CLEVELAND -- Spring Training officially begins this week for the Indians. That means Francisco Lindor's infectious smile will bring energy to the morning workouts. Corey Kluber will return to the mound, stoic and robotic as he navigates through throwing sessions. Jose Ramirez will strut between the batting cage and practice fields.
Come Wednesday morning, pitchers and catchers will report to Arizona to begin the team's quest for a third consecutive American League Central crown. The first workout will be held on Thursday, initiating the spring battles for rotation and bullpen jobs. For the latter, the Tribe's relief corps will be missing a familiar face: Bryan Shaw.
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"We're going to miss Bryan," relief ace Andrew Miller said last month. "Bryan has been a staple of this bullpen for years."
The Indians' roster returns mostly intact from last year, when the team won 102 games, set an AL record with a 22-game winning streak and ran away with the Central title. There were a handful of key losses over the winter months, though. Carlos Santana (Phillies), Jay Bruce (Mets), Joe Smith (Astros) and Shaw (Rockies) each left via free agency, creating some questions for camp.
The Tribe answered Santana's departure with the signing of free-agent first baseman Yonder Alonso (two years, $16 million) and picked up the $12 million option for Michael Brantley to hopefully make up for Bruce's exit. To date, however, there has been little movement with the bullpen, even with Smith and Shaw signing elsewhere. Shaw, specifically, was a key part of the 'pen for the past several seasons.
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This spring, even if the Indians at some point dip into the crop of free-agent relievers that are still available, manager Terry Francona will need to figure out his plan for the Shaw-less bullpen. Since 2013, when Francona came aboard as skipper, Shaw has provided durability and consistency out of the setup role.
"Replacing Bryan in the bullpen will be a chore," Francona said. "It'll probably take more than one guy to fill what he did. The good news is we have guys that can do that. I have no doubt that there will be guys that step up [but] we don't know who they are yet."
Francona quickly cited lefty Tyler Olson, who barely registered on the public radar last spring. Olson joined the 'pen down the stretch when Miller and Boone Logan were dealing with injuries, and the lefty contributed 20 scoreless innings. In 30 appearances, Olson did not allow a single run and ended with 18 strikeouts, six walks and 13 hits allowed.
"It happens every year and it will happen again," Francona said of a player seizing an opportunity like Olson did last year. "That's exciting."
Still, Francona will need to find a way to replace Shaw's innings.
Over the past five seasons combined, Shaw ranked first among all Major League relievers in pitches thrown (5,892) and games (378), and was tied for first in relief innings (358 2/3). The right-hander logged at least 70 appearances and 64 innings in each of those five years, and was tied for fifth in double-play groundouts (42), and sixth in ground balls overall (494), among MLB relievers in that span. Shaw had a 3.11 ERA in those five years with the Tribe.
This offseason, the Rockies rewarded Shaw's work with a three-year, $27 million pact that includes a fourth-year option.
"What Shaw's been able to do over the course of his career," Indians reliever Zach McAllister said, "not many people have been able to do that, and maintain staying healthy, and putting up numbers. That's a credit to him and the way he prepares himself. When you're able to watch him day in and day out -- from a teammate standpoint -- you're able to learn a lot from him."
Miller and closer Cody Allen, who will be eligible for free agency next offseason, return as the main late-inning weapons for Francona. Behind them, he has the right-handed McAllister and the left-handed Olson, along with righties Dan Otero and Nicholas Goody. Those project to be the club's six main bullpen arms. One of the team's starters could also wind up in the 'pen, and the Indians currently have 13 pitchers coming to camp as non-roster invitees.
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As Spring Training progresses -- the first full-squad workout will be Feb. 19, with the Cactus League opener against the Reds following on Feb. 23 -- Francona and his bullpen will get a better feel for how things will shape up for the season ahead. Last year, the Indians' bullpen led the Majors in ERA (2.89), so the team remains confident in the group's abilities.
"I think we can just slide some people back, and move things around, and we should be good to go," Miller said. "We like our group. Obviously, we wish we had everybody back, but that's just not the reality of the business. We have a lot of guys -- Otero, Z-Mac, Goody -- all who had great years. And what Olson did for us when he came up. All those guys will just be asked for a little bit more, and I think they're more than capable."
McAllister agreed with Miller's assessment.
"We're all definitely ready," McAllister said. "Maybe our appearances might go up a little bit this year, but the way that we have to be ready when our name's called doesn't change."