The Kansas City Royals featured Major League Baseball’s most lauded bullpen during the 2014 season. Recently, they signed free agent relief pitcher Jason Fasor to an inexpensive $1.25 million contract for the 2015 season with an option for $2 million in 2016. With a $550,000 buyout of the option, Frasor is guaranteed just $1.8 million in the deal.
Frasor has been a very consistent reliever, posting an ERA no higher than 3.65 in six of the past seven seasons. In 2014, he had an ERA of 2.66 with a WHIP of 1.22 in 61 appearances for the season.
The Royals had acquired Frasor from the Texas Rangers in July for minor league pitcher Jason Patton, a former 24th round draft pick who has not made much noise in the Kansas City farm system. The Royals paid Frasor $770,000 for the second half of the season, and he went on to post an ERA of 1.53 with a WHIP of 0.96 and a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
When the trade for Frasor was made, Tigers’ fans had to wonder why the Tigers were unable to pick up a similar reliever without giving up top prospects or paying him a ton of money. This week, they have to be wondering the same thing. They also have to wonder if Dave Dombrowski is even trying to improve the bullpen. If they can't pony up $2 million for a quality relief pitcher like Frasor, something is amiss.
The Tigers did exercise a $7 million option on Joakim Soria, who was the best potential free agent relief pitcher available for the 2015 season. After trading their top starting pitching prospect in Jake Thompson and their top relief pitching prospect in Corey Knebel, Soria was the one bullpen move among several made by Dombrowski since the end of the 2013 season that showed any chance of yielding any significant benefit to the team for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Among the available free agent relief pitchers, only Andrew Miller had a better season in 2014.
Tony Paul of the Detroit News confirmed the worst fears of Tigers’ fans:
Yet, stunningly, there's not one notable reliever who's been tied to the Tigers in all the rumors and rumblings that have hit the Internet since the season ended.
That includes such seemingly good fits as Andrew Miller, Pat Neshek and Sergio Romo, none of whom have the Tigers inquired about whatsoever — not even with a text message to an agent — sources told The News.
In addition to picking up Soria’s option, the Tigers have to be hoping for some addition by subtraction. Phil Coke, Jim Johnson, and Joba Chamberlain are all free agents, and are not expected back. Coke and Johnson, along with Ian Krol, who finished the season in the minor leagues, were among the worst relief pitchers in the American League in 2014, according to fWAR or fielding independent pitching (FIP). Also gone are relievers Evan Reed, Pat McCoy, and Justin Miller.
Also among the worst in 2014 was Aaron Crow of Kansas City. The Royals just traded Crow to the Miami Marlins for former Tigers’ prospect, Brian Flynn. If that name is familiar, it’s because Flynn was one of those dealt to Miami in the trade that brought Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante to Detroit. Addition by subtraction.
If the Tigers had a stable of young pitchers ready to step up and fill the void, there might not be such cause for concern. But this is not the case. Among the other relief pitchers on the Tigers’ 40 man roster, only Al Alburquerque has pitched as much as 40 innings in the major leagues.
Blaine Hardy, a converted starting pitcher from Toledo, pitched admirably for much of the season before running out of gas in September, and was no help to the team in the postseason. Luke Putkonen missed almost the entire season with arm issues and hopes to rebound in 2015. He has a 5.01 ERA over the past two seasons, but in just 32 innings of work. Joel Hanrahan was signed to a minor league contract after he failed to make it back to the major leagues in 2014 due to health issues.
Dombrowski will again be relying on hard throwing Bruce Rondon to play a major bullpen role. He relied on Rondon in 2013 when the closer’s job was Rondon’s to lose in Spring Training. He lost it, and didn’t make the team. He relied on Rondon to fill a set up role in 2014. That plan failed when Rondon missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. Normally, it takes two years for a pitcher to regain effectiveness after this procedure. Dombrowski has said that he has much more confidence that Bruce Rondon can contribute in 2015 than he has in Hanrahan. The Tigers rely on Rondon again in 2015 at their own peril.
The Tigers, like any club, have some young pitchers who may be able to step up and pitch effectively out of the bullpen. Joe Nathan, Soria, and Alburquerque would appear to be the late inning trio at least to start the season. Hardy can claim one of the spots available for a left hander, and the club has a trio of left handed starting pitchers at the Triple-A level, with Robbie Ray, Kyle Lobstein, and Kyle Ryan, who could be given a bullpen job.
Detroit has had one of the league’s worst bullpens every season for the past five years. Last year’s bullpen combined for less than 1 WAR, and ranked 13th of 15 teams in ERA, FIP, and WHIP. The bullpen is not fine. Not even close. The club has serious issues to address in their bullpen, and they can not be adequately addressed internally.