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State of the Tigers, Summer 2018: The bullpen’s future looks, surprisingly, pretty good

While the bullpen was the Achilles’ heel of the Tigers throughout the 2010s, it could be a focal point of the team in the 2020s.

MLB: All Star Game Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

“Bullpen.” What do you think of when you hear that word? If you’re anything like me, you think of immense pain and suffering, particularly in postseason situations. In fact, I apologize for any flashbacks to the 2014 ALDS or the 2013 series-which-will-not-be-named, for these two series popped into my mind when I brought up the nasty B-word.

During their last window of contention, the Detroit Tigers had a terrible, no-good bullpen problem. The team had to bench closer Jose Valverde in the 2012 playoffs in favor of Phil Coke, due to Valverde’s immense postseason struggles. In 2013, the team had its best bullpen of the era, headlined by Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly, but Benoit surrendered the home run in the series-which-will-not-be-named that crushed the hearts of Tigers fans everywhere. And in 2014 Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria single-handedly lost a playoff series in which the Tigers started three former Cy Young award winners back-to-back-to-back.

That was the past. Somehow, the current Tigers bullpen feels better than the bullpens of yesteryear. In fact, the Tigers currently have a team ERA of 4.36. While this isn’t nearly as good as their 3.75 mark in 2012, their 3.61 mark in 2013, or their 4.01 mark in 2014, this team is not sending out Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, or prime Anibal Sanchez every day. And if the bullpen is already better now, it should be better still when the team is a contender a couple of years down the road, right? Let’s take a look.

The Closer of the Future: Joe Jimenez

He did it! He lived up to the hype! That’s right, a Tigers relief pitching prospect lived up to the hype. Crazy, right? At just 23 years old, All-Star fireman Joe Jimenez is the team’s future closer. While he has shown a couple of reasons for caution in recent weeks, the Tigers are very, very fortunate to have Jimenez. They should always be judicious with his usage over the season’s final two months.

Let’s start out with the negatives. Joe Jimenez is getting used way too much this season. Entering August, Jimenez had already pitched 48.1 innings. For context, closer Shane Greene only pitched 40 innings in the first half this year and 40.1 innings in the first half of 2017. Veteran reliever Alex Wilson has been with the Tigers since 2015 and has only pitched more than 40 first-half innings once in four years when he posted a similar mark of 46.1 innings in 2015. And those were seasons in which the Tigers were pulling out all the stops to win.

Perhaps because of this heavy usage, Jimenez has struggled of late, to the tune of an 7.36 ERA in his first 7.1 innings of the second half. That said, should he be used more conservatively in the remaining weeks, the team does not have anything to worry about. Other than the usual concerns with any hard-throwing pitcher’s health, Jimenez appears well on his way.

Now, let’s take a glance at the positives. Joe Jimenez dominated at every single stop he made in the minor leagues before arriving with the Tigers. He posted a 0.50 ERA in rookie ball, a 1.47 ERA in West Michigan, a clean 0.00 ERA in Lakeland, a 2.18 ERA in Erie, and a 1.77 ERA between his two stints in Toledo.

When he joined the Tigers in 2017, he struggled hard, posting a 12.32 ERA, but his FIP was an astounding 6.50 runs lower than his ERA (and sure, a 5.84 FIP is not great, but the double-digit ERA was a fluke). To date in 2018, he has posted a 3.40 ERA and a 3.00 FIP despite recent struggles and represented the Tigers in the All-Star Game (striking out Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford for a high-leverage 4th inning out). Altogether, Jimenez has a wonderful resume and has looked downright dominant throughout the year. At only 23 years of age, he is under team control for another five years – through the 2023 season – and is the team’s primary relief pitching asset moving forward.

Good, But Maybe a Trade Chip: Shane Greene

When it comes to relief pitchers, it isn’t necessary to count down on how old they are. Fernando Rodney is 43 years old and up until recently was closing for the Minnesota Twins, so there is no need to worry about Shane Greene being 29 years old. He does have a couple concerns — he has dealt with injuries and has been consistently inconsistent over the past three years — but he has struck out more than one batter per inning since the beginning of 2016 and is on pace for his third straight 60-inning year. The trick is turning the Tigers’ closer into potential future assets when his value is at its peak. Greene is under contract for two more seasons and could bring in some noteworthy prospects should he catch fire and rattle over a large amount of saves in 2019 (or even 2020). For now, he’s a valuable asset, and Tigers fans should hope that he continues to put in consistent work as the team’s short-term closer.

