As Chris wrote just the other day, the Detroit Tigers appear to be answering their bullpen questions so that really only one question remains. Bruce Rondon hasn’t been completely dominant this spring, but it does appear that he’s shown enough of his upside that he’ll make the team and remain in the closer mix (and probably get the first crack at save opportunities). If Rondon truly is in the fold then only one final bullpen spot remains (counting Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Al Alberquerque, and Brayan Villarreal as locks).
The Tigers want a second lefty and they want a long reliever, but they only have room to take one player. A possible solution would be to carry Drew Smyly in the bullpen – he could handle both roles as well as anyone – but it makes much more sense for his development and future with the organization if he remains a starter in AAA.
After Smyly, though, the team is left with options that are less than ideal. Four other options remain on the active roster – Luke Putkonen, Luis Marte, Darin Downs, and Kyle Lobstein – but, with any of these, the club would be compromising either the long-relief or the LOOGY aspect of the role. (Putkonen and Marte, as right-handers, appear to be further out of the mix.)
But a question that probably needs answering is: just how important is the last man in the bullpen? Downs spent the second half of last season in sort of the 13th man/second LOOGY role. Here’s a graph of the game’s leverage index for each of the 18 times he was brought in from the bullpen:
That’s 13 low-leverage opportunities (anything below 0.80), two medium-leverage opportunities (0.80-1.49), and three high-leverage opportunities (1.50 and above). In the second half of the season – three months of baseball (while making a playoff push) – the Tigers only needed a competent (or semi-competent) second lefty five times. The other 13 times that Down was called into the game, the leverage index was below 0.75. It’s not really important who is coming into the game in those situations.
And it was a similar trend for Duane Below, who served as a long reliever/second lefty earlier in the year.
If we combine the appearances by Below and Downs, we find that 33 of their 44 outings began when the leverage index was below 1.00.
Since such a large portion of the 13th pitcher’s job is simply to be there, it might not make a whole lot of difference whether that guy is Kyle Lobstein (a 23 year-old Rule 5 pick who’s struggled in the spring) or Darin Downs (probably the guy that “deserves” it the most).
If that’s the case, the decision may simply come down to how much the Tigers like Lobstein for the future. If they think he could develop into a nice rotation piece, they could keep him on the 25-man roster all season and allow him to make probably 30 to 40 low-leverage appearances without really hurting the team.
If they think Lobstein ultimately isn’t much more than a long reliever, then they’re probably more likely to keep Downs on the big club and send Lobstein back to the Tampa Bay Rays. A third option is to explore a trade with the Rays which would allow them to keep Lobstein in the organization and send him down to the minor leagues.