When the Tigers traded starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for three young, relatively unproven players, the furor from the fan base was enough to drown out any analysis of the players that the Tigers received in the trade. As the smoke began to clear, we began to get a clearer picture of what Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi, and Ian Krol might be able to do for the Tigers in 2014 and beyond.
Krol is perhaps the least talked about of the three players that the Tigers received in the trade. Sort of like the Dan Schlereth of the Curtis Granderson trade. Krol is a 22 year old hard throwing relief pitcher who was drafted and signed out of high school by the Oakland A's in the 7th round of the 2007 draft. He then became the "player to be named later" in a three way trade just prior to the 2013 season between the A's, the Nationals, and the Seattle Mariners involving John Jaso, AJ Cole, and Michael Morse.
Krol made his major league debut last season when he was called up in June by the Nationals, and he remained on the major league roster for the rest of the season, throwing 27-1/3 innings in 32 appearances with an ERA of 3.95 and a WHIP of 1.32.
One look at Krol's major league splits are enough to make you scream "LOOGY" at the top of your lungs. He held left handed hitters to a line of .220 /.273 /.320 /.593 facing 50 hitters, while the 56 right handers he faced knocked him around to the tune of .304/.350/.607/.957, a .364 point difference in OPS. Four of the five home runs and most of the hits and runs he allowed came against right handers. But the Tigers think- and hope- that they've got more than just a lefty specialist.
Like so many other relievers, Krol is a converted starting pitcher. being moved to the bullpen during the 2012 season where he began to rise. Prior to his call up in 2013, he worked 29-2/3 innings at the double-A and triple-A levels, posting an ERA of 1.21 with a WHIP of just 0.81. He walked 8 batters and allowed just four runs on 16 hits while striking out 36 batters.
Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said that Krol "can step right into our bullpen and has the potential to be a No. 1 left handed reliever," Some have written that Krol will replace Smyly in the Tiger bullpen, but such an expectation is unrealistic. Smyly was not merely a LOOGY, but was one of the best relief pitchers in the league overall in 2013, ranking among the league leaders in appearances, innings, WAR, FIP, and striking out over a batter per inning while walking barely two batters per nine frames. Krol will not replace that kind of performance in his first full season, nor should he be expected to.
Jordan Gorosh wrote an excellent review of the three players that the Tigers got in the Fister trade in this article (a must read if you're interested in these players at all). Two of the three prospect experts that Jordan interviewed have Krol pegged as more of a LOOGY while the consensus seems to be that he is at least a major league pitcher, so the floor is pretty solid.
MLB prospect watch had this evaluation of Krol and his potential future in the major leagues
With a low-to-mid 90's fastball, a tough breaking ball and a violent delivery, Krol is definitely staying in a relief role at this point, thus eliminating the need for his below-average change-up. His stuff is good, but not good enough for a back-end role, likely allowing him to settle into a middle relief role but not a one-batter/LOOGY situation.
Whatever he becomes, one thing is certain about Ian Krol. The Tigers need him to perform in 2014. Since they moved Drew Smyly to the rotation to replace Fister, the number of reliable left handed relief pitchers in the Tiger bullpen stands at one. One Ian Krol.
Odd numbers: While Krol posted some impressive numbers in the minor leagues prior to his call up last summer, his stat line at Double-A Harrisburg are particularly impressive. In 26 innings, he held opponents to an ERA of 0.69 with a WHIP of 0.81, striking out 29 and walking just seven hitters, for a K/BB ratio of 4.14.
Key to Success: The role that the Tigers have carved out for Krol makes it essential that he continue his success against left handed pitchers. His fastball is his bread and butter pitch, but getting right handers out will require Krol to throw his change up effectively.
2014 Outlook: Krol arrives in Lakeland as the Tigers' number one left handed reliever, which isn't saying much, but he's he has a major league job, barring a spring time implosion. Finding a second left hander for the bullpen is uncertain enough. Having to find two lefties is something the Tigers aren't planning on.