If they keep it up, absolutely: Blaine Hardy, Drew VerHagen

Blaine Hardy was famously waived at the end of spring training this year, only to become the team’s most reliable pitcher. Hardy, with 1.0 fWAR in 74.1 innings, is the Tigers’ fifth best pitcher by fWAR this year, behind only Matt Boyd (2.2 fWAR in 128.2 innings) and Michael Fulmer (1.4 fWAR in 112 innings). Additionally, his 3.63 ERA is the second best of any pitcher on the team with more than 15 innings pitched. All in all, Hardy is under team control through the 2021 season and should serve as the team’s lefty specialist and sixth starter as long as he continues to be effective. Depending on the Tigers’ moves this coming offseason, Hardy may yet be in play for a starter’s spot in the 2019 rotation.

It feels surprising to write about Drew VerHagen in 2018. Since posting a strong 2.05 ERA in 26.1 innings back in 2015, VerHagen struggled with a 7.11 ERA in 2016, a season that ended in thoracic outlet surgery, and a 5.77 ERA in 2017, with his peripherals ranging from bad to very bad. The Tigers maintained that things could eventually click for the big right-hander, but time appeared to be running out for him coming into the 2018 season.

This year, however, something has changed. VerHagen is up to 8.27 strikeouts per nine innings, far above his career rate of 6.41. He is also down to 2.92 walks per nine innings, a fair amount below his career rate of 3.33. It appears Drew VerHagen may have finally found some command to pair with improved off-speed offerings. If that command stays, VerHagen is a decent asset moving forward.

If they keep it up, it’s still unlikely: Louis Coleman, Victor Alcantara, Alex Wilson

I like Louis Coleman. Signed to a minor league contract before the season, Coleman is a nice change-of-pace as a submariner pitcher and has posted a 3.71 ERA in 34 innings this year. That said, he has posted a 6.08 ERA in his last 15 games while posting eight walks to pair with his nine strikeouts. Another problem with Coleman is not that he is 32 years old (age is not that huge a factor), but that he has not stuck on a team since he posted three consecutive strong seasons for the 2011-2013 Kansas City Royals. Should he resume his early-season success, Coleman could stick around with the team, but he’d be defeating the odds by doing so.

Victor Alcantara, meanwhile, has earned a spot in this section solely based on his current hot streak with the team. In 13.2 innings this year, Alcantara has allowed only one earned run, good for a 0.66 ERA. That said, he is only striking out 9.4% of batters (lowest on the team of anybody above 10 innings pitched), and while he is only walking 3.8% batters (best of anybody above 10 innings pitched), he has a 100% left-on-base percentage and a tiny opponent BABIP of .222. All in all, Alcantara needs to raise his strikeout rates and keep that walk rate similarly low if he wants to maintain a spot in the bullpen.

Alex Wilson has been around since 2015 and is the veteran of this bullpen. He had a disastrous April, in which he gave up four home runs including multiple walk-off home runs. He settled down since then, but the biggest flaws in his game persist. Wilson typically outperforms his FIP by avoiding the home run ball (he has allowed 0.75 home runs per nine innings throughout his career and has allowed one home run since May 1), but he has struck out fewer than six hitters per nine in his career. It’s hard to see Wilson’s game aging well as his fastball velocity will likely diminish, but hey, we’ll see.

Conclusion: The Other Guys

Relievers have entered and exited Detroit at an alarming rate for as long as anybody can remember. While this year’s bullpen has overall been surprisingly decent, it currently only holds one (mostly) guaranteed long-term asset. Past Joe Jimenez, there are question marks, some bigger than others. That said, the bullpen’s long-term prognosis may be brighter than ever.

The Tigers’ farm system is loaded with pitching prospects, and they will not be able to fit everyone from the list of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Franklin Perez, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, Matt Hall, and – why not? – Daniel Norris into the rotation. The team also has numerous relievers, from Zac Houston to the currently injured Jason Foley, who have the potential to make an impact at the major league level in the years to come. Any holes that the aforementioned players cannot fill can easily be filled by a couple of relatively inexpensive free agency deals. There is a lot to look forward to with the future Tigers bullpen. It can’t possibly get worse than what happened from 2012 to 2014, right? (I sure hope not.)