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Pestano aims to reclaim top setup role for Tribe

With strong rebound from subpar season, right-hander could fill need in 2014

CLEVELAND -- Loyalty can come into play when assembling a postseason roster. That was certainly the case for Indians manager Terry Francona, who was forced to balance respect with reality when the time came to piece together his team for the American League Wild Card Game.

One omission -- reliever Vinnie Pestano -- was particularly painful for the manager.

"One of the things that was difficult," Francona said, "was not having Vinnie on it, because of what he's contributed. I think he desperately wants to get back to what he was. And I think this is going to be a really good offseason for him."

Considering the uncertainly laced throughout the back end of Cleveland's 2014 bullpen, a strong comeback from Pestano would be good personally and for the organization. Prior to his turbulent tour this year, the right-hander was entrenched in the 'pen as one of the game's top setup men and considered the Tribe's closer of the future.

The Indians' relief corps is now in the verge of potentially losing free-agent right-handers Joe Smith and Matt Albers, and former closer Chris Perez is not guaranteed a spot on next season's roster, either. Suddenly, Cleveland is in the market for bullpen help -- internally or externally -- and Pestano could prove integral in holding things together.

Pestano plans on doing everything in his power to reverse this season's misfortunes.

"I didn't know where the bottom was," Pestano said in September. "Another level just keeps opening up, and I keep falling down. But, I keep standing up. I keep answering the bell. I'm not going to quit. I'm going to battle for every pitch I can."

The Indians have setup man Cody Allen and right-hander Bryan Shaw set to return for 2014, giving the club a pair of options for the later innings. Lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Nick Hagadone are also under control next season, as are young righties like C.C. Lee and Preston Guilmet. Cleveland also has an intriguing right-hander in Blake Wood, who spent most of this season rehabbing from elbow surgery.

Smith (Cleveland's top setup man this year) and Albers (a ground-ball specialist), along with lefty Rich Hill, will each be eligible to hit the open market this winter. Perez, who lost the closer's job in the final series of the regular season, will be eligible for arbitration after earning $7.3 million in 2013. His escalating salary and diminishing performance make him a non-tender or trade candidate.

Needless to say, the Indians will be seeking relief help for next season.

"We've got guys coming back that we already know are coming back that we really like," Francona said. "We don't know our full set."

The Indians also do not know where Pestano will fit into the equation.

In 37 games for Cleveland this season, the 28-year-old Pestano posted a 4.08 ERA, 1.64 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and 37 strikeouts against 21 walks in 35 1/3 innings. Pestano's 1.76 strikeout-to-walk ratio was his lowest at any level in any season of his professional career, and the righty's average fastball velocity of 91.2 mph hit a career low.

Pestano missed time with a right elbow injury in May, was a mechanical mess when he returned later in the month and was shipped down to Triple-A Columbus before the end of July to sort through his issues. With Pestano laboring, Allen and Smith stepped up and split Cleveland's primary setup role for the remainder of the season.

The Indians know that Pestano -- a pitcher who takes bad outings hard -- wants nothing more than to bounce back from his 2013 nightmare.

"He has more determination than ever to get back to the pitcher he was for so long for us," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "We haven't lost sight of that. We haven't lost sight of the contributions that Vinnie's made to the organization for the better part of three seasons.

"We know what's in there, and I have no doubt that Vinnie's going to work his tail off this offseason and come into Spring Training with the goal of reasserting himself as a dominant back-end reliever."

Over the 2011-12 seasons, Pestano posted a 2.45 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, piling up 160 strikeouts against 48 walks in 132 innings for the Tribe. In that two-year span, hitters posted a .196 average and .606 OPS against Pestano, batting just .203 against his fastball. Pestano put batters in an 0-2 count 35 percent of the time and limited batters to 6.4 hits per nine innings in that time period.

This past season, it was a drastic drop-off across the board.

Batters hit at a .274 clip with an .838 OPS against Pestano overall, and managed a .271 average against his fastball. Pestano threw 6.2 percent more sliders than in the past two years, going away from his fastball more often and leading to fewer swings at pitches outside the strike zone and more contact at offerings in the zone. Pestano's 0-2 count rate dropped to 26 percent and batters collected 9.4 hits per nine innings on average.

"It's just been a really difficult year," Pestano said in September. "A lot of guys in this clubhouse, and a lot of guys on our staff, they haven't seen me at my best. So it's tough to come in here sometimes and look guys in the eyes after you cash in their runs, and you're supposed to be the player that you are, and you're just not even playing up to half that capability."

Pestano has been hard on himself over the years after bad games, striving to correct the problems in order to return to pitching at an elite level.

Cleveland believes the reliever will take the same approach after his rough season.

"He said he's a perfectionist," Francona said. "I guess the best way to cure that is to have a lot more good outings than bad ones. That's what he'd been used to. He's such a competitor. I think he's determined to come back and claim his old spot. There'd be nothing that would make us happier than if he did that."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.
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