CLEVELAND -- The Indians ran into an issue in their search for bullpen depth this offseason. When the team approached free-agent relievers, offering Minor League contracts with a chance to compete for big league jobs, the unemployed pitchers were hesitant.
One look at the Tribe's bullpen picture made it clear that if the pitchers did not make the Opening Day roster, their chances of joining the Indians would decrease dramatically. There were simply too many good alternatives -- young alternatives -- waiting in the wings in Cleveland's system.
Signing such a deal with the Indians was an enormous risk for the player.
"It's unusual that selling jobs to Minor League free agents, we had no jobs to sell," said Ross Atkins, the Indians' vice president of player development. "They could do the quick math and they could see, 'Where do I go if I end up in Triple-A?'"
For the free agents, it was a dilemma. For the Indians, however, it is a great problem to have going into the 2011 season. Cleveland's bullpen projects to be one of the club's best assets, and the crop of relief prospects rising fast through the system gives the team hope that the 'pen will remain a strength for the foreseeable future.
It's a situation that has the pitchers as excited as the front office.
"From a relief standpoint, I think it's no secret that there's a ton of talent in this organization," said right-hander Bryce Stowell, who was in Cleveland last week for the club's winter development program. "It's going to be tough, but it's going to be fun as well.
"There's a lot of people in the mix."
Stowell (2.14 ERA in 42 games across three Minor League levels in 2010) will be among the cast of young arms vying for the vacant relief roles this spring. Others who will get a look include Vinnie Pestano (1.81 ERA in 57 games with Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus), Josh Judy (2.94 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A) and Zach Putnam (3.69 ERA at Akron and Columbus combined), among others.
"That's a deep crew," Atkins said. "It'll be all internal options again at our Triple-A team. That's what was so fun about it last year. Those guys were so young."
It is a similar theme at the Major League level, where 25-year-old Chris Perez -- one of the most promising closers in the game -- is locked in as the Tribe's stopper.
Perez is coming off a breakout showing in 2010, when he was able to assume the full-time closing role after Cleveland traded away Kerry Wood in July. From June 28 through the end of the year, Perez fashioned a 0.53 ERA (lowest among Major League relievers with at least 18 innings logged over that time span), allowing no runs in his final 17 games.
Overall, Perez ended with a 1.71 ERA (second among American League relievers) and 23 saves, holding opposing hitters to a .182 batting average. Perez's .133 (14-for-105) average allowed with runners on ranked second in the league, and he became the youngest pitcher in club history to record at least 20 saves in a season.
"He was great," Indians pitching coach Tim Belcher said last month. "He was as good as anybody the last two or three months in either league. He was solid. The biggest challenge for us as an organization and as a staff with him is ... there's always that danger when you have that initial huge success in that important role as a closer, I don't want him to lose his edge.
"I don't think he will."
Behind Perez, the Indians have solid lefties in Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez. Right-handers Jensen Lewis and Joe Smith add more depth and, along with the team's relief prospects in camp, arms such as Aaron Laffey, Justin Germano, Frank Herrmann, Doug Mathis and Joe Martinez, among others, will be in the mix for jobs.
In 2010, the Indians bullpen finished with a 3.83 ERA overall -- down from 4.63 a year earlier. That 0.80 improvement was the best among AL teams and the third-best upgrade in relief performance in the Majors. In the second half, Cleveland's relievers posted a 2.95 ERA, which ranked second to only the Yankees.
"The last four months, they shined," Belcher said.
The Indians are hopeful 2011 will bring more success for the relief corps, providing a solid group to help support what projects to be a young starting rotation.
"There's no reason," Belcher said, "for any of our starters to think they couldn't get to the sixth inning with a lead and feel pretty comfortable heading into the clubhouse that it's going to hold on. It did the last 2 1/2 months, three months. We held on to just about all those leads late in the game. That's huge."