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Tigers have several in house bullpen options in Toledo

The Tigers have several in house bullpen options in Toledo, characterized by impressive strikeout rates, annoying walk rates, and small home run rates.

Al Alburquerque is the young reliever du jour in the Tiger bullpen
Al Alburquerque is the young reliever du jour in the Tiger bullpen
Leon Halip

Before Dave Dombrowski sells the farm and pays a king’s ransom to acquire the "proven closer" that he didn’t get over the winter, the Tigers have a few young guns who might be worth a look right in their own organization, right down I- 75 in Toledo.

These are the pitchers that Dave Dombrowski was counting on to fill the roles in the Tiger bullpen when he made the decision not to allocate any more financial resources to the relief corps. He has recently stated again that he believed that the Tigers have the pitchers within the organization to fill the roles that are needed. Of course, what should we expect a GM to say? His manager has said the exact opposite, but you can expect that the club will have a better look at their internal options before going on any shopping spree next month.

We have seen most, in fact almost all of these players wearing Tiger uniforms this season. We all know about Bruce Rondon, the fireballing closer who has been pitching lights out since Jim Leyland decided after just 2.1 innings of work that he wasn’t ready for prime time.

We’ve had a good look at Al Alburquerque, who has appeared in 66 games for the Tigers and just recently been recalled to the Tigers and is being given high leverage innings despite an enormous walk rate and a wild streak that would make Denis Rodman proud.

We are familiar with Brayan Villarreal, who has 73 games under his belt in the majors, including fifty games in 2012, and who began the season in Detroit before he also caught the wild flu bug.

We know Jose Ortega, who has thrown eleven of his fourteen major league innings in the majors earlier this season.

Two right handers who are currently on the major league roster after starting the season in Toledo, Evan Reed, and Luke Putkonen, each spent significant time in Toledo before being called up this season, and they also have options left.

And if you’re looking for a lefty for your bullpen, Matt Hoffman, the on again off again prospect who was once highly rated enough to make it to the 40 man roster, then wasn’t, is now on the radar again and putting up some nice numbers for the Mud Hens.

So, let’s see how this group of young guns is doing in Triple A so far this season.

Toledo Relief PItching, 2013

(Through June 25)

Player Games IP ERA WHIP HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Rondon 29 28.2 1.57 0.94 0.3 4.1 11.9
Alburquerque 10 14.1 3.14 1.53 1.3 8.2 17.0
Villarreal 22 27.1 3.62 1.61 0.0 7.9 11.9
Ortega 17 21.1 0.84 0.98 0.0 5.5 11.9
Putkonen 10 23.0 1.96 0.96 0.0 2.7 8.2
Reed 21 32.0 2.53 1.22 0.3 4.2 10.7
Hoffman 30 26.1 1.03 1.14 0.3 3.5 9.7

Now let’s look at how each of these pitchers has fared during their brief time in the major leagues.

Detroit Tigers, Career

(Through June 25)

Rondon 3 2.1 11.57 3.00 3.9 7.7 0.0
Alburquerque 66 73.0 1.85 1.29 14.9 8.8 0.0
Villarreal 73 75.0 4.56 1.51 10.3 5.5 0.8
Ortega 13 14.1 3.77 1.37 8.8 4.4 1.9
Putkonen 12 12.1 2.19 1.14 6.6 2.9 0.7
Reed 5 7.2 3.52 1.44 7.0 0.0 1.2
AL Relief Avg --- --- 3.55 1.26 8.26 3.3 0.93

Insert your obligatory "small sample" disclaimer here. But we're not using these numbers to draw any conclusions. We're just looking for trends, and we've seen that decisions on who stays and who goes back down for more work can and will be made based on very small samples of work. We have also seen significant samples, such as Villarreal's fifty appearances last year, discarded after just four innings of inconsistent work this season.

Many of the ratios are consistent from the minors to the major leagues.

Alburquerque is the one that stands out as having nasty stuff, with a slider that is major league quality. But he is also the one who is most prone to handing out free passes. Both his BB rate and his K rate are way up this season, in both Detroit and in Toledo, as he has walked 8.8 batters and struck out 14.9 per nine innings with the Tigers. Both of those rates, in only 16.1 innings of work, lead the American league.

