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How good will the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen be in 2015?

The bullpen has been the weakest part of the Tigers' roster in recent years. How good will their bullpen be in 2015?

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers’ bullpen has taken more heat and more blame for the team’s failure to win a World Series title in recent years than any other part of the team’s roster.

UPDATE: Tigers sign Joba Chamberlain to a one year contract

Sure enough, when compared with other teams around the major leagues, there are a lot of numbers that suggest that the Tigers’ bullpen has been sub-standard. Not once since 2006 have the Tigers posted a bullpen ERA among the better half of teams in the American League. In 2014, Detroit’s bullpen ranked 13th in ERA, 14th in fWAR, and 13th in fielding independent pitching (FIP). The Tigers posted a bullpen WAR of 0.6. That’s 0.8 for Joba Chamberlain and -0.2 for the rest of the bullpen. By contrast, the Kansas City Royals led the league with a 5.9 bullpen WAR.

The peripheral statistics have been consistently unimpressive. Ever since Joel Zumaya blew out his elbow, the Tigers have had a bullpen that has been below the league average, overall. Worse yet, the team’s relief corps seems to pick the worst possible time to fall apart. Many blame the team’s bullpen struggles for the postseason losses.

One area where the Tigers’ bullpen has been fairly efficient is in holding the lead in the late innings. The Tigers’ bullpen has ranked among the top five teams in the league in save percentage in four of the past five seasons. In 2014, their 17 losses were the fewest in the American League. If you’re going to measure the success of a bullpen, doesn’t it make sense to look at how many games they have cost the team, and how often they hold the lead?

The Tigers have been fortunate in recent years in having stability in the ninth inning. For better or worse, the Tigers have not had the turbulence in the closer role that the vast majority of major league teams seem to go through on a regular basis. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that Dave Dombrowski has not been shy about spending money in the free agent market to acquire a "proven closer."

With the exception of the 2013 season, when Bruce Rondon was given the closer’s job to lose in spring training, the Tigers have had a free agent hired for the ninth inning role. Even in 2013, there was Joaquin Benoit to take over when Rondon failed. Dombrowski has spent on eighth inning relief pitchers as well, to varying degrees. Benoit, Joba Chamberlain, Brandon Lyon, and Octavio Dotel have all been hired to work the late innings in the Detroit bullpen in recent years.

Where the Tigers have come up short has been in getting significant contributions from homegrown pitchers to fill out the bullpen roster. The most notable exception has been Drew Smyly, who worked 76 innings in 2013, posting a 2.6 WAR, with a 2.37 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP. Inexplicably, he was yanked from his late inning role when the team acquired Jose Veras, and the Tigers’ bullpen arguably hasn’t been the same ever since.

Much of the concern about Detroit’s bullpen has been centered on their $10 million closer, Joe Nathan. Having a closer with a 4.81 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and replacement level 0.0 WAR isn’t going to instill confidence in any bullpen. Nathan blew seven save opportunities, but the team only lost four games when he entered in a save situation. Some of that is good luck. Nathan’s teammates bailed him out three times after he blew the lead. Run those numbers again, and the damage in the loss column is very likely to be greater.

One thing that stands out when you break down Nathan’s breakdowns are his splits when working on no rest or with at least one day of rest. When pitching on consecutive days, opponents hit .400 against him. With at least a day of rest, they hit just .215. Perhaps that provides some insight that would make him more effective, as unattractive as the notion of a $10 million part-time closer may be.

The biggest addition to the Tigers 2015 bullpen is Joakim Soria. Actually, Soria should have been the biggest addition in 2014, but manager Brad Ausmus fumbled that move. Between his oblique injury and the mis-management, Soria contributed little to the Tigers in 2014, but he has been a very solid pitcher in recent seasons.

Despite pitching only 44 innings last season, Soria ranked ninth in the league among relief pitchers in fWAR. He posted a 2.09 FIP, striking out 9.74 batters per nine innings, and walking just 1.22. His 8.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked fourth in the league. He will provide insurance against a Nathan implosion, and a solid eighth inning setup man if Nathan retains his job for the season.

After that is where things get dicey. The Tigers are once again relying on Bruce Rondon to fill a major role in the bullpen in 2015. After missing the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery, Rondon is said to be healthy and ready for action in 2015. He has 28 2/3 innings of major league experience, with an ERA of 3.45 and an FIP of 3.01. When he was first injured in September, 2013, he looked to be ready to fill a late inning role for the Tigers in the postseason.

If not Rondon, Al Alburquerque is likely next in line. After having the highest walk rate and the highest strikeout rate in the American League in 2013, he cut the walk rate nearly in half last season. His weakness in 2014 was the home run ball, giving up seven home runs. Fortunately, all came with the bases empty, so he was able to convert a 3.78 FIP into a 2.51 ERA. As with Nathan, you probably wouldn’t want to run the same numbers through another season and expect to escape with so little damage. More importantly, you wouldn’t want a pitcher allowing over a home run per nine innings on the mound with a one run lead in the seventh or eighth inning. If he keeps the ball in the yard, the Tigers have a very good relief pitcher, despite the walks.

Tom Gorzelanny is the one left-hander who is probably a lock to make the Tigers bullpen in 2015. In just 21 innings with Milwaukee last season, he held opponents to a 0.86 ERA and a 2.29 FIP, striking out 9.86 batters per nine innings. He has been effective over his career against right and left-handed batters, and he has worked as a starter and out of the bullpen, making ten starts as recently as the 2013 season. He seems suited for a sixth or seventh inning role.

If all of the above goes according to plan (and it rarely does) Blaine Hardy would find himself fighting for a roster spot as the second left-hander in the bullpen. There was a point in the 2014 season where Hardy was probably the most effective relief pitcher in the Tigers bullpen. After being called up in mid-June, he had a 1.84 ERA with just one home run allowed through August 22nd. He faded some to finish out the season, but still recorded a 2.54 ERA with just one home run given up in 39 innings of work for the year. If that is the sixth man in the bullpen, things are certainly improved.

One other pitcher that I’d like to mention who might be able to improve the Tigers’ bullpen is Alex Wilson, who was acquired along with Yoenis Cespedes in the trade for Rick Porcello. Wilson worked 28 1/3 innings in 2014, with an ERA of 1.91 but an FIP of 3.91. He struck out just over six batters per nine innings but walked only 1.59. Over two seasons in the major leagues, Wilson has logged 56 innings with an ERA of 3.38 and an FIP of 3.50, with a career WHIP of 1.30.

As with most bullpens, the Tigers have questions with their relief corps heading into the 2015 season. The biggest question is how effective Joe Nathan will be, and what they will do if he is ineffective as the closer. A related question is whether manager Brad Ausmus will limit Nathan’s usage, if necessary, to get the most out of him. If that means not using your $10 million closer on consecutive days, is he willing to do that?

The Tigers used 26 relief pitchers during the 2014 season, including those called up in September. A dozen of those worked at least ten innings during the season. According to ERA, FIP, or WAR, Detroit’s bullpen was among the bottom third in the American League.

To answer the question that is the subject of this article, you will first need to ask yourself what is important in measuring how good a bullpen is. Bullpen ERA is not only dependent on the team’s defense, but we have seen with the Tigers that they can have a high bullpen ERA and still get away with one of the better save percentages in the league. Save percentage involves some luck, but results in what you see in the win and loss columns. If you want to use WAR, I would suggest that it would be pretty hard to fall below just 0.6 fWAR for the entire bullpen for the season.

Choose your measuring stick and venture a guess. How good will the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen be in 2015?