The Tigers seem to be using a new strategy to assemble the bullpen this season. Instead of having a handful of no-doubt big league pitchers and a dropoff in depth, they've instead gathered a huge group of fringy pitchers. Some of them could be described as "Quadruple-A talent," others as "reclamation projects," and still more simply as prospects. The idea, of course, is that a few of them will be pleasant surprises, and will perform well enough to form an acceptable bullpen. It worked with Joba Chamberlain last year, at least for a while, so the logic is sound.
The concept has been covered quite a bit recently, but when it comes down to it, there will only be seven pitchers in the Opening Day bullpen. Let's take a look at the candidates before we try to predict the squad on April 6th.
Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Al Alburquerque, and Tom Gorzelanny are virtual locks to make the Opening Day bullpen. Each of them have had recent success at the MLB level, and all four are currently healthy, as far as we know. Nathan will be given every opportunity to earn his keep as the closer, and Soria will likely slot in a setup role.
Bruce Rondon and Joel Hanrahan are each coming back from Tommy John surgery. Rondon is currently about 11 months removed from the operation, and positive reports about his recovery have trickled out. Hanrahan is closer to 21 months removed, but while the extended recovery time should bode well there are still concerns about his health.
Righties Rafael Dolis and Alberto Cabrera were acquired this offseason as minor league free agents. Josh Zeid, also a righty, was claimed off waivers from the Houston Astros. Alex Wilson, yet another righty, was acquired in the trade for Yoenis Cespedes. These newcomers will be joined by the familiar faces of Luke Putkonen and Blaine Hardy to compete for one of those final roster spots. These pitchers are most likely in, or very close to, the prime of their abilities, and what you see is probably what you get. Hardy may have a leg up on the other competition in this group as the only southpaw. He likely has an inside to track to join Gorzelanny as the left-handed side of the bullpen.
Lefty Omar Duran is an interesting pitcher, if nothing else. Signed by the A's out of the Dominican Republic at age 18, he was able to reach minor league free agency at the tender age of 24, when the Tigers scooped him up. While his results have generally been unimpressive, his raw "stuff" is quite the opposite, as Cameron noted with a comparison to Al Aburquerque. Another new addition, American right-hander Tim Melville, has a similar story -- except for the part where he'll be making his first foray into relief work. Melville was, at one point, a Top 100 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, but in subsequent seasons his stock as a starter has dropped substantially.
Duran and Melville will join 2014 contributor Chad Smith, BYB's #14 prospect Angel Nesbitt, long-time 40-man roster inhabitant Jose Valdez, and oft-hyped lefties Joe Mantiply and Ian Krol, to round out this group. OK, technically Krol no longer qualifies as a prospect, since his 32 ugly innings with the Tigers last season brought his career total up to 60 innings pitched. However, he'll still be only 23 years old on Opening Day and has plenty of room to improve, so it isn't unfair to put him in this category.
Dave Dombrowski has indicated that the Tigers would be open to the idea of temporarily converting one or more of their Triple-A starters to the bullpen, if they can contribute at the major-league level. The likely candidates are Kyle Lobstein, Drew VerHagen, Kyle Ryan, and Buck Farmer, each of which started at least one game with the Tigers in 2014. But as Jason Beck reported this morning, Ryan and Farmer may be more likely than the others.
Ausmus: Kyle Ryan, Buck Farmer will work as relievers this spring, at least in early games. They'll be in bullpen mix.— Jason Beck (@beckjason) February 20, 2015
As a lefty, Ryan would have the best shot at beating out a smaller pool of competition, but there are many factors that go into the decision to convert. For instance, if any one in this group wins a bullpen spot, he'll likely be unavailable as an emergency starter (a la Drew Smyly in 2013) and it could potentially stall his development as a starting pitcher. Each of these youngsters has arguments for and against a temporary conversion, so we'll just have to wait to see if any of them are made available out of the 'pen beyond spring training.
Who will it be?
We're going to try out a new voting method. Since our usual polls only allow a voter to select one option, we're going to hold a vote in the comments. Each of the 23 candidates will be posted in a separate comment, and your job as a voter is to "rec" the seven names that you predict to be in the Opening Day bullpen. Remember, your rec is your vote, and you should select exactly seven players. You will need to have a SB Nation account to vote.
So, the question: Who will make up the Tigers' Opening Day bullpen?