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Joel Hanrahan could be a big boost to Tigers bullpen in 2015

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Hanrahan has missed nearly two full seasons after Tommy John surgery in 2013. Can he return to form in 2015?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Here's a question for you to ponder: if Joel Hanrahan doesn't get injured and miss the entire 2013 season, do the Boston Red Sox win the World Series? Does Koji Uehara still turn in one of the most dominant performances from a relief pitcher we have ever seen, including a scoreless run through the ALCS and World Series? The Red Sox won 97 games and underperformed their pythagorean win expectation by three games that season, but would they have been able to close out the Tigers so handily the ALCS?

Excluding their role in Mike Ilitch's continued quest to hold the Comissioner's Trophy aloft, the 2013 Boston Red Sox have absolutely no bearing on the 2015 Detroit Tigers. It is only coincidence that Joel Hanrahan threw his last MLB pitch for those Red Sox, and his (and Andrew Bailey's) injury opened the door for Koji Uehara. Now, Hanrahan is with the Tigers, the team he rehabbed with for most of the 2014 season. The operative term there is "rehabbed," because he missed the entire season due to the same Tommy John surgery that cost him nearly all of 2013. May 16th, 2015 will mark Hanrahan's two year anniversary since going under the knife. As a non-roster invitee who is not guaranteed a roster spot, will Hanrahan be back in the majors before that milestone? We honestly have no idea.

Where did he come from?

Hanrahan was drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the second round of the 2000 amateur draft. He spent several years in their farm system as a starter, but was never able to put together the numbers to earn a shot at the major league level. The Dodgers released him after the 2006 season and the Washington Nationals signed him less than a month later. Still a starter, Hanrahan's numbers didn't improve much from his previous season in the Dodgers' system. The Nats called him up anyway, but he allowed a 6.00 ERA in 11 starts.

Hanrahan was shifted to the bullpen for the 2008 season, and the move paid off almost immediately. He allowed a 3.95 ERA and 3.84 FIP in 84 1/3 innings that season, nearly doubling his strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after a dismal start to the 2009 season, but took off with a 1.72 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings for the Bucs down the stretch. Hanrahan would shine over the next three seasons, allowing a 2.73 ERA and 3.02 FIP in 198 innings. He struck out nearly three times as many batters as he walked, and saved 82 games in 94 chances.

Following the 2012 season, the Pirates traded Hanrahan and Brock Holt to the Boston Red Sox for four players, including current closer Mark Melancon. Hanrahan only pitched 7 1/3 big league innings before getting injured and missing the rest of the year. He signed with the Tigers in May of 2014, only to suffer a setback during the summer and miss the entire season.

Scouting report

Hanrahan is a 33-year-old right-hander who relies exclusively on a four-seam fastball and slider over the past several years. From 2010 through 2012, his fastball averaged over 97 miles per hour, and occasionally touched 100 miles per hour in 2011. His slider sits in the 86-87 mile per hour range, but it got slightly faster (88-89 miles per hour) in 2012. Hanrahan walked 5.43 batters per nine innings that season, so there may have been something more sinister at play.

He was fairly predictable with his pitch usage during his time with the Pirates, throwing the fastball more often early in the count and when he got behind. The slider came out occasionally on the first pitch of an at-bat (especially to right-handed hitters), but was primarily used as his out pitch. He throws the slider nearly 50 percent of the time in two-strike counts, and just 16 percent of the time on the first pitch of an at-bat.

For his career, Hanrahan has been slightly tougher on left-handed batters than righties. Lefties are hitting just .220 with a higher strikeout rate against him, while righties have a lower walk rate. His splits have occasionally deviated from season-to-season -- he had conventional splits in 2010, dominated everyone in 2011, and had reverse splits in 2012, for instance -- but has not needed to change his arsenal or approach in order to get left-handed hitters out.

What should we expect from him?

We know more about Hanrahan than we do about the various minor leaguers that populate the rest of the Tigers' non-roster invitee list, but he provides the most uncertainty. If he is healthy, Hanrahan is a former All-Star closer who could provide a huge boost to a Tigers bullpen that desperately needs one. If he isn't, the team is still in decent shape with all of the arms they have in camp. However, none of the other six non-roster invitees (nor many of the players on the 40-man roster) have the MLB experience that Hanrahan does.

Unfortunately, there has been almost nothing in the news about Hanrahan's health, and he's not one to tweet workout pictures like J.D. Martinez or Miguel Cabrera. When he re-signed with the Tigers, Hanrahan said that he was hoping to start throwing after Thanksgiving. He started having elbow pain when throwing in the bullpen last summer, and the setback cost him the rest of the season. The important thing for Hanrahan will be for him to get his velocity back. He has relied upon throwing premium stuff by hitters in short spurts during his most successful seasons, but missing two years while he inches closer to his mid-thirties leaves us to wonder if he will ever make a full recovery. We will know a lot more about Hanrahan's progress and proximity to a return when the Tigers get to Lakeland next week.