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Searching for relief

The Tigers need help in the bullpen, and can look within for answers

Robbie Ray in the second inning of his May 11 start
Robbie Ray in the second inning of his May 11 start
Leon Halip

***Note:  This was written following the Friday night shutout, and prior to Blaine Hardy being called up from Toledo.  Consider it from the perspective of Dave Dombrowski looking at his options on Saturday morning.

We were reminded again on Friday nights that the Tigers have bullpen issues. Whether you prefer traditional stats, sabermetrics, or the eye test, Joe Nathan and Phil Coke are part of the problem. We suffered through a lack of production at shortstop for two months, and then found a possible answer in Eugenio Suarez. Are there answers in Toledo for the bullpen?

There are plenty of left-handed arms in Triple-A Toledo.

Kyle Lobstein has started 13 games and averaged over five innings per start. He is striking out over eight per nine innings (8.4), and walking just over two per nine (2.2). Kyle has allowed plenty of hits, leading to a WHIP of 1.41. He fares a little better against left-handed batters, but not much. A move to the bullpen could allow him to increase velocity, but a promotion to the major leagues would mean stiffer competition. Lobstein looks like a candidate for spot starting and long relief, rather than a lefty specialist. In other words, this is not the guy to get Big Papi out in the late innings.

Duane Below has started in all 12 of his appearances, though he mainly relieved in his previous stints in Detroit. His strikeout rate is below six, and walk rate is over four. Duane is performing similar to Lobstein, but a notch below. His one advantage this year is being more effective against left-handed bats, but previous years have not shown a significant split. Below is more suited for an emergency start or long relief when the bullpen is spent.

Robbie Ray has started in eight of his nine games with the Mud Hens. His strikeout rate is over seven, and walk rate below three. Robbie allows about one hit per inning, leading to an unexciting WHIP of 1.38. He is only 22 years old, and his future in Detroit is clearly as a starter. Ray does fare significantly better against lefties, and could help late this season as a reliever.

Blaine Hardy is a veteran of seven minor league seasons, functioning as a swingman. Splitting time between Erie and Toledo last year, his ERA was 1.67, WHIP of 1.02, and had a strikeout rate near eight. Nine of his 30 appearances were starts. Blaine has continued that success this year but bumped his strikeout rate above ten. However he is not a lefty specialist, as Hardy consistently has more success facing right-handed bats. When he pitches in relief, all batters can hardly touch him as shown by an opponents' batting average of .160.

Pat McCoy is a southpaw refugee cut loose by the Nationals after seven minor league seasons and now pitching in relief for Toledo. At first glance Pat is appealing, with a 2.55 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. But he has less than 20 innings, and started the season in Erie with mediocre results. McCoy is a poor man's Ian Krol, and the Tigers are not poor.

Kenny Faulk is another of the many southpaws in Toledo. Kenny's one redeeming quality is a strikeout rate of almost 12. Like Casey Crosby, if Faulk could get the walk rate down, we would have something. Like Casey Crosby he has not, and we do not.

Oddly, there are fewer right-handed options in Toledo.

Chad Smith has some eye-popping numbers out of the Mud Hens' bullpen. An ERA of 1.80, WHIP of 0.95, strikeout rate of 8.1, and walk rate of 0.9 should gain him attention. Chad started the season in Double-A Erie with similar success, though more walks. The concern is that he has only 33 innings above Low-A. He pitched in West Michigan last season and skipped Lakeland this year. Smith may be a surprise addition to the bullpen in the future, but not this year for a team with postseason aspirations.

Kevin Whelan has returned to the organization, having been drafted by the Tigers in 2005. His career minor league strikeout rate goes to 11. Kevin's problem is a walk rate above five. His ERA of 1.31 and WHIP of 0.97 are attractive, but 20 innings are too few to believe Whelan has suddenly figured it out at age 30.

Joel Hanrahan has yet to make a rehab start. Chris Iott reported that he is throwing off the mound and close to facing hitters. He is just over a year into recovery from Tommy John surgery. In his three years closing games for the Pirates, Joel averaged over ten strikeouts per nine innings but with a walk rate approaching four. If he is healthy, he could be part of the bullpen solution. But Hanrahan could take time to redevelop his command, and the Tigers may not have that much time.

The short term plan should be to try Blaine Hardy, not targeted against lefties but for about an inning per appearance. The late-summer plan is to promote Robbie Ray, using him in relief specifically against lefties to help the team and protect his young arm. The long term plan is Joel Hanrahan.