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Tigers' Al Avila not afraid to use top pitching prospects in bullpen

Avila's bullpen approach is vastly different from that of his predecessor.

Duane Burleson/Getty Images

It has been a busy offseason so far for the Detroit Tigers. One area that general manager Al Avila has been rebuilding is the bullpen. Gone are Joakim Soria, Al Alburquerque, Neftali Feliz, Ian Krol and Tom Gorzelanny. So far the team has acquired Francisco Rodriguez to be their closer and Mark Lowe as the setup man. After looking at free agent relievers Tony Sipp and Antonio Bastardo, Avila decided to trade for left-hander Justin Wilson from the Yankees. This has been one big bullpen revamp.

As of right now, none of the Tigers' relievers from the 2015 Opening Day bullpen are set to make the 2016 Opening Day bullpen. One interesting note that keeps getting overlooked is that Avila hasn’t ruled out the possibility of using Shane Greene and Michael Fulmer out of the bullpen. Greene was mostly a starting pitcher for the Tigers last year, and even started after getting demoted to Triple-A (before getting diagnosed with a pseudoaneurysm in his right hand and having season-ending surgery in August).

However, the most interesting name mentioned here is Michael Fulmer, the centerpiece of the Yoenis Cespedes trade. Fulmer, who had a 2.14 ERA, 8.8 K/9, and a 2.3 BB/9 in Triple-A last year between the Tigers and Mets, is considered a top prospect, not only in the Tigers’ organization, but in all of baseball. FanGraphs recently ranked him No. 70 in their latest list of top prospects. This is another deviation from Dave Dombrowski’s philosophy of using top pitching prospects. From George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press:

Avila said of the group of young pitching prospects the Tigers have stockpiled that Shane Greene and Michael Fulmer are considerations for the bullpen. "Before you go off and write we've declared Shane Green [sic] or Fulmer (relievers) -- that decision is not being made here," Avila said. "Nor has it been discussed to a point where we've made a decision on any of those given guys. Just possibilities, OK."

Avila said it's premature to say anyone is going to the bullpen right now. "As we get into spring training, decisions will be made then," he said. "We feel within that group of guys, we have one, possibly two guys that can be effective out of the bullpen and pitch in the back end. Our hope is to be able to develop something like that from within."

Dombrowski rarely used highly touted starting pitchers in relief. The one time he did with Drew Smyly, it worked out wonderfully. In 2013, Smyly pitched 63 games out of the bullpen with a 2.37 ERA, 2.31 FIP, 9.6 K/9, and a BB/9 of 2.0. He was arguably the MVP of the bullpen that year, pitching in various roles anywhere from long relief to setup to closer. The following year he was inserted back into the rotation and pitched well enough to be targeted as a main piece to the David Price trade. It makes you wonder, though, why didn't Dombrowski do this with his other pitching prospects?

Over the last five or so years, the Tigers have had three well-publicized starting pitching prospects, Casey Crosby, Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner. Altogether, they pitched 16 games with the Tigers at the major league level, none of them in relief. Before the 2010 season, Baseball-America ranked Crosby as the 47th-best prospect in baseball. In 2011, Oliver was ranked No. 87. Turner was ranked three consecutive years from 2010-2012 as the 26th, 21st, and 22nd prospect, respectively. Here is how the Tigers' bullpen ranked in each of those seasons in the American League.

Year AL Rank ERA
2010 8 3.96
2011 11 3.93
2012 10 3.79

The Tigers could have used some help in there, but Dombrowski chose to keep his best pitching in the minor leagues. Given his past history, it's unlikely that Dombrowski would be considering Michael Fulmer as a bullpen piece in 2016.

The counter-argument is that you do not want to stunt the growth of the pitching prospects. But just like with Drew Smyly, teams have been using this philosophy for the past few years and it hasn't hurt the pitcher's chances of starting down the road. Here are a few examples.

Andrew Cashner, ranked as high as No. 95 by Baseball America pre-2010:

Year Games GS IP ERA FIP
2012 33 5 46 1/3 4.27 3.55
2013-15 81 76 483 3.43 3.48

Chris Sale, ranked as high as No. 20 by Baseball America pre-2011:

Year Games GS IP ERA FIP
2011 58 0 71 2.79 3.12
2012-15 117 116 789 2.95 2.95

Carlos Martinez, ranked as high as No. 31 by Baseball America pre-2014:

Year Games GS IP ERA FIP
2014 57 7 89 1/3 4.03 3.18
2015 31 29 179 2/3 3.01 3.21

At this point, it's hard to say whether Fulmer will have any effect on the bullpen in 2016. The fact that Avila is even considering it shows yet another aspect of his analytics team at work. The Tigers' top pitching prospects would get some major league experience, while leveraging their stressful innings that could improve the current bullpen.

In doing so, it would also leave open the possibility of a rotation upgrade in the future. In the meantime, Avila might also find out someone like Andrew Miller works better out of the bullpen than in the rotation. This is a much needed philosophy that the Tigers had been lacking under Dave Dombrowski.