Detroit Tiger Off-season–It’s The Bullpen, Stupid!

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Aug 9, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher J Soria (38) walks off the field during the tenth inning in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. The Toronto Blue Jays won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Question: If Detroit Tiger closer Joe Nathan was an American League team in 2014, where would he have ranked in save percentage?

Answer: First.

At 83.3%.

Ahead of Seattle (82.3%), Kansas City (81.5%), and the 13 other American League teams. The Tigers, dragged down by a 6-of-15 effort from the non-Nathans, still finished in fifth place at 71.9%.

These numbers, surprising as they are, do not change the fact that the Tigers were one of the worst teams in the American League in pitching effectiveness in the seventh inning or later–the point of the game at which the starting pitchers have generally given way to the relief corps.

To illustrate the problems they encountered in this vein, here’s the Tiger staff ERA and rank among all 15 AL teams in late game situations:

7th inning: 4.72 (14th)

8th inning: 3.17 (8th)

9th inning: 5.28 (14th)

7th inning or later: 4.26 (13th)

These numbers are even more damning considering the Tigers played half their games in spacious Comerica Park, regarded as a pitcher-friendly venue.

Clearly there is work to be done in the off-season (here we go again!) to address this recurrent deficiency which haunts the franchise.

With that in mind, let’s take a look ahead to next year and consider late-inning relievers most likely to be on-the-job in the final third of the game.

Joe Nathan

Though Nathan did not have a vintage year by any measure (his career save percentage coming into the year was a heady 90%), he mostly got the job done by earning 35 saves in 42 opportunities.

The problem, of course, was the gnawing anxiety induced by the endless stream of base runners he allowed.

Nathan is back in 2015 (the second and last year of his contract) and will be the closer coming into spring training, unless the Tigers make an unexpected move.

Who knows what the forty year-old will have left next year? The drop off in his performance this season was palpable, as he labored mightily nearly every time he got the ball.

Optimists will be buoyed by Nathan’s seemingly strong second half, when he saved 16 games in 18 opportunities.

Pessimists will point to his unconvincing peripherals-notably his 1.56 WHIP-during the same period.

Whatever the case, the right hander will be watched closely at the outset next year and is guaranteed nothing beyond a fair shot at continuing in the capacity for which he was brought to the club.

Joakim Soria

If the Tigers’ 2014 season can be viewed as a lengthy suspense novel with a tragic ending, Joakim Soria is the mystery man who materializes in a late chapter and is not who he appears to be.

The 30 year-old right-handed reliever arrived in town in late July from Texas with a glossy resume, but pitched poorly in his first few outings. He spent a month on the disabled list before re-surfacing in September, when he pitched far more effectively.

Unfortunately, Soria’s two playoff appearances were as abysmal as they were well- documented.

So where from here?

Though the Tigers saw only snippets of it during his limited appearances, Soria has a well-established record of success. That he’s in his prime and cost Detroit two high-end pitching prospects also argue for his retention.

The Tigers can choose to pay Soria $7 million for his services next year or buy out his contract for $500,000. Considering the parlous state of their bullpen and the prospective cost of relief help on the free agent market, it’s likely the Tigers will pay up and hope they get the guy they traded for last July –and not an imposter.

Bruce Rondon

By far the best news for the 2015 bullpen would be the healthy return of the Human Blowtorch himself, Bruce Rondon. Routinely unsheathing 100 mph fastballs, he’s the type of power pitcher who can completely shut down an opponent.

The 22 year-old Rondon was prematurely declared the Tiger closer in spring training in 2013, but couldn’t quite harness his electric repertoire. After a stint at AAA Toledo, Rondon spent most of the summer with the Tigers.

Though his performance in June and July was nondescript, by late-season 2013 he was throwing superbly. His combined stats for August and September:

Games: 15
IP: 14.2
ERA: 1.23
Hits: 11
BB’s: 6
SO’s: 18
WHIP: 1.23

Unfortunately Rondon suffered a flexor strain in September and was unavailable for the postseason run, which may have cost the team the World Series crown.

Even worse news arrived this March when Rondon underwent Tommy John surgery, forcing him to lose the entire season.

Once again, Tiger fans were left to contemplate what might have been with Rondon as a late-inning option for manager Brad Ausmus.

Looking forward, if Rondon remains healthy and regains the former velocity and command on display in late 2013, the Tiger bullpen alignment suddenly becomes more fearsome.

Other In-House Options

Though this article is not designed to be an exhaustive survey of 2015 bullpen candidates, two in-house options should not be overlooked for late-inning employment–Al Al and the Forgotten Finn.

Of course I speak of Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen.

For his part, Alburquerque quietly had a fine season with a 2.51 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. In fact it was so quiet, many observers felt Ausmus completely forgot about him in the team’s hour of need.

Putkonen , on the other hand, was beset with elbow problems for virtually the entire year after crafting a tidy ERA of 3.03 out of the Tiger pen in 2013.

Either or both of these pitchers could assume a significantly higher profile in relief in 2015.

Free Agents

Once the World Series ends, of course, there’ll be the usual buffet of free agents, some delectable and some not.

Among relievers likely to be deemed appetizing are righties Luke Gregerson (San Diego)and Pat Neshek (St. Louis), and left-hander Andrew Miller. Miller, who just finished a pristine year with the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles (2.02 ERA, 0.80 WHIP), was even more dominant in two postseason series (7.1 IP, 0 ER’s, 1 hit, 1 walk, 8 strikeouts).

He’ll be one of the crown jewels available in the off-season, with a price tag to match.

Nonetheless, his repatriation to Detroit would be roundly cheered by a Tiger Nation desperate to apply a tourniquet to the back-end of a bullpen that hemorrhaged on far too many occasions in 2014.

The Bottom Line

Once again the postseason Detroit Tiger flagship stands wrecked upon the shores of a rocky bullpen.

Tiger loyalists who refused to abandon ship have since wiped the splash from their eyes only to see what is patently obvious to all.

Strong late-inning relievers are synonymous with playoff success.

It would behoove this baseball club, robust in so many other ways, to set sail for 2015 with that thought firmly in mind.

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