Bullpen injuries could spoil the Detroit Tigers season.
The Detroit Tigers did a lot to improve this offseason. They got stronger up the middle on defense, and they beefed up their starting rotation. They also signed a veteran lefty reliever, promoted a top prospect, and traded for a powerful outfield bat.
But even with the addition of Andrew Chafin, the bullpen appeared to be the biggest weakness on the team. Kyle Funkhouser’s season has been delayed by a lat issue, though he should be back by May, and Chafin’s tender groin means he’ll begin the year on the Injured List.
And Wednesday brought a raft of roster moves, the most notable being José Cisnero heading to the 60-day IL with a shoulder sprain.
That means the 2022 Detroit Tigers bullpen begins the season down three of its top six arms. Here’s what the relief corps will look like on Opening Day:
- Gregory Soto
- Michael Fulmer
- Alex Lange
- Joe Jiménez
- Jason Foley
- Will Vest
- Jacob Barnes
- Drew Hutchison
- Elvin Rodriguez
- Rony Garcia*
We certainly don’t mean to denigrate these players. They all have enough talent to be considered for MLB jobs, it’s just that five or six of them made Detroit’s bullpen by default. Let’s take a closer look at each reliever.
Detroit’s anointed closer, Soto has one of the biggest arms in baseball, with a fastball that sits at 98 MPH and a nasty slider that batters hit just .138 against last year. Unfortunately, he also had the 3rd highest walk rate among all relievers with 60+ innings in 2021, so Detroit Tigers fans could be in for some bumpy outings. Level of Concern – Low
Fulmer transformed into a bullpen ace last year, frequently entering in high-leverage situations, when games were on the line. He has a lengthy injury history, and his velocity is down significantly this spring, with his fastball velo (91.9 MPH) just barely ahead of his slider velocity (91.2) from 2021. That said, Fulmer’s velocity was down last spring, too, so fans just have to cross their fingers and hope this is part of his process. Level of Concern – Mild
There’s a nonzero chance Alex Lange is closing games for the Detroit Tigers by the end of the season. He throws hard, he has two pretty nasty secondary pitches, and he was one of the team’s best relievers once he rejoined the roster in mid-August. But that’s a pretty small sample, and Lange’s fastball still seems to get hit incredibly hard. Level of Concern – Mild
Jiménez has a good arm and an All-Star appearance on his resume, but he’s been bedeviled by home runs and walks for the past three seasons, and he came into camp fighting for his MLB career. He didn’t look much different this spring, but he also didn’t give up a run over five innings of work, so he’s now the 4th man in the bullpen. Level of Concern – High
Foley got his feet wet in the big leagues last year, and he throws pretty hard, but he’s a ground ball specialist. He came into spring training with a chance to win a job as a designated double-play reliever, but he’ll likely be called on to provide more that that early in the year. He’s going to have to find a bat-missing pitch quickly. Level of Concern – High
Vest led all Detroit relievers with nine strikeouts this spring, and he saw big-league time with the Mariners last year after they selected him in the Rule 5 Draft. But his slider was pummeled by MLB hitters and Seattle eventually sent him back to the Tigers. He will probably have to get some big outs in the first two weeks of the season, and a small uptick in velocity this spring (from 94.2 MPH to 95.3 MPH) may help. Level of Concern – High
Jacob Barnes has pitched in parts of six big-league seasons, and he was a dependable member of Milwaukee’s bullpen from 2016-2018. But he owns a 6.58 ERA over the last three years, and the Tigers had seemingly moved on from him before they brought him back to camp. He has abandoned his changeup and returned to the slider he used in 2016, but the 11.12 ERA he posted in spring training probably isn’t a fluke. Level of Concern – High
Drew Hutchison has more than 480 career innings at the MLB level, including 21.1 with the Detroit Tigers last year. There’s not a lot of mystery to him, and he’ll begin the year as the primary long reliever in the bullpen. He can eat a few innings, but things could get ugly if any of Detroit’s starters have rough outings early in the season. Level of Concern – High
A somewhat surprising addition to Detroit’s 40-man roster last November, Elvin Rodriguez has a promising arm and some nice pitch characteristics. He also owns a 5.68 ERA in fewer than 80 innings of experience above A-ball. He saw just two outings this spring, and there wasn’t even a discussion about him joining the bullpen until injuries began to mount. If he gets into a game that isn’t a blowout, things have probably gone terribly wrong. Level of Concern – Extreme
The Detroit Tigers liked Rony Garcia enough to make him the top pick in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft, but hasn’t performed well as a member of the organization. He has a starter’s arsenal, and his pitches will occasionally show flashes of promise, but he’s been hit hard in the big leagues, and his wandering arm angle leads to well below-average command. He appears to be second in line for long relief duty, but the Tigers haven’t officially announced him as a member of the team yet, so it’s possible they’re looking for another option. Level of Concern – Extreme
That’s not a playoff-caliber bullpen. Things should get better in a few weeks, with Chafin and Funkhouser returning from injury, Michael Pineda joining the rotation, and Tyler Alexander and Wily Peralta taking over as bulk relievers.
But the Detroit Tigers have a difficult April schedule, and they are set to play ten times before an off day. The compressed spring training means starting pitchers probably won’t be throwing more than 80-90 pitches in their first few turns, and a couple of rough starts could mean a lot of innings for pitchers who should be in the minors.
Maybe some players will step up and prove their worth, but don’t be surprised if the Tigers make another move to bolster their bullpen in the next 48 hours.