The majority of talk regarding potential free agents for the Detroit Tigers has focused on third base and second base. The likely departure of Ramon Santiago and the apparent demise of Brandon Inge have rightfully shifted perceived need to those two positions.
While the two spots remain weaknesses, particularly in the lineup, they are far from the biggest need. Simply look at the ALCS to realize that the biggest need is in the bullpen. In the ALCS, the Detroit Tigers relievers allowed 18 runs (17 earned) in 21.1 innings for a 7.2 ERA. If you take out Benoit’s fine ALCS performance (1 ER in 7.1 innings) that ERA balloons 10.6. Conversely, the Rangers allowed 4 runs in 27.1 innings of relief against the Tigers…series over. Benoit and Jose Valverde, despite his rough ALCS, are fine in the bullpen. The rest of the bullpen spots are filled with enormous question marks. A quick look at John Verburg’s relief pitcher free agent primer, shows that the talent available in the reliever free agent market vastly outweighs the talent in the organization and is definitely more saturated than the infield free agents. With two of the top free agent second basemen off the market (Aaron Hill and Jamey Carroll) would the Tigers honestly be any worse off with Ryan Raburn and his concrete glove manning second base over the minus defending, free swinging Kelly Johnson?
Third base has a little more quality in the free agent market, but not too much. The Cubs Armanis Ramirez may be the best free agent third baseman available, but he’ll come at a price, likely in the $10-12 million a year range. Seeing that Joaquin Benoit ended up being a savior in the Tigers’ bullpen, and he cost $5.5 million a year, it’s hard to argue that spending that $12 million on a couple of moderately priced relievers and a backup catchers wouldn’t be a much better investment than a good hitting, but iffy defensive, third baseman.
The final and most compelling argument to shore up the bullpen before touching the infield is that the Tigers ranked 4th in MLB in runs last year even with their platoon situations at third and second. Their bullpen ranked 25th in ERA. Every team has lineup holes, even the very best, and the Tigers have strengthened their lineup significantly overall. Ryan Raburn batting 8th or 9th looks like Babe Ruth when you hearken to the days of Adam Everitt and Gerald Laird shoring up the bottom of the Tigers lineup. While Raburn has won games with his bat, how comfortable did you ever feel with Daniel Schlereth, Ryan Perry or Phil Coke entering the game with men in scoring position? Probably about as comfortable as the head of the Marlins’ merchandising department.
While third and second base are a better talk show topic, the Tigers already strong lineup, serious need in the bullpen and the lack of quality free agent infielders should make the bullpen the team’s no doubt, number one priority heading into free agency and the winter meetings.