Detroit Tigers: Predicting the 2016 Opening Day Bullpen


The Detroit Tigers have made a number of changes as of late. Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey were added to beef up a generally youthful and inexperienced rotation while the team acquired Cameron Maybin and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to add respective depth in the outfield and behind the plate.

However, no area has experienced as much change as the bullpen. New closer Francisco Rodriguez was added in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers to solidify the ninth inning while ace set up man Justin Wilson arrived via trade from the New York Yankees. Another significant bullpen addition, Mark Lowe, was added during the early stages of free agency.

While the Tigers will undoubtedly continue to make the club better before spring training rolls around, the team likely has most of next year’s bullpen in place. Here’s a look at Detroit’s options.

The Locks: Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson, Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy 

Considering how bad the team’s bullpen was last season, the fact that K-Rod, Lowe, Hardy and the two Wilsons locked in is extremely reassuring. It probably goes without saying, but there’s no way the new additions don’t make the team. The same goes for Alex Wilson and Hardy, two of the only bright spots from a horrendous 2015 season pitching wise.

Just to illustrate how much better the Tigers bullpen will be next season, consider that Alex Wilson was the team’s go-to pitcher out of the ‘pen in close games. Next season, should the Tigers find themselves in a close game where the bullpen is forced to throw four innings, Wilson may not even pitch.

Close, but no Cigar … Yet: Drew VerHagen, Bruce Rondon, Matt Boyd and Angel Nesbitt

For all the struggles Detroit has encountered in calling up young pitchers, the team may have quietly found a good one in Drew VerHagen. It’s early and the pitcher has an extremely small sample size (26.1 innings pitched), but the pitcher looks like a keeper.

VerHagen held left-handed batters to a .186 batting average and a paltry .486 OPS. Right-handed hitters didn’t accomplish much more as they only managed a .226 batting average and a .691 OPS. Overall, the reliever’s ERA was 2.05. That number would have been even lower had he not pitched in two blowouts to start his season. Not counting those contests, in which the Tigers allowed a combined 25 runs, VerHagen’s ERA was a pristine 1.11.

While VerHagen is close to a lock based on results, Bruce Rondon is in the same boat because of pure stuff. The flame-throwing right hander is extremely talented, but has yet to put it all together. Rondon pitched to a 5.81 ERA (4.10 FIP) during the 2015 season and was sent home early due to “effort level.”

If he can make it work, he’ll have a long career ahead of him.

Nesbitt may seem like a surprising name considering he wasn’t even called up when rosters expanded late in the season. That and a 5.40 ERA in 21.2 Triple-A innings may seem troubling, but like Rondon, Nesbitt is a legitimate flamethrower. A blazing fastball will always have a place on a major-league roster. Plus, Nesbitt would be competing for a role that wouldn’t see him throw in many high-pressure situations given the depth Al Avila has accumulated. In other words, the team can bring him along slowly.

Sep 18, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Drew VerHagen (54) pitches 12th inning against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Another name that deserves a look is Matt Boyd. One of the pitchers acquired in the David Price-trade, Boyd showed promise, but struggled statistically. His ERA was an unsightly 6.57 in 50.2 innings. Boyd’s 5.98 FIP wasn’t a whole lot better. However, the pitcher flashed potential in his first start with the Tigers. The 24-year-old limited the Kansas City Royals to seven hits and one earned run in seven innings of a 2-1 win for the Tigers. Boyd struck out two that day.

He may have struggled at first in the majors, but the former-Toronto farmhand clearly knows how to pitch as evidenced by a 2.48 ERA in 272 minor-league innings. He may just benefit from a season in the bullpen the same way Drew Smyly did.

In The Mix: Kyle Ryan, Jeff Ferrell, Jose Valdez and Kyle Lobstein 

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Ryan, Ferrell, Valdez and Lobstein are some of the few remaining incumbents from last season in terms of pitchers who struggled in 2015. Of the quartet, Ryan was the best and his ERA was 4.47 (with a 5.26 FIP).

Still, each could be useful to the Tigers in 2016.

Both Ryan and Lobstein seem to hold the most appeal given their ability to eat multiple innings. Additionally, either of the two can be counted on to make a spot start. The 24-year-old Ryan does has a 3.90 career ERA as a reliever.

The Tigers clearly see something in Ferrell as they’ve decided to keep him over the likes of Al Alburquerque, Guido Knudson and Ian Krol. Ferrell’s ERA in his first nine appearances with the Tigers in 2015 was 6.35. His earned run average in his first taste of Triple-A (which also happened to be this season) was 4.76.

Valdez has the potential to be a closer one day thanks to excellent velocity on his fastball and a slider that calls “an out pitch.” That potential could help him earn a spot in the Tigers bullpen.

An Intriguing Possibility: Michael Fulmer

Simply put, Fulmer in the bullpen is intriguing, at least for 2016. His filthy stuff and heater would play well out of the bullpen. The opportunity would also help the team’s top prospect acclimate to major-league hitters.

Other Options: Buck Farmer, Shane Greene, Montreal Robertson, Preston Guilmet, Lendy Castillo, Rafael Dolis, Drake Britton

Aug 24, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Buck Farmer throws against the Cincinnati Reds in the second inning at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Farmer (ERA) and Greene (ERA) both struggled mightily last season. A move to the bullpen might suite either, especially Farmer. Like Fulmer, his stuff would player better in shorter outings.

Robertson was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, so clearly the team’s brass thinks highly of him. Guilmet, Castillo, Dolis and Britton were all recently signed to minor-league contracts. All four will be in spring training with the rest of the big-league roster.

The 28-year-old Guilmet has some major-league experience, but owns an ugly 8.22 ERA in 23 innings for four different teams in the last two seasons. Despite that, he was excellent at the Triple-A level in 2015, posting a 2.15 ERA in 50.1 innings.

Britton has been much more effective in the bigs and may be the most intriguing player of the bunch. The 26-year-old pitched to a 2.93 ERA in 27.2 innings of work for the Boston Red Sox from 2013 to 2014.

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In Conclusion: Regardless of which players fill out the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen, the unit will be much improved in 2016. General manager Al Avila has already ensured that thanks to a number of shrewd moves. The team now has some decisions to make before the regular season begins.

Predicted Relievers: Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson, Blaine Hardy, Alex Wilson and Drew VerHagen.

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