When the Detroit Tigers announced that Shane Greene would potentially move to the bullpen following his rehab assignment at Triple-A Toledo, many fans were skeptical. His one-inning stint in Saturday's game against the Chicago White Sox only added fuel to the fire, as many fans believe Greene should be in a multi-inning role if the organization doesn't stick him in the rotation.
Color me controversial, but I think the Tigers are using Greene perfectly. It goes deeper than bullpen management, though. Greene is an excellent match for the Tigers bullpen, and vice versa. The team needs him in this role, and both parties may benefit more in the long run from Greene spending some time in the pen.
Now, this does not mean that the move should be permanent. Greene is talented enough to warrant another shot at the starting rotation at some point, and he could eventually thrive in that role. But right now? Greene belongs in the bullpen, and here's why.
1. The bullpen needs more help
Remember back in April when we thought the bullpen was fixed and the starting rotation was a dumpster fire? Well, think again. The rotation seems to have solidified, with Justin Verlander and Mike Pelfrey performing much better of late. Anibal Sanchez has been replaced by Matt Boyd, who has looked serviceable in his first two starts of 2016. The numbers don't back it up yet -- Tigers starters posted a 4.80 ERA in May -- but, as Catherine pointed out earlier this week, Sanchez was the big problem.
Without Sanchez and Pelfrey, the Tigers' FIP would become 3.82, tied with the White Sox for the sixth-best pitching staff in MLB...But even if you leave Pelfrey in the rotation and remove only Sanchez, that would make the team FIP 3.98, 16 points higher. Sanchez is that much of a detriment to the rotation. He simply cannot pitch effectively for a long period of time.
The bullpen, though? Oh lawd. The Tigers' pen posted a 6.91 ERA in May, over a full run higher than the next-worst team in the American League. Five of the 10 relievers they used were at 6.75 or higher, including current bullpen stalwarts Justin Wilson and Alex Wilson. Mark Lowe, the team's setup man on Opening Day, posted a 12.46 ERA in 8 2/3 May innings, and has some serious red flags (namely, a serious drop in velocity) surrounding his overall performance in 2016. Justin Wilson and Francisco Rodriguez are perhaps the only reliable pitchers in the bullpen right now, and the Tigers need a pitcher like Greene to bridge the gap.
Plus, these innings can be just as valuable as a starter's. Greene was worth .095 WPA in one inning on Saturday. Pelfrey's six innings were worth just .083 WPA.
2. Greene's innings can be managed better
Between the pseudoaneurysm and blood clots that ended his 2015 season and a blister that shelved him for over a month this year, Greene has struggled to stay on the field. While it's a stretch to call him an injury risk at this point, putting him in the pen helps the team keep a lid on the number of innings he is throwing. Even if he works multiple innings in his bullpen outings, he won't log more than 10-15 innings in a month, whereas he could approach that total in a week in the rotation. A lot has been made of the innings counts of Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, but Greene worked fewer innings than both of them in 2015.
And if, God forbid, Greene does get injured again? The repercussions aren't as severe. There are a lot more moving parts when a starter needs to come out of the game abruptly, from the strain it puts on the bullpen to the roster acrobatics involved in finding a spot starter. Should Greene find himself in more blister trouble in the pen, the effects on the rest of the roster are dampened.
3. He provides late-season insurance for Michael Fulmer
Speaking of innings limits, the Tigers have other starters who probably won't spend a full season in the rotation. Michael Fulmer probably won't be subjected to more than 160-170 total innings this year (including the 15 1/3 frames he pitched at Triple-A Toledo in April), and Daniel Norris should see a similar workload. Fulmer has already proven himself indispensable to the rotation, but even pumping the brakes throughout the season won't get him far into September before a potential shutdown. The Tigers are right to "burn" Fulmer's innings now, otherwise they might not be in a playoff race later this season.
This is where Greene comes in. Should the Tigers feel he can handle a move to the rotation later this year, they can start to stretch him out in July or August -- presumably after they have bolstered their pitching staff in some way at the trade deadline. The Atlanta Braves did something similar with Kris Medlen in 2012, and the young righthander rewarded them with a 9-0 record and 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. This isn't to say that Greene will similarly light the AL on fire, but he gives the Tigers a ready-made replacement should Fulmer, Norris, or Boyd find themselves bumping up against that innings cap.