After a year of ninth inning turmoil, the Tigers' closer situation has finally been resolved. Joakim Soria has moved into the closer role with a flourish, saving each of his first 11 opportunities while allowing just two runs in 14 innings. The rest of the Tigers bullpen, however, is still in flux. Newly crowned setup man Joba Chamberlain coughed up a three-run lead against the Chicago White Sox earlier this week, and Al Alburquerque has struggled after being one of the team's best relievers in 2014. Angel Nesbitt and Tom Gorzelanny have looked solid, but the Tigers need more than three effective relief pitchers to last the season.
Down at Triple-A Toledo, righthander Alberto Cabrera has been dominating. He is allowing a paltry .094 batting average and 0.87 ERA in his first 10 1/3 innings. He has 14 strikeouts to five walks in nine appearances, and has picked up a pair of wins already this season. He was the pitcher of record on Saturday, when the Mud Hens won in walkoff fashion in 10 innings. This hot start could lead to a call-up to the majors in the near future, especially if other pitchers in the bullpen continue to falter.
Cabrera spent nine seasons in the Chicago Cubs organization, and logged a combined 27 2/3 innings at the major league level in 2012 and 2013. He had a 5.20 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, and 4.02 FIP during that small sample of innings, and did not pitch in the majors in 2014. The Cubs released him at the end of the season, and the Tigers signed him to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. As a pitcher who can reach the mid-90s with his fastball, it's no surprise that his profile was enticing to the Tigers.
Cabrera is a 26 year old right-hander who possesses a big fastball and biting slider. He has averaged 94 miles per hour with the fastball in 32 career appearances at the MLB level, but reports indicate that he can reach back for more when necessary. His slider sits in the low-to-mid 80s, and was rated as the best slider in the Cubs' farm system by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season. Cabrera was also working on a changeup when he was pitching in the rotation, but he may be at the point where dropping the changeup allows him to work as a fastball-slider power pitcher.
Cabrera's spring training numbers weren't pretty, with a 5.94 ERA and five walks in 9 1/3 innings. However, he displayed how tough he is to hit during the spring, when opposing batters hit just .194 against him. He flashed his lethal breaking stuff on numerous occasions, including a beautiful 3-2 breaking ball to New York Yankees top prospect Aaron Judge.
Cabrera is not currently on the Tigers' 40-man roster, but that is no longer an impediment for the Tigers. Joe Nathan was transferred from the 15-day to the 60-day disabled list, opening up a spot on the 40-man roster. The timing of this move is interesting, and leads me to wonder if the Tigers are preparing for a roster move in the near future.
The Mud Hens have a number of relievers who could move into that spot if called up, and Cabrera is by far their top performer so far this season. Rafael Dolis sports a fastball that can touch triple digits, but he has walked 15 batters in 11 2/3 innings. Melvin Mercedes has a 1.95 WHIP in nine appearances, and lefthander Kenny Faulk has a 7.36 ERA in 11 innings. Former first round pick Ryan Perry made his first appearance of the season with the Mud Hens on Friday, and looked impressive, by all accounts. The Tigers will likely want to see several similar outings before they call him up, though, and Cabrera has already checked off all the boxes that Perry will need to.
There are still some warning signs with Cabrera, though. His hot start is partially fueled by a .158 BABIP, a figure that is unsustainable at any level. He also has five walks in 10 1/3 innings, a 13.2 percent rate. His command problems have cost him dearly in the past, and major league hitters are far less forgiving than the career journeymen and occasional top prospect seen in Triple-A.
Could Cabrera help the Tigers' bullpen? Sure, and given the recent struggles of Alburquerque and Chamberlain, it might be worth a shot. However, I don't think he will be a solution, and could quickly become a liability if his hot start doesn't translate to the major leagues.