Detroit Tigers’ Bullpen Not Yet Battle-Tested


Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

For the record, I’m fully aware the Detroit Tigers are off to a great start.

Further, for those curious about such things, I do not have a tattoo on my right bicep that says “Born to Fret”.

In fact I have no body art at all, which in itself probably disqualifies me from writing anything remotely related to the modern athlete.

But I’ll press on regardless, and promise to do my tattoo-less best to address contemporary issues surrounding the Detroit Tigers.

Thanks to a potent offense, stifling defense, and surprisingly adept starting pitching, the Motor City Bengals have been rolling out victories in assembly-line fashion.

Despite the loss of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, they’ve served notice they will not easily be dismissed from the American League Central division race, as some pundits looking for fresh story lines have predicted.

So should Tiger fans start squirreling away money for World Series tickets?

Could this be, perish the thought, that elusive dream season?

Well, maybe.

And then again, maybe not.

At least not with their bullpen as currently constructed.

Let’s take a peek down there and see what’s been going on at this early stage of the season.


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To put it briskly, the quick launch of the Tigers’ offense and front-line pitching this month has masked the mediocrity of their bullpen.

A team can get by in spurts without consistent contributions from its relief corps, and to date that’s been the case with the Tigers. With April’s light schedule and strong starting pitching limiting the bullpen’s exposure, it’s been “so far, so good”.

But that could change at any time.

So as the air warms and the pace of the schedule accelerates, expect to become much better acquainted with the Tiger bullpen’s state of readiness.

Let’s break it down into digestible parts.

The Ninth Inning

Joakim Soria (4 and 2/3 innings; 1.93 ERA; 0.43 WHIP; 4-4 save opportunities) has expertly assumed the closer role with Joe Nathan on the disabled list.

The question looming for manager Brad Ausmus is what happens when Nathan returns to action.

Soria has 182 career saves, pitched extremely well in spring training, and with a defined role this year seems far more comfortable on the mound.

Nathan had a spotty spring after a disappointing 2014, and is 40 years-old.

Though Tiger fans naturally hope Nathan can return to his 2013 form while with Texas (1.39 ERA; 0.90 WHIP; 43-46 save opportunities), the chances of that happening are increasingly remote.

Probably the best scenario is that upon his return Nathan be assigned situational set-up work, primarily in the eighth inning. In that capacity he could also serve as a back-up closer when Soria is unavailable.

Whether that role change coincides with Nathan’s return to the active roster is an open question–but even if he retains his job as closer when he returns, there’s a strong likelihood Soria will inherit that role in the not too distant future.

The Eighth Inning

If not closing, Nathan or Soria will be used in a set-up role.

Again, if Nathan is not pitching well enough to close, it’s not likely he would last long as an eighth inning guy, either.

If that turns out to be the case, it’ll be interesting to see how the Tigers deal with him–will they simply eat the remainder of his contract and release him, or limit him to low-leverage situations in the hope he can rediscover a semblance of his former self?

The Seventh Inning

Al Alburquerque remains the number one right handed option in the seventh, and the Tigers will gladly accept something approximating his performance last year (2.51 ERA; 1.17 WHIP).

As a high strikeout pitcher Al Al could serve as the team’s eighth inning option if Nathan washes out, but he’ll have to become more consistent to secure that role.

The Other Guys

The remainder of the seven-man bullpen is a parade of question marks.

Joba Chamberlain is back in the fold after re-upping as a free agent in late February.

Unfortunately last year’s second half (4.97 ERA) and playoff implosion was damning, and this spring’s ERA (6.52) did nothing to cement his status as a reliable relief option.

With a minimal investment in Chamberlain ($1 million), one gets the impression the Tigers will not run very far with him if he doesn’t pull things together in short order.

The fourth right hander in the pen is rookie Angel Nesbitt, who made the team after a fine spring training.

He has a firm fastball and for a young pitcher (age 24) has demonstrated an advanced ability to command his repertoire.

But the overriding issue in Nesbitt’s case is his lack of experience.

Until last week he had never appeared above the Double A level, and will doubtless have to suffer the inevitable oscillations experienced by all major league rookies.

If it’s possible to catch lightning in a bottle this year in the Tiger pen, though, this is the guy.

But it might be asking just a little too much to expect the rookie to solidify a suspect bullpen.

Let’s turn to the portsiders.

The Tigers currently have three on their active roster, the most experienced of whom is 32-year-old Tom Gorzelanny.

Gorzelanny is a journeyman who has split his time in the majors as a starter and reliever. His numbers are better out of the bullpen, though, and in Gorzelanny the Tigers hope they’ve found a lefty who can pitch effectively in myriad situations.

Like Chamberlain, however, his bargain basement free agent contract of $1 million is sobering as it reflects the fact that the other 29 MLB clubs were not exactly beating down his door with offers in the off-season.

Ian Krol is the lone Tiger remnant from the Doug Fister trade.

He endured a Jekyll and Hyde first year in Detroit, when a promising first half started to unravel in June.

This year Krol has become more professional in his approach and is working diligently to expand his arsenal and command. As the only power left hander in the pen  (he throws in the low to mid-90’s), any progress toward that end would sit well with the Tiger hierarchy.

All this makes for a pitcher with tantalizing potential.

But one weighty caveat remains—to this point Krol hasn’t succeeded on a regular basis, and until he does he’ll remain a marginal contributor.

Blaine Hardy rounds out the bullpen.

A “touch and feel” lefty, he gave the Tigers some solid innings last year, but allows too many walks and has a low ceiling. The 28-year-old is serviceable in small doses but the fringy wrong-sider will tend to leak oil if overexposed to right handed hitters.

The Bottom Line

Like last year when they touched 27-12, the 8-1 Detroit Tigers are off to a rousing start.

Virtually every facet of the team has contributed, especially the offense, defense, and starting pitching. Even the closer’s role, a festering sore last year, has been deftly handled by Joakim Soria in the early going.

Their April blitzkrieg, though, has been executed with such sudden efficiency that a squadron of  combatants–namely the BBS (Bullpen Beyond Soria)–has seen only limited action.

Though they remain sheltered for the moment, eventually the Battle of the AL Central will be fought on all fronts.

Only then will Tiger fans learn if their bullpen is sufficiently armed.

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