How will the Tiger pen look come playoff time?
What do you think of when I say "2014 Detroit Tigers bullpen"? Refuse receptacles aflame? Fingernails bitten to stubs? Couches strewn with antacid wrappers? Piles of empty liquor bottles?
So far, the Tigers’ bullpen has indeed been one of baseball’s worst. Others at BYB have done a great job of summarizing the pen’s early struggles and explaining why it may not be as bad as it looks, so I won’t duplicate those efforts. What I will do is examine what the bullpen could look like when it matters most, in the postseason.
It has recently been dawning on me (and some of you, I think), that by playoff time the bullpen could actually be a real strength for the Tigers. Below I sketch the outlines of what Detroit’s relief corps might look like in October. What I like most is that we don’t need all of these pitchers to work out… with potential reinforcements from Hanrahan and some pitching prospects, I think there’s enough depth here to make a strong playoff pen fairly likely.
The one guy I’ll treat as a given (unless the unspeakable happens) is Joe Nathan. Beyond that, there are quite a few guys vying for spots:
Lefties (you’d like to have at least 2 of these guys):
Ian Krol - the most likely guy to come in and get one or two lefties out.
Drew Smyly - if he’s not a playoff starter, he dramatically bolsters the lefty side of the pen.
Robbie Ray - after more starts in Toledo, I’d like to see him audition for a bullpen spot in September.
Phil Coke - hey, the playoff roster’s not our decision, is it? but yeah, hopefully not.
Blaine Hardy - got a long look in spring training, mixed results in Toledo thus far.
Duane Below and Kyle Lobstein - something’s wrong with these guys early in 2014, but 5 months is a lot of time to straighten things out, and either could be OK as a last resort playoff option.
Righties (probably need to carry 4 of these guys):
Joba Chamberlain - has been a solid setup man after some initial stumbles
Joel Hanrahan - he’ll have over 3 months to regain his form before the playoffs start
Al Alburquerque - still trying to figure his fastball out, but he’s worth a roster spot regardless
Luke Putkonen, Evan Reed - I have no problem with one of these guys being the last guy in the pen. Luke was quite effective last year, and still has time to put early arm trouble behind him in 2014.
Justin Miller - if he can continue to stave off the walks that plagued him for most of his minor league career, he could surprise people.
Jose Ortega - long shot, but he’s on the 40 man.
Corey Knebel and Melvin Mercedes - as with Ray, I’d call these guys up in September for a bullpen audition. Knebel has been lights-out but he has less than 12 innings above West Michigan right now.
Rick Porcello - If Smyly beats him out for a playoff rotation spot, Porcello becomes a reliever.
Even if none of the prospects are quite ready in 2014, the playoff pen could look something like:
Nathan, Smyly, Krol, Chamberlain, Hanrahan, Alburquerque, Putkonen.
A couple of these guys falter? No problem, we’ve got backup options, and we only need some of those guys to pan out.
The lefty side completely implodes by October? Go with 1 southpaw, and remember that Hanrahan, Chamberlain, and Al Al have all held lefties to slightly lower OPS than righties over their careers.
Not that it matters, but there’s enough depth that if you pick 7 relievers, then pitchers 8 to 14 would probably still be better than the Astros’ bullpen.
Over the next few months, we should see a sifting process as the Tigers start to figure out which relievers have the best stuff this year. Basically, the team has many possible paths to a successful playoff bullpen, although it's no sure thing. Even if new injuries bite the staff and a few guys spiral into ineffectiveness, by October Detroit’s relief options may no longer seem like the team’s Achilles heel. In fact, the playoff pen could actually be pretty good. I look forward to that!