Sizing Up the Tigers Bullpen


Let’s assume for a moment that all three potential starters are actually members of the 25-man roster come next Monday. Two of the three (Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson) will be in the rotation and the third would be slotted into a long-relief role in the bullpen.

Obviously, this, in itself, is a big assumption.

Talk of a trade involving Robertson has been raised this past week, and the prevailing thought coming into camp was that at least one of the three would be released prior to Opening Day. But for the sake of this discussion, we will assume that nothing happens with those three, because at this point, we don’t know that it will.

But if all three are there, how does the pitching staff shape up?

According to Dave Dombrowski last week, Bonderman is expected to be in the rotation. Willis has expressed a willingness to pitch in relief if needed, but would prefer to start. Judging from Robertson’s negative reaction to being demoted to the bullpen last season, we know how he feels about it. But personal preference shouldn’t play a role in determining the roles for each pitcher. What should matter is how the decisions will affect the team.

It’s true that Robertson has out-pitched his competitors this spring. He has struck out nearly a batter per inning and has worked deeper into games than either of the other two. His results have in fact made him the most tradable commodity, which is why the Tigers are shopping him, but they don’t necessarily mean he should be in the rotation.

Robertson worked out of the bullpen at the start of last season, he did so begrudgingly, and ineffectively. But after a mid-season surgery to clean out masses in his elbow, Robertson returned to pitch fairly well, albeit as a starter. Nevertheless, Robertson does have the most, and most recent, experience working in relief, a role Willis hasn’t filled significantly since his rookie season in 2003.

Further complicating matters for Robertson is Willis’ unpredictability. There is a school of thought that would say that Robertson, being the more reliable of the two, should therefore be the starter. After all, you don’t want to run the risk of burying your team early in a game. I’ll agree that Willis should be placed on a short leash early in the year, but his experience as a starter should give him the opportunity to work in that role early on. If he can’t hold on to the job, then make the switch to Robertson and release Willis.

The upside that Willis has is that if he’s right, he is the more talented pitcher, with better stuff, than Robertson. If the plan is to keep both of them, Willis should start. Robertson will be there to pick up the pieces should he fail, and if not, Nate makes a better reliever anyway, as you don’t want guys coming into a close game to start by putting men on base. Starters will have a chance to work through early troubles, a luxury not afforded to relievers.

So in my hypothetical world, Robertson takes one of the seven bullpen spots. We know already that most of the others are filled as well. Jose Valverde, Ryan Perry, and Joel Zumaya are in, as is LH Phil Coke. That leaves just two openings, one for another LOOGy, and one for a right handed middle reliever.

The remaining candidates essentially boil down to Eddie Bonine and Robbie Weinhardt  as right handers with Brad Thomas and Fu-Te Ni as lefties. Weinhardt is a long-shot to make the club and Bonine has pitched well enough to earn the job. Bonine would come with the added benefit of being able to work in long relief as well, further providing insurance should a couple of short starts occur in a row.

The two southpaws are a much tighter race. Thomas is on a major league deal, and has no options left. Ni pitched very well last season for Detroit and is deadly versus left handed batters. But Ni has had a more inconsistent camp than Thomas, who has pitched quite well. Ideally, the Tigers would like to send Thomas down and keep Ni, I think, but the risk of losing Thomas is great should he be placed on waivers, a necessary step to demote him. I’m betting the Tigers were willing to take that risk two weeks ago, but the news about Bobby Seay’s injury may have changed their mind.

If Seay can’t be counted on this season, and he won’t be available for at least a couple of months, The Tigers suddenly find themselves short on LH relief depth. Daniel Schlereth is working in Toledo, but without also having Thomas, the Tigers would be short if another injury were to happen. Suddenly the glut of southpaws the Tigers had just a month ago is no more.

Keeping Thomas with the big club allows them to store Ni in Toledo, with provides the depth the organization needs. It’s the move that makes the most sense at this point.

Of course, all of this changes with the departure of Robertson or of Willis, but until that time, expect to see the rotation filled out with Bonderman and Willis, and to see a bullpen comprised of Robertson, Bonine, Perry, B. Thomas, Zumaya, Coke, and Valverde.