February is here. Pitchers and catchers will report to Lakeland in less than three weeks, and the Tigers have all but a couple of spots left on the roster to be filled. One or two of those spots is in the bullpen, an area where the team struggled last year despite possibly the best one- two punch (or is that eight- nine punch) in the league.
Jose Valverde will be the closer. Joaquin Benoit will be the primary set up man. Phil Coke and newly acquired Octavio Dotel will form a left- right combo to handle the seventh inning. That leaves three spots in the pen to be filled. Those spots were sore spots for the Tigers in 2011.
Despite Valverde being a perfect 49 for 49 in save chances, and combining with Benoit to lead the league in save percentage, the Tiger bullpen ranked eleventh in the league in ERA and issued the second highest walk total. Tiger relievers also allowed the second highest OBP in the league. This is an area that needs improvement.
Having a full season of Coke in his natural role should help. But the loss of Al Alburquerque for at least the first half of the season may offset any help that Dotel brings to the troubled relief corps. Following is a look at the candidates to fill out the last three spots in the 2012 Tiger bullpen:
Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski revealed the club’s intentions for Balester when he announced the trade.
"He has shown the ability to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen in the past, a role we are looking for him to fill for our club in 2012."
David Pauley: The Tigers didn’t give Pauley much work after acquiring him from Seattle in the trade that brought Doug Fister to Detroit. When he finally did get some work, he was used sparingly and usually when the team was not having a good day. The results were disappointing, but should be taken in context.
With the Mariners, the former starting pitcher appeared in 39 games last season, posting an impressive 2.15 ERA and even more impressive 0.94 WHIP in 54 innings of work. He allowed 13 earned runs with Seattle, but 13 more with Detroit in just 19 innings of work. Given an every day role, Pauley is one of the forgotten candidates that could really help to solidify the Tiger bullpen this year.
Daniel Schlereth: Since coming to the Tigers from Arizona in the trade that brought Austin Jackson and sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, the former first round pick has not pitched well for the Tigers, other than a string of eight scoreless appearances to end the 2010 season. Schlereth has pitched well, for the most part, against lefties,
Schlereth’s splits in 2011 tell us all we need to know about the lefty reliever:
vs RHB- 112 PA, 23 BB/ 17 K (0.74 K/BB), .409 OBP, .863 OPS
vs LHB- 100 PA, 8 BB / 27 K (3.38 K/BB), .273 OBP, .529 OPS
Schlereth did improve later in the season, primarily because he was better used mainly against left handed hitters. Personally, I have no use for a LOOGY on my team, when there are relievers available that can get both lefties and righties out just as well without burning through the bullpen, and making multiple pitching changes thereby increasing the odds of coming across a pitcher that has an off day. Still, Dan is a favorite of Tiger management with nasty stuff against lefties when he finds the plate, and is more likely than not to make the team.
Al Alburquerque: One of the pleasant surprises in the Tiger bullpen in 2011, Alburquerque stepped into the seventh inning set up role, and leading the league with a 13.9 K/ BB rate. Al Al had a great rookie season, posting a 1.87 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 43 innings while yielding only a .142 batting average before being injured in a freak accident, being hit on the head by a fly ball while running in the outfield during batting practice. In a couple appearances after returning, he wasn’t the same and was not used in key situations.
The Tigers announced shortly after the acquisition of Dotel that Alburquerque "had a screw inserted into his olecranon to stabilize a non-displaced stress fracture in his right elbow" and would miss the first half of the 2012 season. Still, he has to be considered for a roster spot once he is healthy, rather than making a deadline deal. Hope for the best.
Brayan Villarreal: The native Venezuelan righty made his MLB debut for the Tigers in 2011 as a surprise member of the team on the opening day roster. Villarreal had been a starting pitcher in Toledo up to that point. Unfortunately, things did not go well for him in April, as he allowed too many hits, walks, and runs that seemed to come in bunches with the occasional go-fer ball.
Brayan displayed a very quick move to first base, and he gets his share of strikeouts. He didn’t help his cause after returning to Toledo, allowing too many free passes, which has been his downfall. He logged ten starts to go with seven relief appearances. If he can cut down on the BB’s, he has the stuff to play a contributing role.
Luis Marte: After dominating hitters in AA ball last year, Marte was given a surprise call up to Detroit in September, where he made his MLB debut. Marte has what Mark Anderson of Tigstown calls the best breaking ball in the organization. He did reasonably well in his brief time with the playoff bound Tigers, and should be on the radar again this spring.
Matt Hoffman: The Tigers added the former 26th round draft pick to their roster last November and he will be one of the lefty relievers looking to make his major league debut this season. Hoffman posted a 3.11 ERA in 49 appearances for Toledo last year, all in relief.
Hoffman’s blazing fastball, which has reached the high 90's on occasion, earned him an invitation to join the Tiger contingent in the Arizona Fall league after the 2010 season, but his command is still a work in progress. He’s on the roster for a reason and could come quickly if he can harness his stuff.
Tyler Stohr: Another new addition to the 40 man roster this season, Stohr has been moving up in the Tiger system since drafting him in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. Stohr began the season in Lakeland last year, where he posted a WHIP of just 1.02 ,and was promoted to Erie with mixed results. While Tyler’s strikeout rate increased to 9.5 K/ 9 in AA ball, his walk rate also escalated. He appears to be on the way, but maybe have a bit later ETA than most of the others here.
Jose Ortega: Another Venezuelan prospect, this righty finds himself on the roster for the second year. The hard throwing righty had some health issues early in the year and never seemed to get on track in his first season at the AAA level. Let’s first get him healthy, and then he should be in the mix if he’s pitching well when a vacancy opens up.
Chris Bootcheck: One of just three non roster invitees that the Tigers have in the pitching department this year, Bootcheck has major league experience with the Angels and Pirates, but not since the 2009 season. He made 51 relief appearances, going 71 innings for the Angels in 2007, mostly in long relief and mop up roles. He’s had control issues, which is why he hasn’t been back to the majors the past couple seasons.
Darin Downs: Another NRI, Downs was a minor league free agent brought in by the Tigers, hoping they might catch lightning in a bottle. Downs is a 27 year old Southfield, MI native who has been bouncing around the minor leagues for the past eight years, most recently in the Marlins’ system.
Fu-Te Ni: The Tigers converted Ni into a starter last year, and he posted a 3.24 ERA between a dozen starts and 34 total appearances. The lefty was not given an invitation to spring training this season, and it’s tough to envision that he’d be a candidate for a spot in the rotation with at least half a dozen other lefty starters in camp. He’s probably best viewed as a LOOGY in the bullpen, but the Tigers would have to burn through a few others before they get this deep.
Warwick Saupold: I don’t even know if he will be invited to spring training, nor if he’d be considered for the rotation or the bullpen if he got an invite, but the Tigers signed this Australian reliever, as I posted here last week. This is the link to the Australian press release detailing the signing.
Summary: Four pitchers are locks to be in the Tiger bullpen, and the other three spots have favorites to fill the roles, with some talented young pitchers in the pipeline behind them. The Tigers could add one of the many lefties detailed in this article to fill a long relief role if they should not be chosen to fill the last spot in the rotation. With at least four right handers in the rotation, and opposing managers likely to stack their lineups with lefty hitters, it would make some sense to carry a lefty that could work multiple innings in relief.
The starter/ relief candidates include Duane Below, Adam Wilk, Drew Smyly, Andrew Oliver, and Casey Crosby.