Which Relievers Should The Tigers Take To October?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

With just three weeks and change standing between the Tigers and postseason baseball for the third straight October, it’s time to start thinking about using the home stretch to make some tough choices. Specifically, the Tigers need to address Jhonny Peralta’s status with the club and which relievers are coming and which relievers are staying home. I’ll leave the Peralta question for another day and tackle the relievers right now.

Let’s start with some basic assumptions. The Tigers are going to carry 11 pitchers and 5 will be the members of their starting rotation, even if one or more of them will pitch out of the bullpen. So that leaves us with 6 slots.

The No Brainers

Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly, and Bruce Rondon are all locks barring a serious injury or some sort of terrible meltdown.

Name G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Drew Smyly 53 69 9.26 1.96 0.52 2.22 2.43 3.04 1.5
Joaquin Benoit 55 55 9.82 3.11 0.65 2.13 2.89 3.23 1.1
Jose Veras* 58 58.1 8.18 3.09 0.93 2.93 3.74 3.99 0.6
Bruce Rondon 29 27.2 8.78 3.58 0.65 3.58 3.22 3.43 0.3

*with both the Tigers and Astros in 2013

Using New English D’s own propriety metric, SOEFA, each of these four grade out as above average relievers for the season with Benoit and Smyly being among the best dozen in the game as of last Sunday.

Player SOEFA
Joaquin Benoit 0.79
Drew Smyly 0.76
Jose Veras 0.15
Bruce Rondon 0.02

The Question Marks

We know whomever the Tigers call on has to currently be in the organization and we also know that Octavio Dotel is likely out for the season. That leaves the Tigers with 7 relievers who saw big league action this year. These numbers are in relief and as Tigers.

Name G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Darin Downs 26 33 10.09 2.73 1.09 5.18 3.46 3.31 0.3
Phil Coke 45 36.2 7.36 3.93 0.74 4.91 3.78 4.14 0.2
Luke Putkonen 23 23.1 8.10 2.70 1.16 2.70 3.81 3.62 0.1
Evan Reed 13 19.1 6.52 1.86 0.93 3.72 3.56 3.50 0.1
Al Alburquerque 44 40.1 13.17 6.92 1.12 5.58 4.18 3.59 0.0
Jose Alvarez 3 4 2.25 0.00 2.25 15.75 5.79 5.30 -0.1
Jeremy Bonderman 10 15.1 8.22 5.87 1.76 5.28 5.71 4.61 -0.2

Downs pitched well for the Tigers earlier this year before struggling and then missing time with a shoulder injury. He wasn’t added to the roster when the limit went from 25 to 40, which signals that the Tigers don’t plan to use him in October. That could change, but it’s possible too that he hasn’t fully recovered from his injury. If Downs is healthy, he’d be an obvious choice for me as he did excellent work until the last couple outings before going on the DL and has an excellent strikeout rate and no serious platoon issues.

Coke struggled with command this season and has become a LOOGY for the most part since returning from Toledo. Last month, I looked into his struggles and didn’t find anything stuff or health related to worry about. Coke seems like an obvious choice if Downs isn’t an option because the Tigers are going to want to carry at least 2 lefties.

Jose Alvarez won’t be needed for his length and it’s hard to think he’s a better LOOGY than Coke at this point. He’s a touch and feel guy who can give you innings, which isn’t that valuable in the postseason.

Luke Putkonen has a solid fastball and some pretty good numbers to match working in long relief (for the most part) this year as he bounced up and down as necessary. Putkonen would be a good fit in principle, but with Porcello likely heading to the bullpen for the playoffs, the value of a guy who can offer length is somewhat diminished. Putkonen is certainly a candidate, but it’s a tough call.

Evan Reed hasn’t spent much time in the show this year, but he’s done solid work during his stints with the big club. There isn’t much to go on with Reed, but he doesn’t really seem to have anything that distinguishes him from Putkonen in terms of what he could bring to the roster.

Jeremy Bonderman is an interesting one because the overall results haven’t been great this year, but he’s show the ability to come in and slam the door at times this year. September will be key for evaluating Bonderman because I’m not sure if he’s capable of being a shutdown middle reliever or not. That might have been a flash in the pan, but I always thought his stuff would play up in the pen.

Al Alburquerque is going to be the key. His strikeout rate is nuts and if you need a big strikeout he’s a guy you want to be able to call upon. But he’s also extremely wild and might walk in the key run as well. He’s been hit hard lately and the overall results package hasn’t been great. He has a high payoff potential, but you’re also scared to use him to some extent with too much on the line. He might punish hitters with his slider or he might get creamed.

Which leaves us with a tough choice. It’s hard to imagine Coke, who had so much success last October and remains the best LOOGY option, doesn’t get invited to the dance. Unless he lays a big egg in the final days, he’s going to join the four-headed monster – even if I would prefer a healthy Downs.

The last righty is a tough one because of the different dynamic in October. If you need length in the pen, you’re going to use Porcello because you don’t need a guy who “saves the pen,” you need a guy who holds the lead at all costs. So a swingman, mop up type isn’t what you need. If Al-Al in the zone, he’d be in for sure, but he isn’t and a guy like Putkonen could be a safe option. He’s not going to come in and get you a big K the way Al-Al could, but you have Rondon for that and you don’t have to worry about holding back in October. The marathon is over and it’s time to sprint.

It’s tough, but I think you have to try it with Alburquerque. He’s a high risk, high reward pick but he brings a skill to the table that Putkonen, Reed, and Bonderman don’t. Presumably, with all of the off days in October and the finish line in sight, you can pitch with a short pen if Al-Al loses it and can’t be trusted. But if he hits one of his grooves, the benefits will be huge.

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