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Mailbag: Could Blaine Hardy become the Tigers' closer?

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Without any defined roles in the Tigers' bullpen, Blaine Hardy may be a potential option for the ninth inning. Also, who will be in the Tigers' 2016 rotation?

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The 2015 season has been a tumultuous one for the Detroit Tigers and their fans, but as we approach the final six weeks of the year, I have this odd feeling of serenity when turning on a Tigers game. Maybe it's because I've long since realized that the Tigers won't be playing October baseball this season -- selling at the trade deadline helps that. Knowing that the Tigers value their long-term health over a short-term win is also calming, though one has to wonder what exactly the Al Avila era will bring.

Above all, finding enjoyment in a game is much easier when your mood isn't directly tied to whether the team wins or loses. That seems a bit odd to say, but take the last week of action. Matt Boyd made a solid mid-game adjustmentagainst an aggressive Royals lineup, Daniel Norris battled through adversity to keep a game close enough for an eventual comeback, and Jefry Marte has been a pleasant surprise filling in for an injured Miguel Cabrera. Plus, it's easier to appreciate things like this.

On to the questions. Remember, you can contact us on Twitteron Facebook, or via email at bybtigers@gmail.com. Also, be sure to check out this week's podcast!

Between Alex Wilson's recent bout of shoulder soreness and Bruce Rondon's emergence as a lights-out reliever (we'll see how long this lasts...), it seems that Hardy is falling into a hybrid setup-fireman role as the Tigers close out their season. To his credit, manager Brad Ausmus has been using Hardy in relatively fluid fashion, inserting him into the game in the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning at various points already this month. Ausmus isn't leaving his top lefty in for long -- Hardy only has one outing with more than three batters faced since July 22 -- but Hardy has an average leverage index of 1.52 during that stretch, which would rank second on the team behind Joakim Soria.

To go a bit off topic, having guys like Hardy and Wilson on the roster should theoretically allow the Tigers to explore different methods of bullpen management for the rest of the season, in hopes of producing a more effective unit in 2016. The current emphasis on one-inning roles and righty-lefty matchups is rather arbitrary, and has been wholly ineffective for the Tigers in recent memory. Instead of keeping pitchers limited to pre-determined roles, the Tigers may benefit from giving the ball to Hardy or Wilson whenever they first pull their starter from the game, then letting that reliever pitch for as long as possible. Two innings? Three innings? Both Hardy and Wilson are capable of that -- though Wilson's wonky shoulder throws a wrench into this plan -- and have shown the ability to get both right and left-handed hitters out.

This bullpen methodology may seem crazy in today's era, but it was actually the norm 20-30 years ago. Relievers like Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez were used for longer stretches and racked up higher inning totals, and were invaluable pieces to their team's roster. After all, Hernandez was named the 1984 AL MVP with a 1.92 ERA in 140 1/3 innings. Between Hardy, Wilson, Buck Farmer, Kyle Ryan, and the potential return of Kyle Lobstein and Shane Greene when rosters expand, the Tigers have a slew of pitchers that could handle multiple innings of work, though their effectiveness remains to be seen. The Tigers could experiment with this old-school philosophy in hopes of filling their pen from within in 2016, and bring back the "relief ace" role in the process.

Would it work? Who knows? But now is the time to experiment, because the current practices aren't working.

What will our rotation/pen look like on opening day in 2016? Between the 12 pitching spots we only have 6 locks for next year, Verlander, Sanchez, Norris, Wilson, Hardy, and Albuquerque. Obviously filling needs internally with guys like Fulmer and Boyd is the best option, but how many spots can we fill that way, and how many free agents will we have to sign? Some names that appeal on the FA list are Cueto, Zimmermann, Clippard. Who do you realistically see getting called up and who do you see being signed to be on our pitching staff in 2016?

-Austin

First, let us rejoice in the fact that Alfredo Simon will not be part of the 2016 rotation.

Yup, had to get that one out. Anyway, The Tigers have a lot of work to do if they're going to field a competitive starting rotation in 2016. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez will both be around, barring a trade, but there are three spots left to be filled. Daniel Norris is all but a lock to get one of those, and I imagine that another will be filled by some combination of Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer, Shane Greene, Kyle Lobstein, or possibly even Michael Fulmer. What was once a very shallow rotation has now turned into a unit with some depth, though it is sorely lacking top-end talent.

Unfortunately, I don't see the Tigers adding that top arm through free agency. David Price, Zack Greinke, and Johnny Cueto are going to be hella expensive, with Jordan Zimmermann and Jeff Samardzija not far behind. I would not be surprised to see the Tigers spring for an undervalued mid-rotation arm like Mike Leake or Yovani Gallardo, and there's always the possibility of a Doug Fister reunion, especially now that the Tigers would have a solid infield defense behind him. Many fans will clamor for two free agent signees, but with payroll already pushing lofty heights and holes elsewhere on the roster, they may go for one and hope for the best.

As for the bullpen, I think people are going to be disappointed. There are some usable pieces already in place, but between a relatively thin crop of free agent relievers and a few unproven talents sitting in the minor leagues, the Tigers will probably look to fill most of their holes from within. We may see them sign one or two players, including a Joba Chamberlain-esque reclamation project, but I don't see then going after a top arm like Tyler Clippard. The player I would like to see signed is Darren O'Day, as he is working on his fourth consecutive season with an ERA under 2.30. He has eight saves in 250 appearances during this stretch, and is exactly the type of undervalued arm a saber-savvy organization should be targeting.

The easy answer here is Matt Boyd, if only because he's already pitching well in the Tigers' rotation. Both of his starts with the Tigers have been impressive in their own way, and his secondary pitches are more developed than Buck Farmer's. We may see Farmer's offspeed stuff take a step forward after more work in the offseason -- they may look to get him some innings in a fall or winter league -- but he has a long way to go before I would feel confident with him in the rotation. He won't be long for the minors, so it's possible the Tigers shift him to a relief role a la Drew Smyly in 2016.

Meanwhile, Michael Fulmer gets the short end of the stick in this comparison. Just 22, Fulmer is two years younger than both Boyd and Farmer. He was drafted out of high school, so he has a more extensive minor league track record than either of the college products. This is also the first time since 2012 that Fulmer has remained healthy for the entire season, so the Tigers will likely keep him in the minors to start 2016. It's possible that Fulmer forces his way onto the major league roster at some point, but holding him back may be the best plan for his development at this point.

I put forth my best guess for the Tigers' most likely September call ups on Thursday, and none of the names are surprising. With 39 of the spots on the 40-man roster currently filled and Kyle Lobstein slated to come off the disabled list soon (making 40), there probably won't be any call-ups from outside the 40-man roster. Putting a player onto the 40-man now would result in the Tigers having to prematurely burn an option year in 2016, so it's actually detrimental if the Tigers call up a Guido Knudson or Michael Fulmer at this point.

One name that has been mentioned frequently since that post went live is Mike Hessman. The 37-year-old slugger has finally set the minor league home run record and is a beloved figure in Toledo. We don't know if Hessman plans on hanging up his spikes after this season, but it would be a poetic end to a devoted career if the Tigers called him up for a few pinch-hit plate appearances in Detroit. It may take some roster jiggling to make it happen, but unlike some of the younger players, Hessman's spot on the 40-man roster would be temporary, so it wouldn't impact Detroit's long-term plans.

★★★

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