This post isn't perfect. It's using basic metrics in assessment of the bullpen for next year. I use fWAR as a benchmark stat, as it's pretty easy to project, and is a useful stat. I promise I know about statistics, but for the sake of ease, it made sense. Continue reading at your own will.
If you've been paying attention to the Tigers for more than thirty seconds, you'd know that bullpen help is needed. After Joe Nathan, the relief corps hardly look even remotely stable. It's really not even a bullpen, more of a calfpen, or guinea pigpen. I'm assuming that if Phil Coke makes the roster out of Spring Training, he will be used strictly as a LOOGY, and Ian Krol joins the pen as a left-handed general use reliever. This would mean that the Tigers are counting on Krol, Bruce Rondon, right-handed specialist Al Alburquerque, and the newly-added Joba Chamberlain to replicate or surpass the value Drew Smyly had in his set-up/long relief role last year, in addition to the fairly solid jobs that Jose Veras and Darin Downs did.
This is flawed. Smyly pitched 76 innings, and had the tenth-highest fWAR among all relievers last year, at 1.9. Downs and Veras combined for 55 innings, and a .5 fWAR. Departed closer Joaquin Benoit also had significant value, at 1.6 fWAR over 67 innings. This combines for a total of 4.0 fWAR, and 198 innings that need to be replaced or upgraded upon. There will be even more innings left to fill with the disparity between Doug Fister and Drew Smyly, which could accumulate to 50 innings, and another 2 or so fWAR that needs to be made up by the pitching staff. Nathan can balance out the fWAR difference between Smyly and Fister (his average is 2.0 per year since relieving) and roughly 70 of those innings. That leaves 212 innings and 4.0 fWAR. The trio of Jose Valverde, Jeremy Bonderman, and Brayan Villareal combined for a total of -1.0 fWAR, but also 40.1 innings. They aren't coming back, so the burden of fWAR lessens, as the weight of innings increases. The grand total is now 3.0 fWAR, and 252 innings.
Considering Chamberlain, Alburquerque and Rondon's injury history, it's unlikely that those three combine to fill the void. Not to forget, there's no guarantee Chamberlain and Krol don't suck (-0.62 WPA/-.6 fWAR and-0.42 WPA/-.3 fWAR, respectively). Steamer projects them to combine for 0.2 fWAR, and 65 innings. Steamer tends to be a bit conservative, but we have two wild cards here, so let's keep the projection. Alburquerque and Rondon combine for a projected 1.1 fWAR over 120 innings. The number of innings is a bit optimistic with their health, so somewhere around 100 innings is a bit more fitting. Still, 1.1 fWAR seems to be spot on in comparison to their ceiling. This brings the final gap to be 1.7 fWAR, and a whopping 87 innings. There's a closer, two set-up men, a LOOGY, and whatever you want to call Krol. This leaves room for a long reliever, and another general reliever. Ideally, Chamberlain would be moved to the general relief role. He's interesting, but not promising enough to have pitching the seventh or eighth right out of the gate. Coke could very well not make the team if management decides that Krol is a better fit for the LOOGY role than Coke. When all is said and done, there could be anywhere from 0-3 spots open.
- Internally, we start with Luke Putkonen. He was a starter in the minors, and could very well fill the long relief/spot starter role. Think Bruce Chen last year, but Finnish.
- Then there's Evan Reed, who could also fill the long relief/spot starter role. He's not quite as good as LuPu, but he could plug an innings gap, or be above-average depth in the case of injury.
- We have Jose Alvarez, whose minor league stats indicate a fairly good ceiling. We saw his sub par floor last year. He's left-handed though, which will give him a better shot at cracking the bullpen than Reed. Is he better pitching frequently in the majors, or occasionally starting in the majors, with the bulk of his time in the minors? That's the question.
- Former Rule V draft pick Kyle Lobstein did pretty well at Toledo in 2013, and could do what the three other candidates can do. This southpaw has no experience at the major league level, but he can adjust. Probably not immediately, but it can happen.
- Jose Ortega is as shaky as shaky can possibly be. His minor league stats fluctuate heavily, and his time in the majors hasn't been overly impressive.
- There's no need to rush Corey Knebel or Jose Valdez. Justin Miller is coming off of major surgery. Casey Crosby is erratic, and probably not more than what Krol gives. Unless I'm overlooking something, this is internally all there is.
