The Detroit Tigers' bullpen has long been a bugaboo for a club that has remained in contention for nearly a full decade. In fact, you might have to go back to that 2006 Tigers team to find a bullpen that fans were truly confident in. The names didn't make sense at the time -- Todd Jones? Fernando Rodney? Jamie Walker?! -- but that unit got the job done, posting the second-best ERA in the American League.
Since then, things haven't been so rosy. The Tigers have the worst bullpen ERA among AL teams* since 2007, and have finished in the bottom third of the league in all but one season during that stretch.
Are things going to be different in 2016? We sure hope so. General manager Al Avila and the front office staff revamped the pen this offseason, adding Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson to the fold. With Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson coming off solid seasons and flamethrower Bruce Rondon potentially in the mix, the Tigers may finally have an above average bullpen for once.
That said, they could use another arm. Let's toy around with some names.
*Not including the Houston Astros, who moved to the AL in 2013.
My attitude on bullpen arms is similar to Ron Swanson's on bacon and eggs: you can never have enough. I was cautiously optimistic about the army of arms the Tigers brought in last year, and... well, yeah. The Tigers are starting with a better crop of relievers this year, but any last-minute additions would be more than welcome.
Cliff Lee ain't happening, though. Nearly every MLB team will have some level of interest in Lee, and for good reason. He posted a 2.89 ERA and 6.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2008 to 2013, topping 200 innings every year. He was once a very, very good pitcher.
However, that guy is probably gone. Lee is 37 now, hasn't thrown a major league pitch since July 2014, and is looking to go to a contender. We obviously view the Tigers in that light because it's February and what else are we going to do, but there's no guarantee that Lee feels the same way (the computers sure don't). Some team may even be foolish enough to give him a legitimate shot at a job in the rotation, whereas the Tigers already have five starters healthier, and probably better, than Lee.
There are still several interesting names out there, though. MLB Trade Rumors has a whole list of dudes, and we'll probably sort through the better ones in the near future. One name that sticks out? Righthander Tyler Clippard, who has a 2.88 ERA in 562 career innings. Clippard struggled in the playoffs with the New York Mets last season, but had a solid regular season and will only be 31 years old in 2016. He tends to give up lots of home runs thanks to a monster fly ball rate, but his track record speaks for itself.
@blessyouboys if Calvin Johnson became a Tiger, which position would he play?— Craig Kirkendall (@WillieChuckJr) February 4, 2016
I haven't seen Calvin Johnson's pitching delivery or secondary stuff -- I'm quite good at scouting pitchers, you know -- but his speed would make him an asset in Comerica Park's spacious center field. Megatron was a threat to burn a defense deep at any time while playing wide receiver for the Lions, and his excellent leaping ability would help him climb an outfield wall or two throughout the season. Catch rules are a bit easier to decipher in Major League Baseball as well, so no worries about any technicalities.
Plus, it's always nice when your center fielder hits for a little bit of power.
This may all change if he gets off to a hot start, but Nick Castellanos is an easy preseason pick for Scapegoat of the YearTM. Many fans will overlook that Castellanos is only entering his age-24 season and immediately point to a lackluster batting average and on-base percentage, along with his below average defense. Castellanos has made gains so far in a Tigers uniform -- he took steps forward on both sides of the ball last year -- but year three is probably the tipping point for fans expecting the hitting savant we heard about in the minor leagues.
It's funny how expectations work. Castellanos hasn't lived up to his lofty potential yet, but James McCann is already universally revered by many Tigers faithful. McCann outpeformed Castellanos in terms of fWAR last season, but Castellanos was the better hitter, with a 94 wRC+ to McCann's 85. The #McCannon attached to his right shoulder is a big reason why the 25-year-old backstop is so popular in Detroit, but he posted some of the worst pitch framing numbers in baseball last season. McCann could still prove to be a useful starting catcher, but he's not a 120-game player yet, and should be treated with the same reserved optimism.
@BYBRob would Juan Uribe have been a better signing than Mike Aviles?— Dave Miller (@dwmiller19) February 5, 2016
There are two sides to this question. The on-field side pits Uribe, a relatively stationary corner infielder who hit .253/.320/.417 last season, against Aviles, a more versatile player whose offensive numbers were NSFW in a very bad way. Aviles had much bigger problems than baseball in 2015, but he has a 74 OPS+ to his name over the past four seasons and isn't the kind of lefty-masher you'd hope for out of a right-handed bench bat (Uribe isn't either). The Tigers are looking for the next Don Kelly in Aviles, who should fill in all over the diamond in 2016.
Then there's Juan Uribe, all-around badass. He dances in the dugout. He loves animals. He wears pimp hats. People write articles about him titled "Juan Uribe is awesome and everybody loves him" or "Juan Uribe, everybody's favorite." If you liked Brayan Pena, you would love Juan Uribe. In fact, they're not allowed to be on the same team per MLB rule number something-or-other because it would just be too awesome.
Sign Juan Uribe, Tigers. Do it now.
While I haven't exactly warmed up to Ausmus as a manager during the offseason, I do believe criticisms about his overall body of work are overblown. He was able to lead the Tigers to a division title in 2014 despite injury concerns with his two biggest stars and a disaster of a bullpen at his disposal. He didn't exactly help himself during the 2015 season, but the Tigers' last place finish wasn't his fault either. He will probably never be an above average in-game tactician, and his reluctance to embrace sabermetrics is a bit of a downer (yes, even though he told us so when he was hired).
However, I think the comments made by the players and Al Avila following the decision to retain Ausmus for 2016 speak volumes. Avila noted that the players vouched for Ausmus, something they don't necessarily need to do if they're not happy with how he's handling the clubhouse. We saw growth from young players like James McCann and Nick Castellanos during the season, and there hasn't been the slightest mention of any rift among players behind closed doors. Baseball managers are responsible for far more than what we see during a three-hour period every night, and Ausmus seems capable of handling those immeasurable interactions with his players.
But yes, you can still be upset when he pulls Blaine Hardy after one batter.