CLEVELAND -- When Bryan Shaw was not waiting for the bullpen phone to ring, the reliever was awaiting the call to the manager's office. Pregame cribbage games with Indians manager Terry Francona became a regular part of Shaw's routine over the past five years in Cleveland.
Shaw is now facing free agency -- along with fellow Tribe reliever Joe Smith -- meaning Francona is not only at risk of losing his most durable bullpen arm, but also his most reliable office opponent. After the Indians' season ended, Francona cracked a smile when asked if potentially losing Shaw might mean more cribbage victories for the manager.
"He may be able to sign with another team for less, and make more money," Francona quipped. "Because he's not very good."
Most of Cleveland's talented and deep pitching staff is under control for 2018, but there is a strong chance that Shaw will test the open market. Over the past five seasons with the Tribe, the right-hander has been one of the most consistent and most-used relief arms in baseball. There have been hiccups -- that happens when a pitcher logs nearly 400 outings in five years -- but a multi-year contract might await Shaw in free agency.
Smith knows Shaw's situation all too well.
The sidearmer was 29 years old in 2013 when he finished a five-year run with the Indians with a 2.76 ERA. That put Smith in position to test the market for a long-term deal, which the Angels offered. Smith wanted to stay with the Indians, but the three-year, $15.75 million pact extended by Los Angeles was too good to pass up. The market for relievers has become even more lucrative in recent years.
"When you're a bullpen guy and you get to free agency, that's pretty hard to do," Smith said after being re-acquired by the Indians in August. "When you get a good offer, [it's like], 'This could be my only shot. I have no choice.' ... You have to think about your family, what needs are there, your future kids, all that stuff. And, 'Maybe, one day, I'll come back.'"
Smith -- now 33 -- got to come back this past season after the Indians sent two Minor Leaguers to the Blue Jays to obtain the right-hander. Part of the idea behind adding Smith was to help ease the burden on Shaw down the stretch. Now, Cleveland will have to weigh whether to try to re-sign Smith at a more affordable price than what Shaw will likely be able to net on the market in free agency.
In 2017, the Indians' relief corps led the Majors in ERA (2.89), Fielding Independent Pitching (3.20), WHIP (1.14) and strikeout-minus-walk percentage (20.0), while ranking second in WAR (8.6, per Fangraphs) and fourth in strikeout percentage (27.5). Shaw was a big part of that, posting a 3.52 ERA with 73 strikeouts against 22 walks in 76 2/3 innings (79 games) as a setupman for Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
That marked Shaw's fifth consecutive season with at least 70 appearances.
"My goodness sakes, he is so reliable," Francona said. "And if he's not in our bullpen, it will probably take two guys to do what he did. It's amazing."
Shaw is the only pitcher in the Majors with at least 70 appearances in each of the past five years, and the first to piece together a five-year run of that kind since Smith did so from 2011-15. Shaw and Jeurys Familia are the only pitchers in baseball with at least 70 games and 75 innings in a season three times in the past 10 years. Over the past five, Shaw has posted a 3.11 ERA and a 3.45 FIP with the most games (378), innings (tied, 358 2/3) and pitches thrown (5,892) among Major League relievers.
"I'm an Indian until they tell me I'm not," Shaw said at the end of the season. "I would obviously love to stay here, in this 'pen. We have a lot of great guys down here. We have a lot of good arms the last five years that I've been here. We've had a great bullpen. I would definitely love to stay here with this group of guys."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.