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Battle for Tigers’ last few bullpen jobs going down to the wire

Up to ten pitchers are competing for seven or eight bullpen jobs

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With just a week left until opening day, 2019, the Detroit Tigers have seventeen pitchers still in major league camp, vying for five spots in the starting rotation and seven or eight roles in the bullpen. With Michael Fulmer out for the season due to Tommy John surgery, the battle for a spot in the starting rotation comes down to Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull.

Here is a look at the candidates for the seven or eight bullpen openings, and the chances of each to make the team. A few of these spots are locked up already. Several others have likely candidates, while the final spot or two are still tricky to forecast.

Gregory Soto, who spent 2018 at Lakeland, is technically still in major league camp, but will serve a 20 game suspension and figures to be optioned once he has served his time. He’s probably not a factor as a result, but is still with the team.

The Locks

Shane Greene returns as the Tigers’ closer after recording 32 saves last season in 38 chances, tied for seventh in the major leagues. Detroit explored the trade market for Greene a year ago and found it wanting. If he can establish himself as a “proven closer” by July, he could be pitching for a contender, but he will also need to improve on last year’s 5.12 ERA. If he can cut his home run ratio from 1.75 per nine innings in half, he will be well on his way.

Chances: Lock

Joe Jimenez was the Tigers’ lone All Star representative in 2018 and he returns as the primary set up man this season. Detroit’s “closer of the future” struck out 11.2 batters per nine frames with a 2.91 FIP, 1.20 WHIP, while holding opposing hitters to a .219 batting average. Jimenez struggled with an ERA of 7.18 after the all star break last season, but has looked very sharp in spring training. If Greene pitches well and is traded, or if he falters and is replaced, Jimenez would be the favorite to see ninth inning duties for the Tigers.

Chances: Lock

Likely suspects

Blaine Hardy was one of the bright spots for the Tigers in their dismal 2018 campaign. The 32 year old left hander made 30 appearances including 13 starts for a combined 3.56 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP. Hardy cleared waivers and was outrighted to the minor leagues at the start of last season, and he has one option left, but he returns as a relief pitcher who is versatile enough to take on many roles.

Chances: Very Likely

Victor Alcantara made his major league debut for the Tigers in 2018, working 30 innings with a 2.40 ERA and a team leading 1.03 WHIP. He has an option left but impressed enough to earn a spot in the bullpen this season, despite struggling early in the spring.

Chances: Very Likely

Drew VerHagen was finally allowed to settle into a bullpen role in 2018 and it paid off with a 3.76 ERA out of the bullpen, holding batters to a .202 batting average, a 1.06 WHIP, and a wOBA of just .258. One awful three inning start inflated his season stats. The six foot six right hander has missed 13 days of spring training due to tingling in his neck and shoulder, but will be a part of the Tigers’ bullpen if he is healthy.

Chances: Depends on health

Daniel Stumpf was acquired in the Rule 5 draft two seasons ago and has stuck around as a lefty specialist in the Detroit bullpen. His 4.93 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 2018 were slightly worse than his career averages. He is considerably better against left handed hitters, a role that he might see for one more season before rule changes make his role obsolete. If Norris and Hardy are both in the bullpen, Stumpf could be optioned to Toledo.

Chances: Likely

The contenders

Reed Garrett is this year’s Rule 5 selection who appears likely to stick around the major league club at least for a while. After posting a 2.04 ERA with 21 saves in the Texas organization last year, the hard throwing right hander will make his major league debut with the Tigers this season. He has impressed coaches this spring and figures to slot into a middle relief role.

Chances: Likely

Buck Farmer has switched from a starting role for much of his career to a bullpen role last season. The 28 year old right hander is viewed in a long relief role, and he is out of options, so he can’t be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. Farmer is on his last legs, but the Tigers will probably bring him along for one more shot to prove himself before they decide whether to cut bait for good.

Farmer has an underwhelming 5.89 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in 20 starts and 89 relief appearances in the major leagues. As a reliever, he posted a 4.03 ERA last season. He did post better numbers during the second half of the 2018 season with a 3.21 ERA while holding batters to a .208 average.

Chances: Somewhat likely

Jose Cisnero is the lone Non Roster Invitee (NRI) with a chance to make the major league club this spring. The 29 year old right hander last pitched in the major leagues in 2014 with the Houston Astros, and has bounced around the minor and independent leagues since then. The Tigers signed him with an invitation to spring training and he has made the most of it.

Cisnero will likely need the Tigers to carry eight relief pitchers, and Norris to be in the rotation or optioned and VerHagen placed on the injured list in order to secure a spot on the major league roster. All these things are possible.

Chances: Needs a perfect storm

The wild card

Daniel Norris appeared bound for a bullpen role before Michael Fulmer’s injury, though it was by no means certain. Norris has been inconsistent this spring, but his stuff looks much improved over the quality he had during the multi-season struggle with groin issues. Still, he hasn’t been stretched out as a starter, and his command has still been hit or miss. The loss of Fulmer means the Tigers need him ready in Toledo as their sixth starter, even if Spencer Turnbull gets first crack at the rotation. He may be the final man in the bullpen on the season opening road trip, but beyond that, the Tigers should use their final option on Norris and send him to Toledo to try and recapture his 2016 form and confidence in a starting role.

Chances: Somewhat likely on Opening Day, but unlikely to stay in a relief role beyond the first eight games of the season.