Quick, how many pitchers have the Tigers added to their bullpen since the 2014 season ended? Two? Three? Think again. After signing left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, the Tigers have added eight pitchers to the organization since getting bounced from the 2014 playoffs. If you include picking up Joakim Soria's 2015 option, re-signing Joel Hanrahan, and Bruce Rondon's return from Tommy John surgery, that's 11 pitchers that otherwise would not have been with the organization in 2015.
Granted, none of these moves have been high profile acquisitions, save for maybe Soria. Alex Wilson was a throw-in piece in the trade for Yoenis Cespedes. Josh Zeid was picked up off waivers from the Houston Astros. Hanrahan was signed to an incentive-laden minor league deal after missing nearly two full seasons due to Tommy John surgery. Five others -- Omar Duran, Tim Melville, Alberto Cabrera, Rafael Dolis, and 80-grade name Jheyson Manzueta -- were minor league deals that flew well under the radar.
These aren't the only players in line for relief innings this year. Returning are Al Alburquerque, Blaine Hardy, Ian Krol, Rondon. Homegrown pitchers like Melvin Mercedes, Angel Nesbitt, and Chad Smith are a year older and that much closer to major league ready. Even starters like Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, Buck Farmer, or Drew VerHagen could be in line for some bullpen innings. Add in Joe Nathan and we're up to 22 pitchers to fill seven spots.
Despite the relative lack of big names, this is how bullpens are built. Alburquerque and Hardy were both minor league free agent signings and they contributed 2.9 rWAR out of the bullpen last season. Joba Chamberlain was another buy-low signing and he was the team's best reliever for nearly all of 2014. If we go back a few years, bargain bin pick-ups like Armando Galarraga and Darin Downs also contributed some value for the team.
Yes, this list is underwhelming. But instead of begging for a high-profile signing like Andrew Miller or Sergio Romo, look at how another top-notch bullpen was built. The Kansas City Royals' bullpen led all of baseball with 5.9 fWAR last year, and nearly all of their contributors were homegrown products. Only Wade Davis, a failed starter before he became a lockdown setup man, and Jason Frasor, a shrewd trade deadline acquisition, came from outside the organization. Francisley Bueno, a minor league signing in 2011, contributed another 32 1/3 innings.
Granted, this is how the Royals operate. Nearly all of their players were drafted and developed by the organization, and were it not for an improbable eighth inning comeback in the AL Wild Card game, no one would be using their roster as a model of future success. A high-spender like the Yankees -- who also had 5.9 WAR from the bullpen last year -- surely must have splurged on their bullpen talent, right?
Wrong. The Yankees got nearly all of their production from homegrown talent and low-profile acquisitions. David Robertson, Dellin Betances, and Adam Warren? All drafted by the club. David Huff? Purchased from the San Francisco Giants and paid a league minimum salary. Even Chris Capuano, who just earned a $5 million contract for 2015, was only picked up after playing for two other teams already in 2014.
Don't get me wrong, Dave Dombrowski deserves blame for failing to address the bullpen in previous offseasons. He has relied on overpaying closers and assuming that the rest of the pen will fall into place before, and has gotten burned repeatedly in the postseason. Even last year's failures can be partly attributed to his over-reliance on a select few pitchers.
But he seems to have learned from his mistakes, even if he isn't going out and spending top dollar on the best arm on the market. By signing so many relievers at various levels of the system, Dombrowski is building a solid foundation for the Tigers to create a bullpen from within for years to come. All it takes is for one or two of the arms he has acquired to pan out, and the Tigers could instantly jump from having one of the worst bullpens in baseball to league average or better. This wouldn't be a safe bet if the Tigers had only signed two or three arms, but 11? With that much new blood, I like their odds of improving in 2015.