch of Smith, Pestano and Perez at the outset of this season has completely evaporated and there is a chance neither of the three return next season in a late-inning role for the Indians.

That’s a lot of change to the back end of the bullpen for a team expecting to take a step forward next season, truly contend for the AL Central title and be in the mix for the World Series. While the Indians have capable options like Allen and Shaw to potentially fill into those late inning slots, that is a lot of faith in two guys to be able to handle roles they have yet to truly pitch.

With that in mind, you can expect the Indians to be ultra-creative in searching for a suitable replacement in a trade. Given the finite resources at their disposal with the budget you can bet the Indians will scour the trade market for possible lower cost but very productive solutions for the eighth and ninth innings. Who those players are at the moment is unclear since the trade market has yet to be defined.

After talking to teams over the next few weeks and at the GM meetings from November 11-13, the Indians should have a clear idea of who may be attainable in a trade and whether they need to intensify their efforts to resign Smith. The one advantage they have at the moment is while they decide their course of action they have an exclusive negotiating window with him right now that will expire when free agency officially starts in mid-November shortly after the GM meetings.

Smith has said all the right things in that he wants to come back, but money is likely going to talk and he should be one of the top relievers available in free agency. He’s going to get paid. But the question is by whom?

There are tons of teams with a larger cash flow who need bullpen help and can afford to spend $15-18 million on a good setup man. One of them is the Detroit Tigers who just lost in the ALCS because their bullpen failed them in the late innings of two crucial games.

The Indians are in a tough spot.  On one hand, Smith is probably not worth it to the Indians to give him $15-18 million the next three years simply because no reliever should take up that much of the payroll for a small market team. But on the other hand, if he leaves the Indians then have a huge hole they need to fill in the backend of the bullpen that they simply do not have enough internal options to fill.

The re-signing of Smith or the acquisition of a player to replace him is a grossly overlooked storyline heading into the Indians offseason. Kazmir and Jimenez may steal the headlines right now, but as everyone saw in the Detroit-Red Sox series it doesn’t matter how good your starting pitching is if you don’t have a reliable bullpen to go to late in the game.