In Al Al’s favor is the fact that he doesn’t give up the home run ball very often. No more than two homers per season over the past three years in the minors, and still not a home run allowed in the major leagues. It was interesting that he got the call when Jose Valverde was designated for assignment, because he was sent down to regain some command, but there is no indication that he did that during his time in Toledo this season. He can be a key bullpen piece if he can limit the self inflicted wounds.

Rondon, on the other hand, struggled with command moreso than his control during his brief stay with the Tigers this season. The Tigers’ closer in waiting gave up three runs on five hits and a pair of walks. He has allowed just one home run in the minors this year, and none in the majors. Unlike Alburquerque, Rondon got his act together in Toledo, blowing away hitters at the Triple A level, keeping the walks down to less than one every couple of innings, as the numbers indicate.

There is only one way to find out whether Rondon can sustain that success at the major league level, and that is to call him back up. Even if he struggles, he doesn’t have much left to prove in the minors.

Villarreal has been like Alburquerque light since being sent to Triple A this year, with a walk rate of almost eight batters and a K rate of almost a dozen batters per nine innings. He also has not allowed a home run in the minors, and just one, a walk off blast in the twelfth inning at Oakland.

Are you beginning to see a pattern, here? Very high K rates, very high BB rates, low home run rates.

Jose Ortega made just two appearances for Detroit in 2012, both for just one game before being sent back to the minors despite posting respectable numbers. This year also, Ortega did not pitch terribly, allowing ten hits, striking out ten and walking six batters in 11.2 innings, but he did allow a pair of home runs which resulted in a blown save and a loss.

Ortega has pitched very well in Toledo, posting better numbers in terms of ERA and WHIP- both under 1.00- than any of this group, and he also has a better BB rate than either Alburquerque or Villarreal to go with almost 12 K/9. Just as importantly, he has not allowed a home run in the minors this season.

Matt Hoffman was a 26th round pick by the Tigers in the 2007 draft. He made his way up the ladder gradually as a starter, struggling at each level after being promoted, then adjusting. He transitioned to the bullpen and was added to the 40 man roster for protection in November, 2010. A year later, he was designated for assignment to make room on the roster for Brayan Pena, cleared waivers and was outrighted to Toledo.

Hoffman posted a 3.69 ERA with 6.2 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 in 46 1/3 innings out of the bullpen in 2012. This season, as you can see, his numbers have improved again. He’s a slow mover, and you have to wonder if the club would have patience with him if he struggles in the majors as he has at each level before adjusting.

Luke Putkonen pitched very well in 23 innings of work in Toledo, was called up and has held his own in the majors, with an ERA of 2.19 and a WHIP of 1.14 for the Tigers. He stands out among this group for his reasonable BB rate, which has been consistent from the minors to the major leagues. He looks like a solid addition to the bullpen, and doesn’t look like he’ll be giving up his spot any time soon.

Evan Reed is a hard throwing right hander who also gave the organization reason to notice his work in 32 innings with Toledo, and had fared okay with the Tigers . He has had not walked a batter, but allowed three runs and eleven hits in 7.2 innings, including one home run. (until Tuesday, when he gave up two walks and four unearned runs in 2.2 innings, dropping his ERA to 2.61)

Jose Alvarez is not listed in the charts above, because he has no relief numbers to post, but he could be called up to Detroit in September to give Jim Leyland another lefty to play with out of the bullpen. He will remain a starter in Toledo and with Smyly now finally filling a critical role in the bullpen, he’s likely to be on call for spot duty at least through the end of the minor league season around labor day. He can be called up without having to clear space on the 40 man roster.

There is still a chance that veterans Jose Valverde and/ or Octavio Dotel, who is now on the 60 day DL, could make it back to Detroit by September, but don’t hold your breath.

Whether Jim Leyland would cast a rookie into a late inning role, however, is an open question. They appear to be giving Alburquerque a shot at that role presently, despite the enormous walk rate. It is that late inning duty that the Tigers are concerned about for their planned run into the post season. They are likely to run through some internal options before going for broke at the trade deadline at the end of July.

If they don’t find what they’re looking for from this cast, then we are likely to be reading about one or more of these guys as part of a trade to acquire a veteran relief pitcher for the Tiger bullpen.

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