Dave Dombrowski has been adamant that the Detroit Tigers are comfortable with rookie Bruce Rondon serving as the team’s closer heading into spring training — and that they’re NOT in the market for someone like Rafael Soriano. They were rumored to be in the relief market earlier in the offseason — specifically looking for a left-handed setup man — but nothing has materialized on that front. But, although there might be room to add one arm to the pen, the Tigers certainly don’t need to.
I’m going to zoom through most of the high-leverage spots because it seems set until such a time as something actually happens. Rondon is going to get the first opportunity to close, Joaquin Benoit would probably step in should he falter, and Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel could platoon their way through the ninth inning should things really go wrong. This whole scenario is a bit frightening, but I’m always the guy pleading for the team to not pay big money for a closer, so I guess I’m happy. We’d probably all be a bit more comfortable with this whole situation if Benoit had been a bit more reliable down the stretch last season.
The strength of the bullpen appears to be in the seventh and eighth innings where the Tigers have four guys who are just about as good as anyone in baseball at what they do. Stretch run aside, Benoit has been one of the more reliable setup men in the game for the last three years. He typically gets both lefties and righties out with lots of strikeouts and few walks. His only problem last year — which was hopefully an aberration — was the tendency for fly balls to end up over the fence.
Dotel and Coke will likely man seventh inning duties together. Jim Leyland has been fine playing the matchup game with these two which is perfect. They each struggle versus opposite-handed hitting, but both are quite dependable when given the platoon advantage. Al Alburquerque could also see some seventh inning duties. He hasn’t had a defined role the past couple of years other than being the go-to guy when a strikeout is needed (for his career he’s struck out more than one-third of the hitters he’s faced). He could be an interesting closer option should Rondon flame out.
If you asked me who the best relievers on the team were right now, I’d say (1) Benoit, then (2) Alburquerque.
Middle Relief — Long Man — Second LOOGY
We’ve already named five of the seven bullpen guys; five guys that are capable of the handling the late innings. Brayan Villarreal is a guy that could handle the seventh or even eighth inning, but he’ll likely be tabbed for sixth inning duty this season. If he’s healthy, that is. Villarreal was playing winter ball in Venezuela when he suffered elbow inflammation. The Tigers say there’s no structural damage, but they’re not having him pitch until Spring Training to let the arm rest and heal a bit. It all sounds very precautionary, but elbow troubles for pitchers — especially fastball-slider pitchers — is always more than a little bit troubling.
If Villarreal is forced to miss a chunk of time, Luis Marte would be a likely candidate to take his bullpen spot. Marte wouldn’t be as much of a “sixth inning guy” as Villarreal — he’s not as reliable — but would handle some fifth and sixth innings, some mop up duty, and make some multi-inning appearances.
The final bullpen spot — assuming Villarreal is healthy and that Marte isn’t the “final” guy — will be a second lefty to Coke, a guy capable of going three or four innings, or both.
Until such a time as Porcello is traded from the team, Drew Smyly remains an option here. He’s obviously capable of pitching multiple innings at a time, he’s good enough that he could be even a semi-high leverage lefty specialist, but he wouldn’t get regular work in this role. He’s probably better served to stay in the minor leagues to get used to the workload of a professional starting pitcher while staying ready in case he’s needed to start in Detroit.
Duane Below is another decent option here. He served in basically this exact role for half the season last year and posted a sub-four ERA. He could very well do that again, but the organization may need him to start the year in AAA and serve as starting pitching depth. This would be especially true if Porcello gets dealt and Smyly moves into the rotation. With Adam Wilk headed to Korea to pitch, the Tigers’ starting pitching depth would be otherwise down to Casey Crosby and minor league free agent Shawn Hill.
Darin Downs was the second LOOGY down the stretch last year and served admirably in that fashion. He had massive platooon splits (.408 OPS versus lefties and .859 OPS versus righties), so he’d be excellent to get out a lefty or two, but he likely wouldn’t be particularly effective if he had to go more than that. He’s really not a guy that could be trusted to get out right-handed hitters. He’s certainly not a long man, unless you’re down by a ton and just trying to get out of the game.
A fourth option is Rule 5 draftee Kyle Lobstein. Lobstein, 23, has been a starter in the minor leagues, but will serve in the bullpen all year if they’re intent on keeping him. He’s shown decent platoon splits in the minor leagues — so he could perhaps be trusted to get Major League lefties out — and certainly has the ability to pitch three or more innings at a time. The Tigers wouldn’t have acquired him if they weren’t willing to give him a shot. He’d be better in the long-relief role than Downs, but probably not as effective there as Below.
I’m never terribly concerned with the long-relief position — I feel it’s typically a spot that gets wasted. More often than not you can piece your way through a game without any pitcher throwing more than two innings (and they should all be able to do that on occasion), but it is nice to have the security there for emergencies. I think the two best options for the final spot are Downs and Lobstein, but, with the Tigers committing resources to Lobstein, Downs will have to dominate in the spring (and have Lobstein struggle quite a bit) for him to make the squad.