In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6 Jose Iglesias
Rather than paraphrasing what I wrote to introduce the Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe posts, I’ll pull the quote from both about why the new Tigers relievers matter:
Everyone knows the Tigers bullpen was a weak point during the Dombrowski era and Al Avila went into the offseason with only two real locks for the 2016 pen: Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy. While Wilson and Hardy were good in 2015, they aren’t exactly guys you want to point to as your best two arms. Sure the Tigers had some interesting potential like Bruce Rondon, Drew VerHagen, etc, but they needed relief help this winter, and relief help is something they got.
We’ve already covered the importance of Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe in reshaping the bullpen, but Francisco Rodriguez is slated to be the team’s relief ace and will dictate how the best laid plans of Al Avila will unfold. The 34 year old Rodriguez is no longer the superstar reliever he was during his youth, but he doesn’t have to be the 2004-2007 version of himself to help the Tigers win another AL Central crown.
While Rodriguez has had his share of mediocre seasons, he’s been reasonably effective and durable into his thirties. He’s developed more command as he’s aged and while he’s not the strikeout force he was during his peak, he’s still more than capable of recording punch outs. The major question mark as of late has been a propensity to allow the long ball, 35 over his last 243.2 innings (roughly 1.3 HR/9 over his last four seasons). He’s moving back to the American League, but away from a very hitter friendly park into a pretty balanced home yard.
Perhaps Rodriguez’s most interesting transformation is his growing reliance on the changeup:
This is the kind of thing you like to see from aging pitchers: a willingness to adapt as their physical skills wane.
There’s isn’t one particular thing Rodriguez needs to keep doing, as we’ve noted with some other players during this series, it’s really just that he needs to hold off that inevitable decline a little bit longer. The Tigers overhauled the back of their bullpen this winter, but even if you do everything right, relievers are still relievers. If Wilson-Lowe-Rodriguez generally resemble the 2015 versions of themselves in 2016, the Tigers will have a quality LHP1, RHP1, and Relief Ace capable of holding leads and allowing the offense to get them back to the promise land.
I ranked Rodriguez higher on this list because he’s the anchor. If he fails, more will be asked of every lesser arm in the Tigers bullpen. Each cog in the new bullpen has to play it’s role for the revamp to work, but if you had to pick a most important one, it’s the one who will be asked to get the most outs.
From 2012-2014, the starting rotation and offense were good enough to survive the bullpen, but as the other parts of the roster show their age a bit, the bullpen has to step up and carry it’s weight. A successful year from K-Rod will go a long way toward that aim.