Detroit Tigers’ Bullpen Issues are Complex

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The Tigers bullpen decision-making process seems to have been reduced in many people’s minds to whether or not to pick up Joakim Soria‘s option (given his poor second half) and whether or not to open up the checkbook to pay a top tier free agent like Andrew Miller (potentially instead of keeping Soria). I’m afraid it’s a little more complicated than that…

Oct 3, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joakim Soria (38) reacts after walking Baltimore Orioles shortstop

J.J. Hardy

(not pictured) during the eighth inning of game two of the 2014 ALDS playoff baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles won 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to the decision to be made on Soria, everyone expects the Tigers to let both Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke go. Few fans will really miss them, because of Chamberlain’s bad 2nd half and bad ALDS and because Coke has frustrated for so long. Nonetheless, you have to remember that on the whole both made solid contributions to the Tigers bullpen in 2014 and they were 2 of only 4 guys in that ‘pen to throw more than 50 innings (along with Joe Nathan and Al Alburquerque) and those contributions will need to be replaced.

A large part of the reason that the Tigers ‘pen – beneath inconsistent closer Nathan – performed so poorly was that the Tigers got very little from the 2nd tier of young guys (you know, below the 1st tier of “established veterans” in Alburquerque, Coke and Chamberlain) that we had good expectations for at the start of the last Spring Training. I’m referring to Bruce Rondon, Ian Krol, Luke Putkonen and Evan Reed. That meant that the Tigers needed to call heavily upon the 3rd tier of rookies and minor-league free agents to fill in.

Prior to the 2014 season, not only did we have pretty high hopes for tier 2 we had pretty high hopes for tier 3 as well. It was Coke and Chamberlain that we were really concerned about. Tier 3 contained some very hard throwers that had seen a little time in the bigs like Jose Ortega, Kevin Whelan and Justin Miller (that you’d figure had to have the “tools” to succeed as big league relievers) and also some of the Tigers top organizational prospects in guys like Melvin Mercedes, Robbie Ray and Corey Knebel.

Aside from Mercedes (who struggled in Toledo) these guys all got shots in Detroit at some point during the season and failed pretty spectacularly. In the end the Tigers wound up relying far too heavily on the bottom of the 3rd tier (a 4th tier, if you will)… minor league relievers that hadn’t really shown up on anyone’s prospect radar and would have been considered real long shots to make a contribution prior to the season. Guys like Blaine Hardy (who wound up 5th among relievers in IP), Pat McCoy and Chad Smith (and midseason additions that did not go well in Joakim Soria and Jim Johnson).

And now? The Tigers expect to have Al Aburquerque and Joe Nathan in the ‘pen – though Nathan wasn’t great even in the 2nd half when his ERA was acceptable and Albuquerque is always a high injury risk. Putkonen and Rondon might – or might not – be healthy enough to pitch effectively. Expecting anything from Evan Reed or Ian Krol would probably be inappropriate and the top end of last season’s 3rd tier is basically washed out (with Knebel already out of the organization).

If the Tigers DO decided to pick up Soria’s option, or if they chase free agents only if letting Soria go frees up cash, the Tigers are going to be looking at filling a full FOUR bullpen spots based on competition in spring training. Rondon might be healthy and look tremendous, or he might have a 2015 like Joel Hanrahan‘s 2014. Ian Krol might look sharp, but if he looks like 2014 Ian Krol (whose core fault seemed to be the long ball). Last year’s top of the 3rd tier is basically washed out (with Knebel out of the organization) and the only “top relief prospect” still in the upper minors might currently be Erie closer Jose Valdez (who – it should be noted – couldn’t muster an ERA under 4.00 in 2014, though he did have solid peripherals). All of the Tigers great hopes in terms of pitching prospects are either in West Michigan or starters in competition for that 5th starter spot.

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We might – assuming that the Tigers decision is either to keep Soria or allocate Soria’s salary to a replacement (like Luke Gregerson) – see a bullpen as of April 1 that looks like this:

Closer: Joe Nathan
Setup: Joakim Soria
Right-handers: Al Alburquerque, Jose Ortega, Chad Smith
Left-handers: Blaine Hardy, Pat McCoy

The hope that Bruce Rondon might make a return before the All-Star break, that Ian Krol could get things figured out in Toledo and that the Tigers did have one legitimate relief prospect in AAA in Valdez would not be much comfort. That would be a bullpen for which you should legitimately expect – not fear – an ERA over 4 and lots of blown saves.

I hear a lot that what a team really needs is just a good back end of the bullpen, guys to hand that one run lead to in the postseason. That’s not exactly it: what you need is three guys who are shutting opposing teams down at any given time. You cannot rely on any one of your “big 3” being that shutdown pitcher come season’s end – they might be injured or inexplicably ineffective. If you need to throw them out there anyway, like Soria and Chamberlain in the ALDS, or have to hand the ball to some dreg you pulled off the garbage heap instead then your club is basically doomed. If they Tigers go ahead with the ‘pen listed above… what do they do when Alburquerque blows out his elbow in spring training and Soria doesn’t look like he’s able to get outs? Use Chad Smith with one-run leads in the 8th? The Tigers are going to need depth and additional cogs, not just a better top end, because they don’t seem to have the plus organizational depth here that we thought that they had a year ago. My strong opinion is that the Tigers are unlikely to make the postseason with next year’s bullpen unless they do a lot to add more bullets to that gun. The best solution would be that the Tigers open the checkbook a bit to sign replacements for Coke and Chamberlain – that could easily run $4 million per pitcher per year. If the Tigers feel that they cannot afford this, we may be in serious trouble.

Jul 19, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher

Drew VerHagen

(54) pitches during the game against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The only potential solution beyond cash that comes to mind would be doing something that the Tiger have in the past been loth to do: experiment heavily with converting starters to relievers in an attempt to create their own Wade Davis. If that sounds “ridiculous” bear in mind that Al Alburquerque was originally a starter, so were Joe Nathan, Luke Putkonen, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke and plenty more. Guys who spend all or most of their minor league career as relievers and go on to successful careers in big league bullpens (like Joakim Soria) may not even be typical.

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