LAKELAND — Last year the Detroit Tigers bullpen was lacking depth even in spring training, and without enough arms available in the minors the team was at a disadvantage throughout the season. Detroit's bullpen is anything but depth-deprived this season, so much so that there aren't enough relief spots on the team to go around.
Naturally, any reliever who hasn't been guaranteed a spot for the season would like a shot at filling a place in the bullpen, but this year that's hard to come by. For the Tigers, that they even have a plethora of arms for 2015 is one luxury they didn't have last year. And at some point it's going to be a commodity the team will need at its disposal.
Of the seven positions in the bullpen, all but one has been filled and Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said he would be surprised if more than one spot became open. Currently, the bullpen locks are comprised of Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque, Tom Gorzelanny, and Bruce Rondon.
"I think those six, it would be surprising if they weren't (a lock)," Ausmus said. "Something strange would have to happen. Just based on their performances in the past. You're always concerned about injuries."
Rondon may have been named the seventh inning guy, but there's the small factor of being less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery. To that end, the Tigers need security to guard against any nasty surprises, and having another reliever share seventh inning duties would lighten the initial responsibility.
The late addition of Chamberlain also significantly diminished a more open bullpen competition. The 2014 set-up man no longer has the eighth inning job, that going to Soria, but Chamberlain will still be an important arm in the late innings. Whether that means he'll share the seventh inning with Rondon, or if it will be a pool effort among the relievers will likely not be determined until the season is officially underway.
"I think really, in general, whether you're talking about the bullpen or drafting amateur players, that's what you try to do," Ausmus said. "You try to amass quality arms. ... Part of that is on the coaching staff and myself to try and determine which of these arms can be successful. Part of that is also them performing."
The team doesn't need to go into spring or the regular season with eight relievers. It does mean, however, that at the very least, the Tigers need enough arms in the minors that can do more than survive major league hitters. Spring training ERA's also won't matter so much as the "stuff" Ausmus and the pitching staff sees from relievers leading up to Opening Day.
Kyle Ryan, Blaine Hardy, Ian Krol, Josh Zeid, Alex Wilson, and Buck Farmer are all in competition for what should be the last available bullpen spot. However, as they are left-handed pitchers, Ryan, Hardy, and Krol have a better chance at making the team, with Hardy likely leading the way because of his performance last year.
"I think that's where the depth comes into play, that if something unexpected comes up, we have a lot of arms we feel like can produce at the major league level," Ausmus said. "Say you pick one of those and they're on the team, now the rest of them are available to us in Toledo. If something happens at any time, we feel that we have a quality arm that could slide right in."
A portion of how the final bullpen spot (or spots, even) play out will depend on whether Rondon will be able to maintain his healthy status. The bullpen may no longer be an area of overwhelming concern, but that doesn't mean the questions regarding players will go away, even when the season gets started. At the very least, however, Detroit has more options than it did around this time last year.