The Detroit Tigers’ veteran closer, Joe Nathan, struggled in 2014 to the tune of a 4.81 ERA with seven blown saves. He put 1.53 runners on base per inning. His ERA was easily the highest in the American League among the dozen full-time closers who recorded at least 15 saves, and his WAR was easily the lowest of the group.
Tigers management has stated that Nathan will have to pitch better this season if he’s going to hold onto his ninth inning job, but he has done nothing so far this spring to instill confidence in anyone that a comeback is on the way. We don’t need to rehash the cause for concern about Nathan here. We just want to know what the alternative plan is if Nathan doesn’t fill the closer’s role in 2015.
First and foremost, if Nathan isn’t closing, who is? The obvious answer would be Joakim Soria, whose $7 million option was picked up by the club after the 2014 season. Soria has capably filled the closer role before with the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. In fact, he was the closer in Texas when the Tigers acquired him, posting an ERA of 2.67, striking out 40 batters in 30 innings, walking just four batters and holding opponents to a batting average of .174 at the All-Star break in 2014.
Soria was and is a far better pitcher, and a better closer than Nathan was in 2014 or ever will be again. After trading their best starting pitching prospect and their best relief pitching prospect for Soria, the club inexplicably failed to give him a prominent role. To add injury to insult, a balky oblique wiped out what little time he had left to find his groove in the Detroit bullpen.
The club might attempt to give the closer’s job to Bruce Rondon, who has just 28 innings under his belt at the major league level, and is coming off Tommy John surgery. Rondon has been slated for a setup role this year whether Nathan closes or not. Rondon's velocity, which touches triple digits on occasion, appears to be back. Whether he has the command necessary to trust him with narrow leads in the late innings is now the big question. The smart money would be on Soria closing, and Rondon taking over for him in 2016, when Soria will be a free agent.
If Soria has the ninth inning and Rondon has a setup role, that leaves at least one more late inning role in the bullpen. Joba Chamberlain worked the eighth inning for the duration of the 2014 season, and was the only Tigers relief pitcher to give them at least half of a win above replacement level, according to fWAR. He also struggled in the last two months of the season, allowing ten earned runs in 19 innings of work, for an ERA of 4.61, walking over four batters per nine innings, and a 1.45 WHIP.
One popular theory is that Chamberlain, being the only reliable pitcher in the Tigers’ bullpen for much of the season, was overworked. Having not pitched a full season since 2010, he wore down with the increased work load and faltered at the end of the season. If true, he may be a reliable option in 2015 if used a bit more sparingly. If he does put together a full season of effectiveness, it will be the first time he has done so in his major league career.
If any of the above, in addition to Nathan, are unable to step up, the next in line would be Al Alburquerque. Like Rondon, the concern with "Al Al" is that his command has been inconsistent. That shows up in his previously elevated walk rate and his high home run ratio, which has been above one per nine innings over the past two seasons.
Alburquerque led the league among qualified relief pitchers in both walk rate and strikeout rate in 2013. He took a dramatic step forward in 2014 by cutting the walk ratio to a manageable 3.50 walks per nine innings, while still striking out 9.89 batters per nine frames. He threw 63.6 percent sliders, 31.7 percent two-seam fastballs, and just 4.5 percent four-seam fastballs last season. That is pitching to his strength, as he held opponents to a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .282 when throwing the breaking stuff, but .429 against the four-seamer.
Alburquerque needs to keep the ball in the park if he is to be trusted with a narrow lead in the late innings. To his credit, each of the seven home runs that he allowed came with nobody on base. If he were to run those numbers through the wheel of fortune again, he very likely would give up more runs than his 2.51 ERA suggest. His 3.78 fielding independent pitching (FIP) ratio suggests the same.
Tom Gorzelanny is a veteran left-handed pitcher who was starting as recently as 2013, but missed a large portion of 2014 due to shoulder surgery. He is expected to be the Tigers' primary left-handed specialist and a middle inning reliever rather than working in a setup role in 2015. If none of the above are able to step forward and claim the late inning duty, he might be called upon. More likely, he will be the first man out of the bullpen to take over for a starting pitcher, four of five of whom are right-handed, when the starter has not completed at least six innings of work with the lead.
If Nathan is unable to take the closer’s role, the club could very well decide that he is not suited for another bullpen role, and give him his release. They may decide to give him some time to sort himself out before pulling the plug completely, but they could just as easily decide that the distraction isn’t worth it. If that is the case, another spot opens up for one of many young relief pitchers, all profiled here over the past few weeks. Every season, young pitchers around the game step forward and give their teams critical help in relief, but the Tigers don’t seem to get their share of aid from within.
In a bullpen without Nathan, it becomes that much more critical that Rondon finds his command right away. Otherwise, things could get very dicey in the Tigers bullpen.