Dissecting the Glut of Lefty Relievers


The weekend passed and nothing but silence on the Johnny Damon front. I have grown awfully tired of speculating about whether or not he will sign with Detroit. I still think it will happen, but I’m not planning on writing about it anymore until a decision is made.

And speaking of decisions, one area that decisions will have to be made is in the bullpen, where the Tigers are headed to camp with no fewer than five left handed relief pitchers.

Both of last year’s incumbents are back in Bobby Seay and Fu-Te Ni. In addition, Dave Dombrowski signed free agent Brad Thomas to a major league contract, then traded for Daniel Schlereth and Phil Coke, both of whom logged big league innings last season.

If that’s not enough, starters Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis are both left handed, and it’s likely that neither of them earn a rotation spot, so the potential exists of seven LH relievers on the 40-man roster.

Let’s begin with the starters, as this is the easiest to sort out. The first four spots in the rotation appear set with Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, and Jeremy Bonderman. This leaves one opening for Armando Galarraga, Robertson, and Willis to compete for. If I had to handicap this race, I’d make Galarraga the front-runner with Robertson and Willis being left out.

If that proves to be the case, you have two starters making upwards of $23MM this season and neither of them would have a job. In my estimation, the only way Willis stays on the team is if he winds up back on the disabled list. His anxiety disorder is difficult to understand, even for Willis, but the guess is that insurance is picking up much of the cost of his contract, something that doesn’t happen if he’s released.

Robertson, on the other hand, would likely be cut if he doesn’t make the rotation, and the Tigers would eat the final year of his deal. Now, it’s also entirely possible that one or the other would be forced into the rotation and Galarraga could begin the year in AAA as he does have an option remaining. However it works out, don’t look for Willis or Robertson to impact the bullpen in any way.

Of the five relievers, Schelreth is the easiest to dismiss. The 2008 first round pick of Arizona logged just 18 big league innings last season, and his command issues make him a candidate for additional minor league seasoning. Expect to see him open the season in AA.

If you assume that Jim Leyland would like two lefties in his ‘pen, that means two more won’t make the club out of camp. Ni is another pitcher with minor league options remaining, so he may start the year in Toledo. That said, his performance last season certainly turned heads. LH batters hit just .113 against Ni in 72 plate appearances last season. If this contest goes by merit, Ni should start the year with the Tigers.

Coke is another guy that based solely on merit should be in the Tigers’ ‘pen come April. Over his 84 career big league games, he has held LH batters to a .197 average and just a .570 OPS. Unless he’s hurt, he will be in Detroit’s bullpen.

A lot of folks were scratching their heads about the October signing of Thomas. The Aussie has spent the past two seasons pitching in Korea after a few unsuccessful stints with the Twins in the early 2000’s. Dombrowski said at the time of the signing, that he expects Thomas will be a part of the big club, and the $1 MM contact he was given showed that confidence. He features a low-90s fastball and pitched well in Korea, but the level of competition over there certainly isn’t the same as facing Mauer and Morneau. Given the depth of the position, I’d consider him a long shot to make the club.

That leaves just Bobby Seay, who spent the past four years in the Tigers’ bullpen and has done a great job out there. When Thomas was signed, I had assumed Seay would be non-tendered. His escalating salary combined with the presence of Ni and Thomas, I thought, made that an easy call. But Dombrowski did extend a contract to Seay, and then compounded the problem by signing him to a contract ahead of the arbitration hearing, which guaranteed the deal.

Seay actually had slightly better splits versus right handed batters last season, though still fared well against lefties. His salary puts him on this team ahead of Ni, but if a trade is made during camp, expect Seay’s name to be included.

If no trades are made between now and the opening of the season, the Tigers may break camp with three LH relievers. More likely, Seay and Coke will be the only two headed north. If they can trade Seay, Coke will be joined by Ni in the bullpen. Apart from the development of Austin Jackson, this will be the most watched area of the Tigers’ spring.