The Tigers bullpen. Those words might be found listed with #YourFearIn3Words or “Things that make you drink,” and for good reason The bullpen been the source of much pain for Tigers fans over the past several years. It hit rock bottom in 2015, ranking last in the American League in several categories, and was a point of focus when general manager Al Avila retooled the team’s roster last offseason. Francisco Rodriguez, Justin and Alex Wilson, and the emergence of Shane Greene were definite bright spots but there was definitely still room for improvement.
This year’s free agent crop will bring a deluge of talented relief pitchers to the open market. Headlined by three sensational closers — Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon — the market is flush with quality relievers. Given the Tigers’ decision to be cost-conscious this winter, we can likely rule out the idea of them signing one of those three. Instead, we’ll focus on some select names of the remaining more reasonable relieves the Tigers might pursue.
The following charts show a select few of the available names that might fit into the Tigers budget plans. The complete list of available free agent relivers is quite long and can be found here. The available relievers are split up into right- and left-handed pitchers. For both lists, I only included pitchers who threw at least 30 innings in 2016. For righthanders, I also chose to cut out players with a WHIP greater than 1.35, fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings, or more than four walks per nine.
Looking though these lists, a few interesting names jump out. Matt Belisle is probably the best of the bunch. He dazzled in a relief role last year with the Nationals. He missed the month of May and some of June with an injury but turned into a reliable workhorse in the late innings. He’ll be 37 next year, so there are some age concerns. The 2016 season also happened to be the best in his career by a large margin, though he has spent the majority of his career in hitter-friendly parks like Cincinnati and Colorado. Injuries in 2014 and 2016 cost him some time, but he has otherwise been reliable and would make a solid addition in a middle-innings role. He would probably be looking for a one- or two-year deal and would probably be on the fringes of the Tigers’ spending limit.
Joe Blanton had a great year in Los Angeles for the Dodgers. A couple years ago, he looked like he might have pitched his last game in the majors, but a season in Kansas City followed by a trade to Pittsburgh allowed two good pitching coaches to work their magic on him and save his career. He’s 35, so it probably won’t last forever and there would be a concern that the spell put on him could wear off at any moment. He would seem to be a match for a middle innings role as well. MLB Trade Rumors has him projected at a two-year, $14 million deal which would probably keep the Tigers away.
Speaking of people revived by Pittsburgh, former Tigers pitcher Neftali Feliz looks to be back on track after spending a year with the Pirates. The former Texas closer was picked up by the Tigers in 2015 after being designated for assignment, but was never able to figure things out with Detroit. After being non-tendered following the 2015 season, the Pirates picked him up and did what they tend to do with broken pitchers every year: make them whole again. Feliz is still relatively young at 28 and has closer experience, so he’s projected to land up to a three-year deal. If he’s getting offers in that range the Tigers seem unlikely to make a move.
Luke Hochevar has undergone a revival as a member of the KC bullpen. The former top prospect could never seem to figure his stuff out as a starter but after moving to the bullpen he has thrived over the last couple years. His 2016 season was derailed by arm fatigue, however, which resulted in him undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in August. He should be ready to report to someone’s camp in the spring and would likely be looking for an incentive-laden deal in 2017 to rebuild value and set himself up for a bigger payday in 2018.
On the other side of the mound, Boone Logan has been a solid fixture in the Rockies bullpen the last three years after breaking out with the Yankees. He has maintained a strikeout rate near 11 the last five years with a walk rate approaching 4. He struggled with giving up hits his first two years with the Rockies but cut them sharply this year. His biggest knock is an abysmal 59.9 percent left on base rate this year. He would probably love to get out of Colorado but would want a multi-year deal to do so. MLB Trade Rumors pegs him at two years and $12 million. Detroit might pass.
Mike Dunn has quietly been an effective left-handed late-innings man for the Miami Marlins over the years. He has an average strikeout rate and similar with his walks. He strands runners at a rate of 82 percent, which would play well in the Tigers bullpen. Given that he’s 31, he’ll probably also seek a multi-year deal similar to Logan’s. If he is willing to take less, the Tigers could be in play.
If the Tigers want a cheap one-year investment they could turn to Marc Rzepczynski, a.k.a. “Scrabble.” This journeyman lefty has fallen into a LOOGY role recently but is still devastating against lefties and terrible against righties. In one of the oddities in baseball, Rzepczynski actually walked more right-handed batters (23) than he struck out (15) last year.
If the Tigers stick with the current game plan they’ve been espousing — getting younger and cheaper — they probably won’t be adding much in the relief department outside of maybe one arm on an affordable one-year deal (possibly just a minor league deal). But if they are able to move some money around and feel they can contend, they could pick up a couple decent relief arms on the cheap. However, as they saw with Mark Lowe, buying help isn’t always the best way to build a winner.