One of the big reasons for the Tigers ineffective bullpen this season (which hasn’t really been a “closer problem”) was the collapse of Brayan Villarreal, who was shipped down to Toledo quickly where some mechanical inconsistency (be it the result of something physical or something mental) has kept him walking as many batters as Al Alburquerque.
It’s sort of easy to forget how important Villarreal was to the Tigers 2012 ‘pen – where he made 50 appearances with a 2.63 ERA. If the Tigers had 2012 Villarreal in the ‘pen right now, we wouldn’t really be talking about deals for relievers or worrying about the quality of the bullpen, just debating who was right for which role. Prior to the All-Star break there were some signals for tentative hope Villarreal might have turned the corner – in his previous 8 appearances Villarreal had walked only 4 in 9 innings. Contrast that with 22 walks in 25 and a third before that, and it looks significant (albeit in a very small sample). The Tigers have and had plenty of relievers bouncing between Toledo and Detroit with very good numbers in AAA, but Villarreal alone had really shown that his stuff was just as effective against good hitters when he could command it.
So… as of a week or two ago you might have started watching each Villarreal appearance with anticipation, figuring he might strike out the side and get a call up to Detroit the next day (where he would continue blowing guys away and eliminate the need for an expensive acquisition like Luke Gregerson). Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be. Because nothing can really go right for Villarreal this year, according to the Toledo Blade he slipped in the shower and as a result has been put on the disabled list with what is apparently a rather severe thumb sprain. A normal thumb sprain could keep him out for a month, this might keep him out for longer. Once he’s healthy enough to pitch, which may or may not be before roster expansion in September, we’ll wait to see whether or not he comes back throwing strikes.
So… with the prices for relievers looking very high on the trade market, I’d say our chief hopes for bullpen improvement are as follows:
Phil Coke The Tigers bullpen isn’t actually that bad after all
2. Jeremy Bonderman and Jose Valverde might actually turn out to be good 7th inning righties
If that last one seems ridiculous, you probably would have felt the same way about Kevin Gregg in April.