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2/8/2013 12:39 P.M. ET

Late-inning Tribe trio set to lead relief corps in '13

Smith-Pestano-Perez combo, should make 'pen a strength for Indians

With Cleveland's pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Spring Training on Sunday, indians.com is taking a look at the state of the Tribe's roster. Today we'll complete this five-part Around the Horn series by examining the bullpen.

CLEVELAND -- As disappointing as last season was for the Indians, there was one thing the ballclub did extremely well. When the team had a lead late in the game, the bullpen was typically able to ensure a trip to the win column.

That strength was largely a credit to the combined work of sidearmer Joe Smith, setup man Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez, who often handled the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, respectively. This winter, Cleveland was aggressive in improving its roster, but the club did not mess with its late-inning formula.

"It's been proven over the past couple of years that we've been very effective in that spot," Pestano said.

The Indians feel they have improved their offense with the additions of players such as Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs and Mike Aviles. Cleveland is also hoping for an upgraded rotation with Brett Myers and Trevor Bauer now in the fold. The Tribe also tweaked its bullpen, adding arms such as Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw.

The relief corps has been a strength for Cleveland over the past few years, especially when it comes to the later innings. That aspect of the Indians' roster is expected to once again be reliable with the combination of newcomers and holdovers slated to be in camp this spring.

"We've got quite a 'pen," Pestano said. "It's going to be a good battle to see how those last few spots shake out."

Smith, Pestano and Perez headline the cast.

Consider that, while the Indians went 68-94 overall last season, the club posted a 24-12 record in one-run games. Only the Orioles had a better winning percentage in such contests. Cleveland went 20-7 in games featuring Smith, Pestano and Perez, and posted a 38-8 record in games during which Pestano and Perez pitched.

The Indians were 52-8, 57-4 and 57-3 in games in which they led after six, seven and eight innings, respectively.

Smith, Pestano and Perez combined for a 3.01 ERA with a 1.13 WHIP and a 2.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season. The rest of the bullpen posted a 4.56 ERA with a 1.35 WHIP and a 2.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Cleveland ended the year ranked 13th in the American League with a 3.99 bullpen ERA, but that relatively poor showing was not the fault of the late-inning trio.

"That group of guys for a couple of years," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said, "has done a very good job of preserving leads. When our starting pitchers have turned leads over to the bullpen, we've done a pretty good job of converting those leads into wins.

"Obviously, the work that Chris and Vinnie and Joe, especially, have done in those roles has been a key part of the very successful component of our team."

Smith, who will be eligible for free agency next winter, posted a 2.96 ERA over 72 appearances last season. Pestano -- entering his third full season in the big leagues -- had a 2.57 ERA, a club-record 36 holds and 76 strikeouts in 70 innings. Perez, who avoided arbitration this winter with a $7.3 million contract for 2013, saved 39 games, made his second All-Star team and had a 3.59 ERA.

Behind that trio, Cleveland's top bullpen candidates include right-handers Albers, Shaw, Matt Capps, Frank Herrmann, and Cody Allen, along with lefties Nick Hagadone, Scott Barnes, David Huff and Rich Hill. Albers is out of options, making him a likely candidate to open the season in the big league bullpen.

Albers and Shaw were both acquired from Arizona as part of a three-team, nine-player trade in December that also involved the Reds. Albers posted a 2.39 ERA in 63 games between stints with the D-backs and Red Sox last year, while Shaw fashioned a 3.49 ERA in 64 appearances for Arizona.

During the winter, Cleveland parted ways with experienced left-handers Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez. The Indians have youngsters Hagadone and Barnes as possible replacements, and Huff will be an option as a long reliever if he does not crack the rotation. Hill will also be thrown into the left-handed relief mix.

It is also worth noting that Albers limited left-handed hitters to a .207 average in 2012.

"One of the things we liked about both guys we acquired from Arizona," Antonetti said, "is that we feel that they have the ability to get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out. We worry most about the success guys are able to have -- not necessarily the handedness. We don't care whether they throw left-handed or right-handed."

That will add to the intrigue as Cleveland sorts through the coming bullpen competition.

"We feel we have improved on some of our alternatives and brought in some interesting guys," Antonetti said. "And we have some other guys who are rebounding from injuries -- a guy like Hagadone. We feel like we have a good balance and we'll continue to look to improve on our options."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.