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MLB Opening Day 2016: Tigers bullpen still projects to be among baseball's worst

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Will the Tigers bullpen be any better than last season?

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day bullpen consisted of Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Krol and Angel Nesbitt (replacing the injured Bruce Rondon). We all know how that worked out. The Tigers finished among the dregs of the American League in nearly every statistical category, including a 4.38 ERA.

The good news is that none of these players will be on the Tigers’ 2016 Opening Day roster, as the club completely revamped their bullpen during the offseason. However, most projections are showing not much of an improvement from 2015 to 2016.

Last year, Tigers relievers combined for -0.1 fWAR, tied with the Oakland Athletics for the third-lowest total in baseball. Only the Braves and Red Sox had worse bullpens by this metric. FanGraphs has released rankings of 2016 relievers, and the Tigers rank 25th, with 1.9 fWAR.

Hey, at least it's now a positive number, but it’s only two spots better than last year. Let's break down why the Tigers bullpen might not be as good as we think.

Injuries

The Tigers’ two best relievers from last year, Alex Wilson (2.19 ERA) and Blain Hardy (3.08 ERA), will start the year on the disabled list. FanGraphs’ article only projects 55 combined innings from these two pitchers, down from 131 total innings in 2015. That’s a lot of quality innings gone.

Also on the disabled list is starting pitcher Daniel Norris. This indirectly impacts the bullpen as candidates Shane Greene, Buck Farmer and Matt Boyd will now be competing for a starting pitching job instead of an option for the bullpen. We don't quite know how that will shake out yet, but all signs point towards Farmer joining the bullpen while the other two remain starters.

Projected 2016 stats from FanGraphs
Reliever IP ERA FIP WAR
Blaine Hardy 30 3.71 3.74 0.1
Alex Wilson 25 3.96 4.09 0
Buck Farmer 35 4.97 4.87 -0.1
Shane Greene 20 4.82 4.58 0


Fluke years?

Of the three big acquisitions, only Francisco Rodriguez has a long track record. He has 386 career saves, including 82 over the last two years. He has a 2.69 career ERA and it was at 2.21 last year.

Mark Lowe, expected to be the setup man behind Rodriguez, only has one great year and that was last year’s 1.96 ERA season. Before 2015, he was a career 4.16 ERA pitcher. The Tigers are hoping he’s another Joaquin Benoit lottery winner, who also didn’t put it altogether until his early-30s. The fact that Lowe has an ERA over 9.00 during Spring Training doesn’t leave much room for hope, but it is only a seven inning sample size.

Justin Wilson has mostly been good. He has been above league average in ERA in two of his three full seasons (2.08 ERA in 2013 and 3.10 ERA in 2015). Like Lowe, though, he has been poor during Spring Training (9.00 ERA).

Projected 2016 stats from FanGraphs
Reliever IP ERA FIP WAR
Francisco Rodriguez 65 3.54 3.63 0.7
Mark Lowe 65 3.57 3.56 0.8
Justin Wilson 55 3.53 3.59 0.5

Prospects

It seems like forever we have waited for Bruce Rondon to take control of a bullpen spot and run with it, but every year he disappoints (or is injured). This year his poor performance in Spring Training (9.00 ERA) has earned him yet another demotion to AAA.

Drew VerHagen was tremendous in his 20 appearances last year with a 2.05 ERA. Hopefully he can carry that into 2016 for a full season.

Kyle Ryan has moved back and forth from starting to relieving, but now that he’s concentrating solely on relieving, it could be exactly what he needs to take the next step. He had a 4.47 ERA last year, but a 3.51 ERA when used out of the bullpen. So far during Spring Training, he has a 2.45 ERA in nine relief appearances.

Projected 2016 stats from FanGraphs
Reliever IP ERA FIP WAR
Bruce Rondon 45 4.01 3.89 0.1
Drew VerHagen 55 4.24 4.26 0
Kyle Ryan 40 4.68 4.54 -0.1

The Tigers might have to rely on unexpected pitchers to get them to the next level. Lendy Castillo and Logan Kensing were longshots to make the Tigers roster out of Spring Training but are still in camp. With the above injuries and Rondon’s struggles, they could make an impact on the Tigers’ bullpen, even if they don’t make the opening day roster. Castillo has a 2.16 ERA so far in Spring Training and Kensing has a 3.24 ERA – two of the better ERA among bullpen candidates. Hopefully they become another Alex Wilson/Blaine Hardy surprise and not a Ian Krol/Angel Nesbitt disappointment.

We were praising Al Avila during the off-season for finally upgrading the bullpen and giving the Tigers depth. However, at this point, it doesn’t look to be that much better than the last few years.  Let’s hope the Tigers can prove these projections wrong and have the bullpen become a strength instead of a weakness.