Indians hope Aardsma is their 'lightning in a bottle'
A return to the form of years' past would be good enough for veteran reliever
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Alphabetically, David Aardsma is the first name on the list of every baseball player to log an inning in the Major Leagues. Right now, though, that is likely far from the mind of the veteran relief pitcher, who just wants his name on the list of those breaking camp with the big league club.
This spring, that club is the Cleveland Indians, and Aardsma, 32, is looking to re-establish himself as an arm worthy of the back end of the bullpen, as he was from 2009-10 when he ascended to the role of closer for the Seattle Mariners and saved 69 games. The Indians might have as many as two openings in their bullpen, and Aardsma, who threw a perfect seventh inning Tuesday against the D-backs, would not mind being at the top of that list.
He missed all of 2012 because of recovery from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, did not make it with the Yankees out of Spring Training last year, pitched in the Minors for the Marlins and resurfaced in the Mets' bullpen in June.
He ended up making 43 relief appearances for the Mets and pitched to a 4.31 ERA. But more impressive was the fact that he limited batters to a .122 (5-41) average against with runners in scoring position and stranded all 19 of his inherited runners.
This spring, Aardsma joins Scott Atchison as longtime big league relievers on non-roster deals with the Indians, a strategy that manager Terry Francona said was embraced by the club.
"We felt like if you bring in non-roster guys and let them compete, that's the one area where there's just so many unknowns," Francona said before Tuesday's game. "It seems like every year that somebody emerges from these groups -- not just our team; it's every team -- and has a big year.
"So rather than shell out a lot of money for what somebody did, maybe you bring some guys in on non-rosters and hit and have a little good fortune."
Aardsma says he feels he will be a good candidate to do exactly that as long as his arm strength progresses and he uses his strengths -- a power fastball with good command, a slider and a split-fingered fastball -- to the best of his ability.
"It's a matter of just coming in and doing my job," Aardsma said Tuesday morning. "It's a great situation. It's a great team and an opportunity to pitch in the back end of the bullpen. There are also a lot of guys competing for it. I need to just look at it as doing what I can do. Throw my game, and let them worry about it. Because if I'm pitching my game, whether it's here or somewhere else, I know I'm going to be in the big leagues. I know I'll make it.
"But right now it's just going out there and making pitches. Not trying too hard. Not try to be what I was however many years ago. Just be me now, and that's good enough."
When Aardsma was at the height of his career as the Seattle closer in 2009, he could hit 97 mph on the radar gun. Last year was closer to 90-92. A few more ticks could mean everything.
"Maybe I don't have that 97 in my back pocket anymore, but it's also not June right now," Aardsma said. "Things are coming along. I'm feeling good."
Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway was on the 2002 Anaheim Angels, a team that won the World Series in part because of a dominant bullpen that included quite a few castoffs who simply pitched their way into prominence. He understands the volatility of the role and the opportunity to sometimes cash in on it.
"Any pitcher any given year can struggle," Callaway said. "I like that, trying to find some lightning in a bottle, get one good year out of a guy. It happens a lot more than people expect. Look at [Jason] Grilli last year in Pittsburgh. He came out of nowhere.
"So watching guys like Aardsma, you bring those guys in who have been around for a little bit, you might get 60 innings with a 2.50 ERA out of them. If his arm strength comes back, if he starts throwing 93 or 94 again, we're going to have a really good reliever on our hands.
"That's what we're hoping for."