As Opening Day draws near and the Detroit Tigers' roster is taking shape, there are five relief pitchers -- four of them left handed -- vying for the final spots in the bullpen. Here are the candidates, and a look at their chances of making the team.
Tom Gorzelanny is the lone veteran in the group, and the one with the best shot of making the team. The Tigers signed the seven-year veteran to a one year, $1 million contract in January. He is the only one in the group who would have to clear waivers to be sent to the minor leagues, and he would not have to accept the assignment. He entered spring training as a near-lock to be on the roster, but has been unimpressive during exhibition play, allowing six runs on six hits and five walks in six innings.
Despite the shaky spring, Gorzelanny has a major league track record that none of the others have. That includes 23 appearances with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014, with a 0.86 ERA and just one home run allowed. He started games as recently as 2013, when he made 10 starts among 43 appearances, with a 3.99 ERA of 3.99 in 85 innings.
Because Gorzelanny is left-handed and can work multiple innings, he could fill a long relief role for the Tigers. As long as two other left-handed pitchers don’t force their way onto the roster, Gorzelanny’s job is probably safe, at least to start the season.
With just one bullpen job likely remaining, manager Brad Ausmus said that he would ideally like to have a second left-handed reliever on the team. That would leave Ian Krol, Blaine Hardy, and Kyle Ryan as the three vying for the last spot on the northbound bus.
Another possibility involves righthander Bruce Rondon. The Tigers may send him to Triple-A Toledo to begin the season in order to ease him back into the rigors of the six-month regular season. In that case, they could carry a third left-hander to combat the lefty-heavy lineups that the Tigers will face to start the season, or they could carry another right-handed reliever.
Angel Nesbitt is the lone right-hander left in major league camp who does not have a spot locked up. A 24-year-old Venezuelan who was added to the 40-man roster last November, Nesbitt is the only one of the group without major league experience.
Nesbitt has impressed more than his stat line suggests this spring. In nine innings, Nesbitt has allowed three runs on eight hits while striking out four and walking eight batters. He also impressed in 2014, with a 1.48 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 48 appearances, including 20 saves between Advanced-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. If he is not on the Opening Day roster, expect to see him at some point during the season in Detroit.
Ian Krol was highly regarded by Dave Dombrowski when he was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Doug Fister trade, but has not lived up to that billing. In 32 2/3 innings with Detroit last season, he posted a 4.96 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP. He allowed 1.65 home runs per nine innings, the fifth-highest ratio in the American League. Krol also walked 3.65 batters per nine innings, a dangerous combination. Opposing batters hit .287/.346/.508 off him, and righties hit a whopping .328/.384/.624. His issues against right-handed batters make Krol ill-suited for a long relief role, or even full-inning duty.
Krol is believed to have the best stuff and the brightest future among the remaining left-handed bullpen candidates. He brings a fastball in the 92-94 mile-per-hour range with a curveball and changeup. He was very effective when he was first called up by Washington in June 2013, but lost his command and has been pounded ever since. The Tigers would like Krol to step up and take the job, but he needs to improve his command in order to do so. His chance of making the team is aided by a lack of performance by other relievers.
Blaine Hardy similarly had initial success when the Tigers called him up in June, 2014. He posted a 1.84 ERA over 29 innings, giving up just one home run, and striking out 25 while walking just 12 batters through August 22. In September, he worked just five innings, mainly as a lefty specialist, and the magic was gone. Hardy was left off the playoff roster in favor of Kyle Lobstein, who had been starting for the Tigers down the stretch.
Hardy has not had an impressive spring, allowing an ERA of 4.70 in 7 2/3 innings. He has given up 10 hits, walked two and struck out three. However, he has had more major league success than either Krol or lefty starter Kyle Ryan. Since Hardy did not thrive as a lefty specialist in limited action, and is not viewed as a long reliever, his chances of making the team appear to be less than the other two. They shouldn’t be, in my view.
Kyle Ryan made his major league debut with Detroit in 2014, working 10 total innings in August and September. He allowed 10 hits, two walks, and struck out four batters without allowing a home run. In fact, he did not allow a run until his last appearance of the season. His small sample ERA of 2.61, supported by an FIP of 2.94 and a WHIP of 1.16 were enough to convince the Tigers to give him a shot at a major league bullpen job this season.
Ryan was used exclusively as a starter in the minor leagues, and made one start with the Tigers before joining the Detroit bullpen. He was off to a nice start this spring, but has run into trouble recently. While he has held opponents to a .184 batting average and a 1.00 WHIP, he has walked four batters in 10 innings and given up a pair of home runs. Six of the seven runs he has allowed have come in two games. As a former starting pitcher with a funky delivery, Ryan could be used in long relief or as a lefty specialist.
With just a week left before Opening Day, it looks as though none of the remaining candidates for the final bullpen spots have taken the leap necessary to secure a job. Gorzelanny may have made himself vulnerable, but unless he continues to struggle, there is a job waiting with his name on it.
The final bullpen spot will likely be given to one of the left-handers: Krol, Hardy, or Ryan. The last word was that Brad Ausmus and his staff were still undecided which player best fits the role that they have in mind. The Tigers used 26 relief pitchers in 2014, and 2015 probably won't be much different. Not making the Opening Day roster isn’t the end of the world for these players, all of whom will see action at the MLB level this year.