Last year the bullpen in Detroit was extremely ‘top-heavy’. The ERA for the unit as a whole looked bad, but because Jose Valverde & Joaquin Benoit (and to a lesser extent Al Alburquerque) pitched so well in the highest-leverage situations ‘the bullpen’ wound up being on of the most productive in baseball as measured in Win Probability Added. We can’t expect that kind of a performance this year from Valverde – he is going to blow a few saves – but the hope is and has been that the rest of the unit will pick up the slack. We won’t be using Phil Coke as a starter, and the signing of top-tier ROOGY Octavio Dotel makes a difference. Collin Balester should be better in long relief than Ryan Perry ever could have been. Unfortunately, that bullpen still has an Al-Al-sized hole since due to offseason surgery he won’t be available until July at the least.
In the past week or so, a number of low-cost options that I would have loved to see the Tigers pounce on have left the free-agent market. Just yesterday, the Dodgers agreed to a deal with Todd Coffey for a mere $1 million. The Indians signed Dan Wheeler and the Orioles signed Pat Neshek to minor league deals.
I would have very much liked to see either of those two wearing a D this year, but there are and will be other options for filling the bullpen spot – particularly for a team that is willing to add salary. As an example, the Chicago White Sox would no doubt have liked to move Jesse Crain along with Jason Fraser, Carlos Quentin and Sergio Santos – not because he has been ineffective but because he is overpaid.
I have hopes that though we see no moves and no interest on this front at the moment, this is simply because Tigers management has more optimism regarding the internal candidates than I and would prefer to keep the job in-house unless each and every one falls on his face in March. It seems as though Leyland isn’t comfortable with more than two left-handers in the bullpen, though the Tigers did spend a substantial portion of 2011 in that situation, so I’ll mentally rule out guys like Below or Oliver from the bullpen vacancy (though each could conceivably wind up starting). On the left side, the upper levels of the Tigers organization have a lot of depth but this isn’t really true on the right side. The leading candidate would have to be Fister throw-in David Pauley with his career 4.52 ERA. Brayan Villarreal will likely be in the mix, but his career trajectory has taken an abrupt 180-degree turn since making the big-league club in 2011. Before that he had nothing but success, but he flopped in Detroit with two many walks, too many homers and a sky-high BABIP allowed. After his return to Toledo, things were little better and he didn’t exactly excel in Venezuela this winter. Two other prospects, Luis Marte and Jose Ortega, might also be in the mix despite Marte throwing only 3 1/3 in AAA last year (though he was very effective in his 3rd tour of duty in AA) and Ortega failing to find the strike zone in Toledo all season long. Marte, at least, was lights out for Tigres del Licey in Venezuela with a 1.35 ERA in 14 games with solid peripherals. Villarreal and Ortega both played winter ball as well, but the results weren’t pretty. Chance Ruffin and Lester Oliveros would both be favorites over those four, but Ruffin was dealt for Fister while Oliveros was dealt for Delmon Young.