The Tigers' bullpen was bad last year. We hate to keep bringing it up -- we really do -- but it's true. They were bad last year, and they were bad the year before, too. Pick a year from the last two or three decades, and there's a good chance the Tigers had a bad bullpen. You could say it has been a recurring theme in the story of our collective Tigers fandom.
There is good news, though: general manager Al Avila and his posse are doing things. They have been doing lots of things, actually, and some of those things have addressed the bullpen. Gone from last season's disaster are Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque, Neftali Feliz, Tom Gorzelanny, and Ian Krol. In their places are a few new faces, and a few more you may have seen before (yes, that sounded like Dr. Seuss. Sorry, not sorry).
With the trade for Justin Wilson on Wednesday, the Tigers appear to have nailed down the majority of their 2016 bullpen. Wilson becomes the third late-inning addition to the beleaguered unit, and negates the pressing need of a second lefthander. Wilson, along with previous additions Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Lowe, will join a small group of established Tigers pitchers to round out the relief corps in 2016. Let's run through the guys.
Rodriguez has had a long -- and I mean loooong -- career as a major-league reliever. He posted a 3.03 ERA across 59 appearances in his first full season at the ripe age of 21 years old. Over the next five seasons, he struck out over 12 per nine innings and posted four seasons with 40+ saves, cementing his "K-Rod" moniker for good. He doesn't strike out quite as many batters these days, but he continues to be effective 13 years after his debut.
While the acquisition of a "proven closer" is often met with a deep eye roll in this neck of the woods, Rodriguez's cost was reasonable. The Brewers received minor-league infielder Javier Betancourt, and the two sides also reportedly swapped players to be named later. Rodriguez is set to make $7.5 million in 2016 (with $2 million in deferred money), and has a team option for 2017 worth $6 million, with a $2 million buyout. He has seemingly been around forever, but at 34 years old he should have a few more good years in the tank. Fingers crossed.
Further reading: Will K-Rod end the Tigers' proven closer curse?
The story on Lowe is, essentially, that he has struggled to stay healthy throughout most of his career. He spent the first seven years with the Mariners and Rangers, where he consistently threw a high-90s fastball and struck out around eight batters per nine innings...when he wasn't on the disabled list. After hitting free agency for the first time in 2013, the injuries began to pile up, his fastball velocity took a nosedive, and his performance reacted predictably.
Fast forward to 2015, and after two seasons of bouncing around the league pitching a grand total of 19 innings at the major league level, Lowe found himself back in Seattle. His velocity returned, and with it, his overall performance. After missing the first couple months, he pitched a spectacular season out of the Mariners' bullpen and earned himself a decent little payday in free agency: the Tigers signed him to a two-year, $11 million contract this offseason.
Further reading: Introducing Mark Lowe, the Tigers' newest setup reliever
Justin Wilson is the most recent addition to the Tigers' bullpen, coming by way of the New York Yankees, where he served as their seventh-inning guy. Let's be honest: playing third fiddle behind Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances is nothing to be ashamed of.
Wilson throws fastballs. He throws a lot of them, he throws them hard, and he throws them with his left arm. In 2015, 93.5 percent of his pitches were a fastball, and he throws a couple different variations in the high-90s -- some cut in, some fade down and away. The Yankees got him from the Pirates last year in exchange for Francisco Cervelli, so there are plenty of highlights of his biting fastballs from the straight-away camera angle at PNC Park.
Brad Ausmus stated that Justin Wilson and Lowe will form a two-headed setup man, allowing them to play the matchups as they see fit. Wilson isn't your typical lefty specialist, though -- his overhead motion and position on the mound allow him to get batters out on both sides of the plate.
Further reading: Tigers’ trade for Justin Wilson a calculated risk to upgrade bullpen
When former GM Dave Dombrowski was negotiating a trade to acquire Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello, he got hung up on the fact that, at the end of the season, if the Red Sox hadn't already signed Porcello to an extension, they could make him a qualifying offer and receive draft pick compensation he signed elsewhere. Cespedes, due to a clause in his contract, was not eligible for draft pick compensation. Because of that discrepancy, according to Dombrowski, he demanded that Alex Wilson be included in the trade.
Wilson had posted solid numbers the year prior, but in only 28 innings, and with a mediocre minor-league track record, he was just a throw-in. A year later, Wilson was arguably the most effective reliever in the Tigers' bullpen.
Alex was grossly underutilized last season, always slotting below an ever-changing smattering of inferior arms on the Tigers' depth chart. Now, he finds himself being pushed downwards again, as the late innings appear to be claimed by the other Wilson, Lowe, and Rodriguez. However, this time around his low-leverage role might actually be based on merit. If the Tigers truly have three relievers more capable to hold a lead, they'll have the best bullpen Detroit has seen in years.
Further reading: Alex Wilson was the Tigers' most consistent reliever in 2015
Like Alex Wilson, Hardy probably wasn't used in a role that maximized his value last year. And, like Alex, he now finds himself pushed down the pecking order again, unlikely to get the opportunities he earned last season. And, like with Alex, that's actually a good thing for the Tigers and their fans.
With the trade for Justin Wilson, Hardy becomes the second lefty in the 'pen -- a role usually reserved for one-batter outings sprinkled between mop-up duty. The weird thing is that he might be just as good as the left-handed Wilson, as his sparkling career 2.87 ERA suggests. But his high-80s fastball and yawn-inducing strikeout rate ensure that he'll fight an uphill battle to convince coaches and scouts that he can get outs with the best of them. Let's just hope Hardy and Justin Wilson both stay healthy, because there appears to be a good-sized drop to the next lefty in line.
Further reading: Tigers' Blaine Hardy could be even better in 2016
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The final two spots in the bullpen will likely be filled internally, and the list of candidates is long, with more than a couple of interesting pitchers included. Bruce Rondon, Drew VerHagen, Angel Nesbitt, Jeff Ferrell, Montreal Robertson, and Jose Valdez are all currently on the 40-man roster and look to compete for a bullpen spot during spring training. Rondon is easily the most talented of the bunch, but questions around his work ethic remain after he was sent home at the end of the season.
On top of that group, general manager Al Avila has stated an intention to try converting young starting pitchers to the bullpen if they aren't needed for the big-league rotation, and there are a few options to choose from. Buck Farmer, Shane Greene, and Michael Fulmer can all be added to the candidate pool, though it's also possible that any or all could remain starting in Triple-A. Surely the final decision will be made during spring training.
Lefties Matt Boyd, Kyle Lobstein, and Kyle Ryan will likely start the season in Triple-A Toledo, though if either Justin Wilson or Hardy needs to be replaced, one of these three would likely get the call in order to maintain the preferred number of left-handed relievers. Two is just right.
There is still a lot of time until Opening Day, and the Tigers might not even be done with the bullpen just yet (Tom Gorzelanny, anyone?). But the most important parts of the bullpen seem to be figured out. Avila has turned over nearly the entire unit, but with five spots spoken for we may be looking at the finished product.