CLEVELAND -- Joe Borowski is the master of the unexpected. His outings teeter between dominant and disastrous, usually falling toward the former despite the scare of the latter. The fact that he saved an American League-high 45 games this season with an ERA of 5.07 -- the highest ERA by a saves leader in Major League history -- tells you all you need to know about his tactics. Borowski, then, is the physical embodiment of the spirit of big league bullpens.
"The hardest thing to predict on a Major League team is your bullpen," Borowski said. "It's so hard to predict what's going to happen, especially if you have injuries or other things where guys have to do things they're not accustomed to. It's hard to say, 'We're going to have a great bullpen.'" The Indians didn't come into the 2007 season saying they'd have a great bullpen. They never imagined they'd have the AL's saves leader and two of its most dominant setup men in Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez. They were still too traumatized by what happened in '06 to be that cocky. The Tribe saved a Major League-low 24 games in '06 with a bullpen that was, much to its own chagrin, never boring. When the offseason free-agent market opened, general manager Mark Shapiro went straight to the relief department. It was a thin market, at best, and he did his best to fill his needs within a reasonable budget by signing veterans Borowski, Keith Foulke, Roberto Hernandez and left-hander Aaron Fultz to one-year deals. Borowski and Foulke were to compete for the closing duties, with the runner-up serving as the primary setup man. Hernandez, Fultz and the already in-house Betancourt were to work the seventh inning. Jason Davis and Fernando Cabrera, out of Minor League options, were to be the only other holdovers from '06, filling out middle relief. And right about then is when the unpredictability set in. A day before pitchers and catchers were to report to Spring Training camp, Foulke called Shapiro with the shocking announcement that he had decided to retire. Scramble mode began. Now, Borowski was the de facto closer, and everybody else moved up an inning in responsibility before the first pitch of the spring had even been thrown.
"I think there was a sense that, 'OK, this has simplified things a little bit,'" pitching coach Carl Willis recalled. "'We know who we have and what the roles are going to be.' At the same time, though, you're always looking at how much depth you have, and you know that's one less quality pitcher that you feel you can count on." As the season progressed, the Indians learned that Hernandez, Davis and Cabrera simply could not be counted on. All three were long gone by August. And Fultz, while effective overall, never put together a sustained stretch of dominant outings. Tom Mastny, the last man added to the 'pen as a result of Foulke's retirement, found himself in a similar boat. The keys to the 'pen in the season's first half, then, became Betancourt -- who, for the first time since his big league debut with the Indians in 2003 -- found a training routine that kept his arm and his body healthy, and Borowski. Betancourt owned the eighth inning. He had a 1.13 ERA in 36 appearances before the All-Star break. And Borowski, save for two memorable blowups in New York on April 19 and in Oakland on May 13, was equally effective in the ninth, saving 25 of his first 27 opportunities. But as the Indians looked toward the second half and, specifically, the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, they knew they needed more arms in the back end to ease some of the load on Betancourt and Borowski, both of whom have extensive injury histories. Enter Perez. Since his arrival to the club from Triple-A Buffalo in May, he had pitched well. But in the second half, the lanky left-hander picked up his game considerably. He had a 1.80 ERA in nine July appearances, solidifying his role as Betancourt's eighth-inning assistant. He went on to log a 1.78 ERA in 44 games for the season.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.