When you go down the Tigers lineup it does appear that Brad Ausmus is going to have the opportunity to pinch-hit quite a bit if he elects to use the gambit more often than many of his American League counterparts typically employ their spare bats. Runs get left on the table every year by clubs that aren't set up to pursue good offensive match-ups consistently. Bullpens are deep and look to mix and match at various points. Should the Tigers set themselves apart by going the other way and having a deeper bench to counteract longer bullpens prevalent in today's game?
The Offensive Situation
It would seem there would be plenty of tactical advantage to hitting for Rajai Davis late in games against fire-breathing righty K-monsters that inhabit the end of many bullpens. His splits tell us that the majority of left-handed bench options would probably have a better shot against top relievers. Certainly if the Tigers go with one of their in-house options to play for Andy Dirks for several weeks on the strong side of the platoon, that player will be pinch-hit for often against lefty arms.
Jose Iglesias is a glove-first player with no real power. A left-handed pinch-hitter could make sense on a regular basis depending on circumstances. If Iglesias isn't ready for the start of the season then it really makes sense to have options to hit for either of the inexperienced Eugenio Suarez or Hernan Perez if they get the call. Steve Lombardozzi is coming off a quiet year with the bat. It doesn't seem like he would be fully immune from being sat down for a pinch hitter in many situations despite switch-hitting.
Nick Castellanos is a rookie. Hopes are high and if he hits like he has shown thus far in Spring Training, Ausmus probably won't be looking to hit for him all too often. But if he has some rookie doldrums at various points throughout the season, I do not believe it "sends the wrong message" to put a lefty in there to hit for him on occasion. Making a move to help win a game definitely sends "the right message" to everyone.
I also subscribe to the line of thought that managers are far too reluctant to pinch hit for their catchers. I would hit for Alex Avila often against tough lefty relievers or for Bryan Holaday against righties in key spots late in games. When is that last time a team ran out of catchers due to injury and had to press a player in to service for a few innings? It's so rare. If it bit a team on the butt once a year, I believe the payoff from pursuing better match-ups all throughout the season would more than make up for possibly losing a game with the backup shortstop catching an inning.
The problem, of course, with several spots in the lineup ripe for pinch-hitting is carrying a deep enough bench to accommodate pinch-hitting more than once or twice per game. Keep in mind that Victor Martinez is a player who needs to be pinch-run for on occasion as well. The all too common modern MLB roster is 13-position players/12-pitchers (13/12) as we all know. It's hard to have a diverse bench with so few backups at a manager's disposal. It's a shame too because the 7th reliever rarely pitches in tight games where the decision is truly in the balance. But a deeper bench could allow Ausmus to pursue better matchups in plenty of close games in the late (and extra) innings.
The Tigers don't exactly have a lot of exciting names on their bench...but if Ausmus had even one more player there to spot in at the right time, it could yield a measurable advantage. You don't need "studs" on your bench to use it correctly. Just a mix of righty and lefty bats that can cover several positions. Maybe one guy with a dose of power and one guy who runs like a gazelle (or at least faster than Prince Fielder). There is no question the current candidates in the Tigers' camp may not be ideal. But they are all in a major league camp for a reason. All have a strength or two. By giving Ausmus more of them to work with, it would be up to him to maximize their value. That's his job...right? He can do more than write out the lineup and coast from there...I'm sure of it.
Ausmus seems ready to go with more defensive shifts and is helping emphasize a different approach on the base paths. Obviously he is not adverse to shaking things up a bit. It would be really exciting if he decided (with Dave Dombrowski's blessing of course) to alter his roster in search of a nightly tactical advantage over his adversary in the opposite dugout.
Pitching Staff Adjustments
The yearly "battle" for the last spot in the bullpen is a complete snooze-fest. It's a spot mostly for mop up duty and several arms typically get cycled through over the course of season. Often the guy who "wins" that spot in Spring Training isn't around on Memorial Day.
The Tigers are also in a position where they have a very solid starting rotation that should eat into the innings a bullpen has to cover, especially if Drew Smyly is able to take on a full workload while shifting back from relief duty. The Tigers could go with six relievers quite easily. They have some players with options and could cycle arms back and forth from Toledo if they feel they are truly wearing out the last few arms down there. For instance, if Luke Putkonen works a lot in a given week and has to get a breather in Triple-A for 10-days to bring up somebody else, that seems like an easy thing to manage in return for having a deeper and more diverse bench on a nightly basis. The Tigers will have several "last man" types rooting around in the minors. They are fairly interchangeable. The guy who is throwing the best gets the call when an arm is needed.
Grooming a pitcher for the old "swingman" role might be the biggest change that would need to take place. That would be a challenge perhaps. But Joba Chamberlain was a starter. No reason he couldn't get used to two inning stints. Putkonen could be that guy. Jose Alvarez is around for things like that as well.
Gaining an Edge
Small advantages. Teams are always on the lookout for inefficiencies and looking to exploit them. I do believe a team or two over the next couple of years will look to roster makeup and decide they will do it differently than 13/12 over the long haul. 14/11 should be dirt simple to implement. However I think we'll see a team go 15/10 for parts of a season. They'll spend a little extra to build a bench worthy of the venture...and if they do, I believe that club will see plenty of positive benefits by gaining the tactical high ground for the majority of their games.
Is 15/10 radical? I guess it might appear so...but let's be real...15/10 was the norm for years. The game hasn't changed that much to the point where an enterprising club couldn't try it and make it work. It doesn't even have to be set in stone for the whole season. If you feel you need an extra reliever in April during the cold weather when pitchers aren't working as deep, that's fine. Make the change in the summer. Then in September the roster expands anyhow.
Will the Tigers ever be the team that looks to set a trend in this area? My gut says "no". But I would love it if they surprised me. Ausmus is a new face and he has a chance during his "new guy grace period" to set a different course. Pushing Dombrowski to set him up with a new look at that roster would be really interesting and possibly a very helpful move.