Al Alburquerque might not be the first choice to pitch the 9th inning for the Tigers this year (or second, or third...), but he has the stuff to close if needed.
With 26 days until Spring Training starts, we're still trying to profile guys that we haven't talked about endlessly for the last 100+ days -- well, besides Jhonny Peralta yesterday. Today's topic? The largely ignored (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) Al Alburquerque.
What happened last year?
A lot of rehab, mostly. Alburquerque missed most of the season while recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right elbow. He made his season debut on September 4th and allowed one run in 13 1/3 innings over the course of the next month. While the ERA was nice, the real encouraging part of Alburquerque's performance is the 18 strikeouts he racked up over those 13 1/3 innings. While this is down from the ridiculous 13.9 strikeouts per 9 innings he had in 2011, it's still very good when carried out over the course of an entire season.
What needs to happen in 2013?
If Rod Allen doesn't say the word* "slide piece" at least twice in every game that Alburquerque pitches in, I will be very disappointed. Al Al is one of those rare pitchers who uses a breaking ball as his primary pitch, with the fastball primarily used as a way to keep hitters honest and not leaning out over the plate. Keeping the fastball on the inner half of the plate makes his slider that much more deadly, especially if he can hit the strike zone with both pitches. If he is successful, expect Alburquerque to make plenty of appearances in high-leverage situations.
*Is it "slide piece" or "slidepiece?" If someone could figure out this detail, my life will be complete.
2011 and 2012 stats (since there are no projections)
The part where I try to analyze what is happening in Jim Leyland's head (and likely fail miserably)
We all know that Leyland doesn't analyze pressure and/or high-leverage situations like the esteemed gentlemen at Fangraphs do. However, I do think that Leyland appreciates the value of a well-timed strikeout with runners on base, which is exactly the type of situation I alluded to in the paragraph above. Alburquerque's violent repertoire is perfect for these types of situations, which is why it's important that he keep his walk rate in check. It doesn't have to be as low as you would expect from most starters, but I would like to see him improve on the 6.09 walks per 9 innings that he issued in 2011.
Additionally, it's important that the other back-end guys perform well, but specifically Bruce Rondon. If Rondon locks down the closer position -- and I have more faith than others that he will -- then Leyland won't have to think about playing muscial chairs with the bullpen.
Summary: if Alburquerque is pitching in the 6th or 7th inning all season long, the Tigers are in good shape.