Sep 16, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joe Nathan (36) delivers a pitch in the ninth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. The Twins won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
In 2014, the Detroit Tigers had the 27th ranked bullpen in all of baseball with a 4.29 ERA with only the Chicago White Sox, Colorado Rockies, and Houston Astros behind them. There were many times where the bullpen was a monstrous train wreck, but times when they quietly posted nice stretches. The Tigers have not made many drastic changes to the bullpen so far this offseason, but if used correctly, the Tigers have the makings of a better bullpen than the ones of the last few years. Just a heads up, this is a very optimistic article.
First, the bullpen management by Brad Ausmus SHOULD be better this year. Hopefully he realizes some of the mistakes and rigidness of his rookie campaign and manages the bullpen better this year. This could include not religiously sticking to bullpen roles when they are not working, changing a closer when he isn’t working, using the best pitcher in the situation. Ausmus’s bullpen management should improve over time.
The two biggest overall disasters in Detroit’s bullpen in 2014 were Joe Nathan and Ian Krol. Nathan ended the season with a 4.81 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP and managed to hold onto the closer’s role. Nathan has only had one other year like 2014 and that was 2011 in Minnesota when he was coming off of Tommy John surgery. Nathan came back the next two years in Texas and posted ERA’s of 2.80 and 1.39. Nathan has lost velocity over time, but it has been a steady decline, not a sharp change like his other numbers. Nathan could be the next Jim Johnson and time may have caught up with him, or he could have a much needed bounce back season. For Detroit’s other major bullpen catastrophe, they seem to have given up on Krol.
The rest of the bullpen could put itself together to be better, not one of the top in baseball, but better. Al Alburquerque had an ERA of 2.51 and a WHIP of 1.17 last season which was the best in the bullpen. Just behind him was Blaine Hardy with a 2.54 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP (which is higher than you would like to see).
Hardy was just one of the young pitchers the Tigers added to their bullpen last year and they could all take steps forward. Pat McCoy had a brutal WHIP of 2.43, but his ERA was only 3.86 in his 14 appearances. He kept the ball in the ballpark, but walked 13 batters in 14 innings. If he could cut his walk rate and was used correctly as a LOOGY, McCoy could be effective as lefties only hit .208 against him in 2014. Cases could also be made for Kyle Ryan and Buck Farmer to join the Tigers bullpen in 2015 either as long men or for a late inning lefty. I’m not ready to give up on these two as starters, but they could help the Tigers most in 2015 as effective relievers.
The Tigers exercised Joakim Soria’s option so he will be back with the team in 2015. He probably had the best stuff in the Tigers’ bullpen, but struggled to find any kind of consistent role with the team. He was put in situations where he was not comfortable (entering an inning in the middle of the inning with runners on base, see the postseason) and struggled in those situations. He also lost some velocity on his pitches which is worrisome, but when used in the right spots, Soria was and still can be effective.
Finally there are the category of the unknowns. Bruce Rondon will be coming back from Tommy John Surgery in 2015. Some pitchers take a year to re-find their stuff, some pitchers never find their old stuff, and some pitchers come back stronger than ever. The Tigers resigned Joel Hanrahan to a minor league deal after an injury-plagued couple of seasons. He could come back and be a serviceable arm in the Tigers bullpen. The Tigers also acquired Josh Zeid from the Houston Astros who had a 2.41 ERA in AAA, but has yet to find success at the Major League level.
The Tigers could still make moves in the free agent and trade markets to bolster their bullpen for 2015 and I am a big supporter in stockpiling arms, especially in the bullpen. The Tigers bullpen has been brutal ranking last in ERA since 2007, but there are some glimmers of hope for improvement entering 2015. If the young pitchers can take a step forward, the veterans work with their new velocities, and the bullpen is managed better (and those are all big ifs), the Tigers’ bullpen could at least take a step forward in 2015. They won’t be elite with the group they currently have, but they could at least be better.