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MLB Opening Day 2016: Tigers' bullpen decisions going down to the wire

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Several pitchers remain in the running for a major league roster spot in the Detroit Tigers' bullpen, with at least two spots up for grabs.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers' bullpen will have the largest change in personnel of any area on the major league roster entering the 2016 season. That stands to reason, as the Tigers had arguably the worst relief corps in the American League in 2015. Detroit's bullpen ERA of 4.64 was the highest in the league, and the team blew more than 40 percent of its save opportunities.

Detroit gave up closer Joakim Soria, as well as Joba Chamberlain, veteran closer Joe Nathan, veteran lefty Tom Gorzelanny, and former closer Neftali Feliz, and with them, the vast majority of major league experience in the bullpen. The Tigers took advantage of those openings, by adding closer Francisco Rodriguez, and set up men in right-hander Mark Lowe and left-hander Justin Wilson. Those three will supply the late inning crew, who will be given the most crucial late innings in the 2016 season.

There are few holdovers from the 2015 Detroit bullpen entering the 2016 season who figure to be "locks" to make the team. Two relief pitchers, to be exact, played a major part in the Tigers' bullpen last season, who figure to play a major role in the upcoming season. With seven relief pitchers likely to make the opening day roster, we will focus on the four remaining spots in the Tigers' 2016 bullpen.

The holdovers

Blaine Hardy has been the Tigers' best relief pitcher over the past two seasons. Hardy led all Tigers' pitchers with 70 appearances and led all relievers in WAR and fielding independent pitching (FIP), and had among the lowest home run ratios in the league. He had a somewhat rough spring training in 10-1/3 innings last season, and was inexplicably left off the Opening Day roster. He was called up in early April and was the most valuable Tigers' relief pitcher through the season.

Alex Wilson was acquired by Detroit in the trade of Rick Porcello to Boston for Yoenis Cespedes, and was a valuable member of the Tigers' bullpen in 2015. As other relievers failed, Wilson took on greater importance in a depleted bullpen, even filling in as the Tigers' closer at times. He led the Tigers' relief corps with 70 innings and a 1.03 WHIP ratio last season.

Wilson currently is battling shoulder soreness, which interrupted his performance late last season, and has yet to pitch in spring training this year. Still, there is a roster spot with his name on it waiting for when he is healthy. He is expected to be ready for Opening Day, but his absence would create a third opening in the Tigers' bullpen to start the  2016 season.

The favorites

Drew VerHagen figures to be the favorite of the returning Tigers to claim one of the two remaining bullpen spots. He was one of the few bright spots among minor league players called up to Detroit during the 2015 season.  In 26-1/3 innings of work during the 2015 season, the 6-foot- 6 right-hander posted a 2.05 ERA with a WHIP ratio of 1.22, holding opponents to an average of .200.

Manager Brad Ausmus told MLive.com that VerHagen could see action as a starter or relief pitcher in 2016.

"He could do anything," Ausmus said. "If he pitches like we think he can, he could probably pitch and spell one of our back-end guys for a day if they needed a rest. He also has the ability to pitch multiple innings, if we needed to get from the fifth to the seventh."

VerHagen has allowed six runs on 10 hits in 6-2/3 innings of work this spring.

Bobby Parnell worked 24 innings in the New  York Mets' bullpen in 2015. He notched 22 saves in 2013, but was diagnosed with shoulder tendinitis last August and released after the season. The Tigers signed him to a minor league contract with a chance to make the team, but his performance has been inconsistent. After pitching a couple of scoreless innings, he has allowed eight hits and six walks in 7-1/3 innings this spring. There is still time, and he has a track record, but he will need to step up his game to start the season in Detroit.

Bruce Rondon has been given a bullpen spot to lose in each of the past three seasons, but has failed to hold the job each time. He required season-ending Tommy John surgery in 2014 and has yet to make it back in the form that he showed at the end of the 2013 season, He was sent home last September with concerns about his work ethic and will have to earn a spot on the roster this spring.

Rondon has made seven appearances this spring, allowing seven hits and two walks while striking out eight batters. His 1.23 WHIP is encouraging in the small sample, but he will need to show some consistency to make the team.

The starters

Kyle Ryan made six starts and 10 relief appearances for the Tigers during the 2015 season, for a total of 56 innings with a 4.47 ERA with a WHIP of 1.42. A 5.26 FIP, with a 3.2 BB/9 and only 4.6 K/9 are nothing to get excited about, but he is still a 24-year-old, 6-foot-5 left-handed pitcher, and he has pitched well thus far this spring. Ryan has worked seven games, eight innings, allowing just one earned run on three hits, holding opponents to a .111 batting average and striking out eight batters. If spring training performance means anything, Ryan is the one that stands out the most thus far.

Shane Greene has made two starts and two relief appearances this spring, and has pitched well, but he may be needed in the rotation more than in the bullpen in 2016. After three promising starts, he was shelled more often than not last season, before being moved to the bullpen, then to Toledo, and he underwent season-ending surgery to repair an artery in his hand last August. Greene has out-pitched Daniel Norris thus far this spring and could earn a job as the team's fifth starter, or fill an opening if there is an injury during the season. A sixth starter is much more important to the team than the long relief role he'd likely have in the bullpen.

Michael Fulmer, the Tigers' consensus top prospect, was optioned to Triple A Toledo, where he will pitch in the Mud Hens' rotation to start the season.

Matt Boyd, who was acquired with Norris from Toronto for David Price in July, made 10 starts in 11 appearances for the Tigers last season, with a 6.57 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. With Fulmer being optioned, he may be next on the depth chart for a rotation spot, but has to be considered a relief candidate as well. The 25-year-old left-hander lost his rookie status, but has options remaining, so he will likely be up and down from the minors during the season. In four appearances, all starts, Boyd has a 3.29 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, with 13 strikeouts and two walks in 13-2/3 innings.

Buck Farmer made five starts and nine relief appearances for Detroit in 2015, with an ERA of 7.34 and a WHIP of 1.74 in 40 innings. This spring, he has worked nine innings, including one start, giving up eight hits and four walks, striking out seven batters.

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If Wilson and Hardy are healthy and in good form, they'll claim two spots. VerHagen and Parnell look to be next in line, with the Tigers keeping starters in a minor league rotation at least to start the season. But expect a lot of roster movement during the season in the Tigers' bullpen.