While Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit were very good last year, the rest of the Tigers bullpen was far from a strength in 2011. Many fans and perhaps the Tigers front office feel that upgrading the bullpen – finding a veteran to take a 7th inning role in particular – could go a long way toward fixing what they consider a weak spot on the team. But… the Tigers aren’t in the sort of situation that screams for a silver bullet answer. They’ve got a near-elite closer and one of the best setup men in the game. Those are the two most important (and highest paid) slots in the bullpen. They’ve got veteran depth. They’ve got a R-L balance. They’ve got a few promising youngsters waiting in the wings. What they don’t have is certainty and potential fulfilled.
Let’s make one thing clear: the Tigers bullpen has experienced no losses and has no actual holes. If we’re going to upgrade any bullpen slot, that requires demoting or cutting ties with the guy who holds that slot right now. Clearly that isn’t going to happen with Valverde or Benoit and while Phil Coke‘s role may be in question, I doubt he’s going anywhere. That means replacing Daniel Schlereth, Ryan Perry or Al Alburquerque or demoting one to long relief (and sending Below or Wilk back to Toledo). The first two represent the problems of unfulfilled potential and the third uncertainty.
Why is Al Alburquerque uncertain after such a great rookie year for the Tigers in 2011? Well, he got hurt a couple of times, he stunk in the playoffs and his success in AAA and the majors last season is strongly at odds with his minor league track record to that point. The control issues have always been with him, but over his minor league career Alburquerque has averaged only 10 K/9 and an ERA of 4.53 – that makes his small-sample 13.9 K/9 and 1.83 ERA with the Tigers last season look a little dubious. In his case it wasn’t exactly BABIP driven, it was driven by an unsustainably low ISO – the hits he was giving up were all singles. When he’s on, he’s absolutely amazing – as we all saw last year – but can we actually count on that happening for any extended stretch ever again? As for age – he’s only 25.
Dan Schlereth and Ryan Perry are very much in the same boat at this point in their careers, though one is a lefty and the other a righty. Both were picked in the late first round of the 2008 draft, both have great stuff and ‘closer potential’. Both rocketed through the minors to see significant big league playing time as early as 2009. In the minors, both have very good career numbers – 2.83 ERA with 2.58 K/BB for Perry and a 1.70 ERA with 2.23 K/BB for Schlereth. In the majors neither has flopped but neither has been consistently great: a 4.07 ERA with a 1.57 K/BB for Perry (in almost 3 times as many IP as he ever had in the minors) and a 3.87 ERA with a 1.52 K/BB for Schlereth. Though Schlereth has been wilder, both need to cut down on walks (not strike more guys out) to make a real mark in the majors. In 2011 both had trouble against opposite-handed guys – though that hadn’t really been the case in 2009 and 2010. Both are still very young – Schlereth is 25 while Perry is only 24 – because they both hit the majors so quickly as opposed to working out these problems in the minors.
One difference is that Ryan Perry was pretty awful – especially over the first half – in 2011 (though he was pretty good in 2009 and 2010). You would be forgiven for lacking confidence in Perry or any of these three in a critical situation in the 2011 playoffs or on opening day next April – they have good stuff, but they haven’t gotten consistent results at all levels. They all have the suspect control that makes a ‘fireman’ flammable. Still, most of the ‘badness’ of the Tigers ‘pen last year didn’t come from these 3 (or Coke or Benoit or Valverde or Below) it came from the fill-ins the team cycled through over the first 4 months. Still, if the team is going to improve through additions somebody has got to go… The question is – are you ready to pull the plug on any of these high ceiling relievers to replace them with an aging vet or a totally unproven prospect? I’m not sure I am – but let the polls answer this question.
As food for thought… the prospect whose name comes up most frequently as a replacement for Perry is Luis Marte who is older than Perry and has a higher career minor league ERA. Octavio Dotel has a career ERA of 3.73 and made his debut at age 25 (older than Perry is now). His first season produced a 5.38 ERA, his second a 5.40. Todd Coffey? Career ERA of 4.08.