Is It Miller Time For The Detroit Tigers?

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When your roof has a hole in it but you also have a bedroom that could use re-painting, which job do you do first?

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Unless you’ve been watching too much HGTV, of course you fix the roof first.

That’s the position the Detroit Tigers are in as they enter the off season.

They have a gaping hole in their roof, also known as the bullpen, and it leaked profusely throughout 2014.

Of course, like all teams, they also have other problems which require attention– such as potential holes at DH, center field, and on the bench–not to mention the probable departure of staff ace, Max Scherzer.

But the 800 lb. gorilla in the room is the bullpen, as it was among the least effective pens in the American League in 2014.

The numbers are ugly. Of the 15 AL teams, the Tiger bullpen was 13th in ERA (4.29), 14th in WHIP (1.48), and 15th in batting average allowed (.270).

With those kind of numbers, it wouldn’t be surprising if the entire relief corps was cropped out of the official team picture.

So it was somewhat unsettling when general manager Dave Dombrowski said at a postseason news conference the team would be addressing its bullpen situation with “internal options”.

We can only hope he was bluffing.

Because it should be clear to even casual observers that first and foremost, a team with legitimate designs on a world championship simply cannot overcome a porous bullpen.

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  • For instance, this year’s World Series featured two teams, San Francisco and Kansas City, who were arguably weaker overall at positions 2-9 than the Tigers. The same could be said for their starting rotations.

    In each case, Detroit compared favorably to the teams that played for the sport’s ultimate prize.

    What won the day for each team, though, was its airtight bullpen (you’ll note the terms “airtight” and “bullpen” haven’t appeared together in the same sentence in these parts for quite some time).

    World Series runner-up Kansas City, for instance, with its trio of shutdown relievers, had the third lowest ERA in the American League from the seventh inning on (3.18).

    Likewise, the world champion San Francisco Giants’ bullpen was first in the National League in batting average against (.211), first in WHIP (1.01), and second in ERA (3.00).

    The numbers don’t lie.

    You can’t win a horse race without a stable of strong relievers who can cross the finish line in full gallop.

    Which brings us to the Tigers’ bullpen prospects as they currently stand for 2015.

    Forty year-old Joe Nathan is slated to return as closer, at least at the outset of the season. Maybe he’ll make a remarkable turn-around, but his numbers from last season (4.81 ERA, 1.53 WHIP) do not inspire confidence.

    I would expect eighth inning man Joba Chamberlain, with his swollen second half statistics (4.97 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), to be gone.

    One constructive move the Tigers made was to pick up Joakim Soria‘s $7 million option for 2015. Though he wobbled as a Tiger, it’s reasonable to expect the 30 year-old to return to form as he settles in with his new team and concentrates on his role as the new eighth inning specialist.

    A return to the general territory of Soria’s career numbers (2.58 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, .211 average against) would be warmly received in the Motor City.

    Promising fireballer Bruce Rondon may also re-enter the bullpen picture in 2015, but his return from Tommy John surgery suggests he should be treated cautiously. It’s also unclear if and when he’ll regain the elite velocity he possessed before the procedure.

    In any case, he can’t be counted upon as a sure thing for the foreseeable future.

    As always, there’s the usual gaggle of other internal candidates for late inning work, but none are the type you’d take wild-eyed to the betting window.

    Which brings us to Andrew Miller, the one-time Tiger, whose only redeemable contribution to the franchise to this point was his inclusion in the trade that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit from Florida in 2007.

    The 29 year-old left hander was converted from an unsuccessful starting pitcher to a reliever by the Boston Red Sox in 2012 and has been throwing darts ever since. He employs a mid-90’s four-seam fastball along with a devastating slider to dominate hitters, as evidenced by his stunning 103 strikeouts in 62 innings in 2014.

    In the 133 innings he’s thrown as a reliever since 2012, Miller has an ERA of 2.57, along with a WHIP of 1.05.

    During that period opposing batters have hit a mere .181 against his slants, which tells you he also retires righties with aplomb and thus is much more than a lefty specialist. An added benefit is his ability to pitch multiple innings in an outing if necessary.

    Of course importing a pitcher with his credentials into the Tiger bullpen would be a culture shock, and Miller might initially be regarded as somewhat of an alien. I’m confident, though, that his bullpen brethren would rapidly adjust to Miller’s excellence, as it would lighten their burden while delivering an enveloping sense of comfort to both the team and its fan base.

    The Bottom Line

    So what will the premier left handed reliever on the market cost?

    Well, let’s talk first about what he won’t cost.

    Since Miller was traded during the season, he won’t cost the Tigers their first round draft choice, or any draft choice for that matter.

    That is a major plus, considering the two high quality prospects the team traded to Texas for Joakim Soria last July that depleted their farm system.

    Of course the fact he won’t cost potential suitors a high draft choice will further escalate Miller’s value, and the bidding war will not be for the faint of heart. MLB Trade Rumors has estimated he’ll receive a four-year, $32 million contract, and that may be on the conservative side.

    That is a stiff sum for any reliever, not to mention someone without closer credentials such as Miller.

    But make no mistake, fortifying the bullpen should be this team’s highest priority, even more so than re-signing DH Victor Martinez.

    Bringing on a reliever of Miller’s caliber would at long last solidify a bullpen that has been perennially bereft of lockdown options.

    And it would go a long way toward plugging that annoying hole in the roof.

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