The Detroit Tigers have had a bad bullpen for a long time. They posted an MLB-worst 5.63 ERA in 2017, and have rarely even approached league average production for the past decade. The 2006 Tigers club that shocked the world and rejuvenated our faith in the franchise was the last outfit to have a truly good bullpen.
Unfortunately, the 2018 bullpen probably won’t break that streak. But with plenty options available on the free agent market, the Tigers should look to aggressively add a couple of useful pieces before spring training. Not only will these players help the Tigers win a few more games — hopefully not too many, we have some drafting to do — and, more importantly, flip for prospects at the trade deadline.
This won’t be easy, though. Baseball has evolved over the past few years, and teams are placing more emphasis on good relief pitching than ever before. A four-year, $36 million deal for Andrew Miller seemed ridiculous a few years ago, but is now a bargain.
Long story short: the Tigers are going to have to spend some money if they want to see a good return. Here are a few pitchers they could target, along with their FanGraphs community projected free agent contracts.
LHP Kevin Siegrist
Had he hit the free agent market last offseason, Siegrist might already be the owner of a hefty eight-figure contract. He was coming off an excellent 2016 season in which he limited opponents to a 2.77 ERA with nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings. It was a step back from his dominant 2015 campaign, mostly due to some home run issues, but he was still throwing enough strikes with his mid-90s fastball to get hitters out.
Then 2017 happened. Siegrist dealt with neck and shoulder issues throughout the year, which limited him to just 39 1⁄3 innings. His ERA ballooned to 4.81, and his walk rate rose from a passable 10.5 percent in 2016 to 12.8 percent last year. Worse yet, his average fastball velocity dropped from 93.9 miles per hour to 92.5 miles per hour.
Make no mistake, signing Siegrist would be a risk. However, if he stays healthy, his velocity should return. Plus, he’s a rare commodity on the free agent market. Siegrist is entering his age-28 season, and only has four years of MLB service time under his belt. Whoever signs him this offseason will automatically have two years of club control, meaning he won’t be eligible for free agency again until after the 2019 season (unless he is released again). We saw Justin Wilson fetch a hefty prospect package at last year’s deadline; a healthy Siegrist could see a similar (if slightly lesser) return next July.
RHP Bud Norris
I already pined for the Tigers to sign Bud Norris earlier this month, in large part due to a healthy uptick in strikeouts after he moved to the later innings.
Bud Norris seems like the kind of reliever with upside that the Tigers could ink to a short-term deal and then flip at the trade deadline for a solid prospect. Norris’ 4.21 ERA in his first full season as a reliever wasn’t anything special, but his velocity perked up a bit and he struck out 74 batters in 62 innings.
The ERA wasn’t great, at 4.21, but there were noticeable reasons for his improved strikeout rate.
His ERA certainly needs to improve for teams to take him seriously as a top-flight reliever, but the peripherals are coming along. I already detailed his healthy strikeout totals, which were buoyed by a 12.5 percent swinging strike rate last year. He also limited opponents to less than a hit per inning and 1.16 home runs per nine innings. He started throwing his cutter a lot more often, and opponents hit just .222 against it.
Norris is entering his age 33 season, making him one of the older relievers listed here. However, that’s not too old in reliever years (see below), and he still managed to throw his fastball 94.6 miles per hour on average last season, peaking at 97.5 mph. Norris will probably warrant a multi-year deal, giving him a couple years to build value before he inevitably gets flipped in a deadline deal.
LHP Ian Krol
Yeah, seriously. Krol wore out his welcome quickly in Detroit, posting a 5.34 ERA in 60 2⁄3 innings in 2014 and 2015. He shined in his first year with the Atlanta Braves, posting a 3.18 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 51 innings, but fell back to Earth last season.
Per usual, Krol’s issues were related to his command. He lowered his walk rate to just 6.0 percent in 2016, and simultaneously posted a career-best strikeout rate. But he couldn’t maintain that production, slipping back to a 9.8 percent walk rate last year. However, Krol’s swinging strike rate actually went up, improving from 10.0 percent in 2016 to 11.4 percent last year. Opponents also made less contact within the strike zone. One imagines this was due to the highest slider usage of his career, a pitch he has honed over the past few years.
Still only 26, Krol shouldn’t be too expensive. His fastball still reaches as high as 96 miles per hour, and he is using the slider as more of a weapon. If he can hone his command for a few months, he could net a decent return close to the trade deadline.
RHP Matt Belisle
I’m not sure what to make of Belisle. He has been one of those names that fans have clamored for in the comment sections for a few years now, mainly due to his strong fielding-independent numbers. While the thin Colorado air inflated his ERA somewhat, he consistently produced an FIP of 3.06 from 2010 to 2014, all while pitching for the Rockies. He struggled a bit in 2014 and 2015 with the Rockies and Cardinals, respectively, but posted a career-best 1.76 ERA in 46 innings with the Washington Nationals in 2016.
Last season, I was cautiously optimistic about how Belisle would fare with the Minnesota Twins. It was his first stint in the American League, and he was entering his age-37 season.
Long story short, it went okay. His 4.03 ERA was his highest in a couple years, but stayed in line with his fielding-independent numbers. Better yet, he limited opponents to just 7.2 hits per nine innings and posted a 1.16 WHIP. His 21.9 percent strikeout rate was also his highest since 2010.
Belisle doesn’t have the upside of some of the other relievers listed here. At 38, he won’t fetch much of a trade return no matter how good he looks during the first half of 2018. However, he seems like a safe bet to maintain a respectable stat line, giving him a higher floor than either of the volatile lefties above. Plus, another veteran presence on a young pitching staff can’t hurt, even if he’s only around for four months.
RHP Jeanmar Gomez
This one is a total shot in the dark. Gomez has enjoyed a relatively mundane career so far, punctuated by a 37-save season in 2016... where he posted a 4.85 ERA in 68 2⁄3 innings. His strikeout rates as a starter were Pelfrey-esque, and only improved slightly when he transitioned to the bullpen with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013. His walk rates have been manageable, but he has compiled just 0.2 rWAR in over 500 career MLB innings. Even as a reliever, that’s not great.
However, there are some interesting nuggets in his 2017 statistics. He struck out 21 batters in 22 1⁄3 major league innings last year, by far the highest strikeout rate of his career. That uptick coincided with a 10.6 percent swinging strike rate, also the highest of his career. Both of these seem to be tied to a huge increase in splitter usage, a pitch that has generated a healthy 15 percent swinging strike rate throughout his career; last season, it was over 21 percent. However, an elbow injury limited him to just 37 1⁄3 total innings.
Gomez doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, but might benefit from the secondary-heavy approach that other pitchers have adapted over the past few years. It may not be an effective approach long-term, but the Tigers would only need it to work for a few months.