The State Of The Tigers Bullpen

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

So it’s come to this; everyone’s favorite part of any baseball team. The bullpen. The ‘pen. Those guys at whom you scream constantly. We’ve gone through the rotation, infield, and outfield, and we’re left with relievers. Technically, we haven’t covered catching, but let’s leave that alone for now.

Because bullpens are fluid and contain tons of players, we’ll let the raw statistics do the talking for the relievers who were with the team in 2013 and won’t be in 2014. This series looks back and looks ahead, but for those pitchers who aren’t part of the future ‘pen, here’s how they contributed in 2013:

Name G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP fWAR Status?
Darin Downs 29 35.1 9.42 2.80 1.02 4.84 3.53 3.53 0.3 Astros
Jose Veras 25 19.2 7.32 3.66 0.92 3.20 4.12 4.88 0.1 Cubs
Octavio Dotel 6 4.2 7.71 7.71 0.00 13.50 3.90 5.66 0.0 FA
Jeremy Bonderman 11 16.2 8.64 5.40 1.62 6.48 5.27 4.49 -0.2 FA
Jose Valverde 20 19.1 8.84 2.79 2.79 5.59 6.36 4.09 -0.5 FA
Joaquin Benoit 66 67 9.81 2.96 0.67 2.01 2.87 3.16 1.6 Padres
Brayan Villarreal 7 4.1 12.46 16.62 2.08 20.77 8.82 7.71 -0.3 Red Sox
Drew Smyly 63 76 9.59 2.01 0.47 2.37 2.31 2.99 1.9 Rotation

The Tigers clearly didn’t see a future for Downs, but I actually think he’s got what it takes to be a very strong middle reliever. Aside from that, the loss of Benoit hurts and losing Smyly to the rotation will no doubt cost them. They added some pieces to compensate, which we’ll tackle in a moment, but there is a lot of value to make up just by considering who isn’t coming back.

Let’s also throw out some names who don’t figure to play a major role at the start of the year, but who did participate in the 2013 run.

Name G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP fWAR
Evan Reed 16 23.1 6.56 3.09 0.77 4.24 3.86 3.92 0.1
Jose Alvarez 8 10.2 5.06 3.38 0.84 7.59 4.27 4.97 0.0
Jose Ortega 11 11.2 7.71 4.63 1.54 3.86 5.36 4.54 -0.1

Reed, Alvarez, and Ortega didn’t have a lot of time to do much of anything in 2013, and they’ll be lurking at the first sign of trouble. We should also have an eye on guys like Casey Crosby, Luis Marte, and Corey Knebel as potential arms coming north during the season. That said, predicting bullpen call-ups is a crapshoot. Look for the guys throwing well when the big club needs an arm. Could be the six guys listed, could be anyone. Let’s focus now on who we expect  to be on the roster for Opening Day.

Joe Nathan

Signing Joe Nathan was extremely predictable. The Tigers have wanted a closer forever, and they finally got their chance to buy one on the open market. It was a strange strategy, given they had just previously traded the cheaper Doug Fister to Washington, but in a vacuum, Nathan is a quality reliever on a reasonably fair deal.

If you take away the time he missed in 2010-11 due to injury, he’s been one of the best and most consistent relievers in baseball for a decade. He’s a step up from Benoit, although not a huge one, but the Tigers are paying for that luxury to the tune of an extra $2.5 million a season. Nathan should be very solid and reliable at the end of games for the Tigers in 2014.

Ian Krol

Krol is only about 30 innings into his big league career, so it’s too soon to look at his numbers and get much of a sense about who he’s going to be. He’s got a solid fastball and a nice hook. He’s got a chance to be a #1 lefty or maybe a quality setup man. He should be a nice piece for the team, but he’s also stepping into Smyly’s old spot – and there’s a very limited chance that he could perform the way Smyly did in 2013 because that was top of the line stuff.

Joba Chamberlain

Spending $2.5 million on a one-year deal is almost never a terrible move. As long as you’re willing to bail if the experiment fails, there’s no harm in it. Even a player like Delmon Young or Yuni Betancourt isn’t a disaster at $2.5 million. So signing Joba wasn’t a bad move, but it doesn’t inspire a lot of excitement. It’s been several years since Chamberlain was a valuable player and while scouts still like his stuff, he’s had serious command and homer problems. Joba might be a useful reliever, and getting him together with Jeff Jones could do wonders, but don’t expect the name-value of his 2007-2008 performance fool you into thinking this is a lights out reliever.

Al Alburquerque

Al-Al is a fun one, because his strikeout and walk numbers are both crazy high. Actually getting a hit is pretty rare. He gave up homeruns for, literally, the first time in his career in 2013, but remains deadly when healthy. In over 100 career innings, his ERA and FIP are both below 3.00. He’s a lights-out type guy with the potential to blow up on occasion, but he’s also pretty fragile. You can’t count on him for back to back days and fully healthy seasons, but when he’s on, there are few better at getting out of a tight spot.

Phil Coke

Coke is one of the league leaders in antics, but as far as his pitching goes, he’s a mixed bag. Coke had a pretty solid track record coming into the 2013 season, but just had a rough go of things the entire way. He was slated to be the team’s closer entering the first week, but quickly lost that gig to a very quick hook from Jim Leyland. He struggles with righties, but should be able to bounce back a bit and share the left-handed duties with Ian Krol. Coke isn’t anyone’s idea of a relief ace, but he’s a nice piece to have in your middle innings. Also, sprinting out of the bullpen is encouraged.

Luke Putkonen

I think Putkonen gets overlooked because most of his work comes in mop-up time, but he’s actually a pretty nice arm out of the pen. He’s got some zip on his fastball and generates a good amount of ground balls to go along with a decent mix of strikeouts and walks. He’s not a relief ace, but he was pretty good in 2013. Having him working the middle innings should work just fine. It’s only 45 career innings, but he’s working with a 3.35 ERA and 3.66 FIP. The Tigers could do worse.

Bruce Rondon

Rondon is pretty much the key to this entire thing. He did pretty well in 28.2 innings in 2013 and has the kind of velocity that can bail you out of a lot of situations. His breaking ball is better than some acknowledge, but he has a control problem that might hold him back from top end status. That’s sort of the story of the entire bullpen. Other than Nathan, this is a mix of guys with stuff to burn that haven’t been able to command that stuff too often. Rondon has the ability to be a top flight arm this year, but he could also meltdown. I guess that’s always true of anyone not named Rivera, but it’s important to consider.

Let’s frame the whole thing like this. The talent is in place for this to be a nice bullpen, but that’s been true of most of the recent versions. This is their strategy. They load up on stuff and velocity, and then hope those guys keep it together. They’re running a high variance con, either they make out like bandits or they’re in jail by the end of act one. On the whole, swapping out Benoit and Smyly for Krol and Nathan is something of a wash, so comparing them to last year comes down to how much you buy a Joba resurgence, Al-Al’s health, and Rondon’s ability to harness  his potential. From my perspective, they were a middle of the road bullpen and will be a middle of the road bullpen again in 2014.

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3 responses

  1. I feel good about Joba, not sure why and that feeling may very well go south after he starts pitching. I think something can be said about getting out of New York, reports have him down 15 pounds already. It is not unheard of that a guy figures it out later in his career and is lights out, ie Jason Grilli, but that being the exception not the rule.

  2. […] and looking forward to the 2014 version of the team. We’ve taken a look at the rotation, bullpen, infield, and outfield – and somehow Avila and Holaday ended up not finding a home within any […]

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