The free agent market is still relatively deep in terms of relief. There are still big names like Balfour and Rodney, but they're asking for $7 million or more. After trading arguably the most underrated starter in the majors to supposedly free up spending money, it looks like allocating that much of the team's resources to a set-up man is a bad, unlikely idea. We're also looking for noticeable upgrades from Reed and Chamberlain, in order to force Joba out of the set-up role, and Reed into depth. This leaves us with a couple categories: injury risks, and (hopefully) cheap relief.
In the injury risks:
- Jesse Crain has been the apple of the fans' eye this offseason. The guy can flat-out dominate. To put his dominance in 2013 in perspective, he was as valuable as Smyly, in 40 less innings. Seeing as how he's injury-prone, a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $3 million guaranteed with incentive opportunities isn't far-fetched. If healthy, he'd make the back end of the 'pen look rather scary.
- Remember when Andrew Bailey was a premier closer? Injuries have taken a toll on the former ROY, and he's fallen to being non-tendered by the Red Sox earlier this offseason. Bailey still posted a 12.24 K/9, and a 3.20 xFIP in 28.2 inning this season. He isn't expected to be back until midseason, but he could put the Tigers over the edge come his return. He could likely be had $1 million with incentives.
- We're familiar with Octavio Dotel. We know that he's capable of being great. He missed almost all of 2013, but could be had likely for $1 million or less. For a guy who's still striking out hitters into his forties, and has experience with the club, he's probably worth it.
- Frank Francisco came back at the end of the year for the Mets, and pitched fairly well. He's not quite elite, but he has put up some good peripherals for his career (career 3.62 FIP). Is he better than Chamberlain? Most likely, yes. Is he going to cost upwards of $2 million? No. Is he worth taking a flier on? I'd say so.
- Former Tiger Cristhian Martinez is on the market. He dealt with shoulder issues this year, but has impressed in his time with Atlanta, especially with his workload (151.1 innings in 2011-2012). His FIP and xFIP are more than solid, and he hasn't been connected to any teams this offseason. He'd likely be back at the beginning of the year, and may be able to be had on a minor league deal.
- Rafael Betancourt has been out since late August with elbow issues. Regardless, he's been one of the more consistent, dominant relievers in the game since 2003. He's getting older, but his strikeout rates are still solid, and his walk rate still good, even with the elbow injuries. He's stated that he is getting surgery for his torn ulnar collateral ligament, and will try to pitch again. He likely won't be in the majors for some time, but for a guy with his ceiling, a minor league deal doesn't look too bad.
- Ryan Madson hasn't pitched in the majors since 2011. He should be fairly close to returning after two years of rehab, but who knows? He was one of the best relievers when healthy, and is could settle on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. I'd take a shot.
- Luis Ayala appeared back on the major league scene in 2011 after toiling around in the minors for all of 2010, and having a poor 2008 and 2009. Since he returned, he's pitched well for the Yankees, Orioles, and Braves. He relies more on ground ball outs than strikeouts, which, with the revamped defense, could make him even more attractive as an option. He could demand probably up to $5 million, max.
- Francisco Rodriguez, better known as K-Rod, has been one of the best relievers over the past decade. He's not at sought after as one would expect, but he posted his lowest xFIP this season since 2005. His strikeout numbers are still well above average, and right around where they've been for him since 2008. His walk rate was a career low in 2013, yet he hasn't been linked to many teams. Sure, he's had run-ins with the law, and isn't quite a team player, but if he can produce for $5 million or less, why not?
- Jose Mijares was non-tendered by the San Francisco Giants a couple months ago. Sure, his 4.22 ERA and noticeable splits against righties point toward leaving, but at the same time, he was the subject of extremely horrible luck. He received a .410 BABIP this year. He's still whiffing hitters at over 9 K/9, but man, that is some terrible luck. His FIP reflects that, at 3.05. There's a good chance he'll settle for $1 million or less, and there's some hope that he could thrive in Detroit. If not, he's a good LOOGY.
- Oliver Perez very well be the best option (in terms of practicality) on the market. He resurrected his career and pitched admirably for the Seattle Mariners in 2012 and 2013. He's a lefty, which is always a plus. His peripherals are more than solid, with a 3.26 FIP, and 3.36 xFIP, striking out more than 12.5 batters for every nine frames. He's definitely a good reliever. There hasn't been much talk about him in terms of connections to other teams. His velocity dipped in 2013, so there's a bit of reason for concern, but he still pitched admirably, and even better, with the drop. Heck, even fangraphs wrote an article on the greatness of Oliver Perez, the reliever.