We start with Tigers pitching staff in the best, underrated, & misses free agent pitching signings of the decade.
With yesterday’s signings of C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop, the Tigers continued the process of putting a better squad on the field for 2020. Brian Johnston did a write up on the signings for us you can find here.
With those signings, it got me to thinking about the best and worst free agents the Tigers have signed in this decade. The 2010s saw arguably one of the best runs of Detroit Tigers baseball in history since the three-division alignment started in 1994 with 4 straight AL Central division titles, a trip to the World Series and two appearances in the ALCS.
The philosophies to sign free agents have changed drastically since the beginning of the decade with changes in management. I broke it down by best, worst and underrated with an emphasis on what their numbers were and how they helped the team. Best meaning they got what they paid for and did exactly was what expected, underrated meaning they took a flyer and got more than they bargained for and misses, just did not work out in Detroit at all. Let’s start with pitching and tomorrow, there will be one of the hitters the Tigers have signed. The goal is to present this without a perspective of Captain Hindsight type angle.
Best Free Agent Pitching Signings Of The Decade:
RP Joaquin Benoit (signed December 2010)
RP Jose Valverde (signed January 2010)
SP Mike Fiers (signed December 2017)
Underrated Free Agent Pitching Signings Of The Decade
RP Al Alburquerque (signed November 2010)
SP/RP Blaine Hardy (signed April 2013)
SP Brad Penny (signed January 2011)
Missed Free Agent Pitching Signings Of The Decade
SP Jordan Zimmermann (signed November 2015)
RP Joe Nathan (signed December 2013)
RP Joel Hanrahan (signed May 2014)
RP Jim Johnson (signed December 2014)
SP Mike Pelfrey (signed December 2015)
Let’s start with the best. Jose Valverde was signed to replace Fernando Rodney after Rodney left to sign with the Los Angeles Angels. Valverde led the NL in saves twice in 2007 with the Diamondbacks and in 2008 with the Astros. After making the All-Star team in 2010, he would become the first closer to hit 40 or more saves since Todd Jones in 2000 going a perfect 49 for 49 in 2011, leading the league in games pitched.
While saves are a category of much debate, Valverde was Jim Leyland’s go-to reliever and effective when he was on. However, his post-season numbers were not good, posting a 9.84 ERA in two ALDS appearances and a 14.40 ERA in 4 games in the ALCS including serving up the grand slam to Tigers killer Nelson Cruz in the 2011 ALCS.
He had 119 saves in his time here. I know Tigers fans cringe when they think of Papa Grande and the numerous times he would meltdown but for what he was signed for, he did the job well if only in the regular season.
Joaquin Benoit was signed to add depth to the Tigers pen in 2011 and for three seasons, did whatever was asked, including saving games in 2013. His numbers with the Tigers were great with a 2.89 ERA and a WHIP of 1.07. If you can forget he was the one responsible for giving up the David Ortiz grand slam that would tie the game in the 2013 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox, he had a great run here in Detroit.
Mike Fiers’s time in Detroit was short but highly effective. He went 7-6 with an ERA of 3.48 and provide stability in the Tigers rotation. He went 6 or more innings in 11 starts and was a good veteran presence in the clubhouse before he traded for minor league organization arms Nolan Blackwood and Logan Shore.
Underrated Free Agent Signings:
Al Alburquerque and his “tricky slider” as Tigers radio team of Dan Dickerson and Jim Price would be described, was signed after spending time in the Cubs system. After some eye-popping numbers in Toledo in early April 2011 pitching just 4.2 innings, striking out 10, he would get the call and was brilliant, throwing 43 innings pitched with 67 strikeouts, placing him with K per 9 of 13 on the season. While he did struggle with walks that season, he was an unexpected bullpen piece on a Tigers team that would the first of four straight division titles. When he was on with his slider, he was an extremely entertaining pitcher to watch.
Blaine Hardy is a fan favorite and it’s easy to see why. Whatever the Tigers asked him to do, he did it. Whether coming out of the pen or start, Hardy filled the role. After he was signed to a minor league deal and spending 2013 with Erie and Toledo, Hardy’s contract was purchased in June of 2014. Despite the injuries and the shuffling back and forth from Toledo, he provided a few memorable moments in 2018. He would pick up his first career save and on August 3rd, he almost threw a no-hitter against the Oakland A’s, allowing just one hit in 7 innings pitched. His career numbers of 3.83 ERA and WHIP of 1.32 are good and he threw in a team high70 games in 2015
Brad Penny only spent one season in Detroit and this is why I thought the signing was underrated. The Tigers were looking for starter depth and some of the names around this time were Twins starter Carl Pavano, who was a free agent again and Brandon Webb, who had not pitched since his shoulder surgery. Dave Dombrowski brought Penny to Florida via trade in 1999 from the Diamondbacks so he was familiar with Penny. While Penny’s numbers were on the decline, he did provide 181 innings. 2011 was the year Justin Verlander would take the Cy Young and MVP so it’s easy to forget Penny. To me at least, for a one-year $3 million dollar stop gag measure, you could do worse.
Burning Money and Disappearing Acts
Al Alvia’s attempts to fix the rotation have not worked well. Jordan Zimmermann’s contract has put a damper on the payroll. While there are so many ways to continue to beat this dead horse, keep this in mind. He was a bargain compared to David Price (7 years, $217 million), Zack Grienke (6 years, $205 million) and Johnny Cueto, (6 years, $130 million)
Mike Pelfrey was just an unmitigated disaster. Another former Twin, Tigers gave him a raise from his last two seasons in Minnesota with career numbers that looked like this. He was 11-27 with an ERA of 4.94 and a career WHIP of 1.54 and a declining K per 9. So the Tigers gave him a one- year, $8 million dollar contract. At the time, even then, I thought it was a bit much.
Joe Nathan’s contract was two years, $20 million dollars but he only would pitch one season with the Tigers. While he had 35 saves, the fans perhaps remember him more for the chin flip in an August 2014 game against the Pirates than anything else. Despite Nathan’s numbers when he was signed from Texas, he never lived up to being as dominant as he was once with seven blown saves and an ERA of 4.81.
Joel Hanrahan signed a one-year minor league deal with the Tigers so this was a low-risk move that never paid off as the former Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star closer would have to have a second Tommy John surgery. While this move was just to see what Hanrahan had left, it would have been interesting to see what he could have provided, when healthy.
Jim Johnson’s short time in Detroit was interesting. The former All-Star closer had seen better days when he came to the Tigers as a minor-league free agent. When he was called up In August of 2014, he posted an ERA of 6.92 and walked 12 in 13 innings pitched. But what I find interesting is the following season in Atlanta, he seemed to fix his control issues with just 14 walks in 48 innings pitched and an ERA of 2.25. The Braves, for a moment, did solve his control issues.
You can put Tyson Ross and Matt Moore in this category because of injuries. We will never know how many more wins they could have added to the 2019 team but these signings were frustrating to Tigers fans who did not see what they were capable of.