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Bullpen could again be Tigers' weak point

The Tiger bullpen, as a unit, was below league average in 2012. The Tigers have not done enough during this offseason to change that fact, either.


By far, the greatest area of concern for the Detroit Tigers entering the 2013 season has to be the closer position, which is being entrusted to rookie fireballer Bruce Rondon, who has yet to throw his first pitch in the major leagues. With the comment from Jim Leyland that six of the seven bullpen spots were "locks", any doubts about what was expected of Rondon should be erased.

Oh sure, there are the perfuctory qualifiers about how "he has to earn the job", but reality is that the closer’s gig is Rondon’s to lose, and the team would be in big trouble if he were to fall short of expectations.

For all the talk about whether Rondon has the "mentality" for the job, I am quite frankly much more concerned about his command. I’m not even referring to Rondon’s control, and he has a lofty BB/9 rate of 5.1 over 5 seasons in the minors. I fully expect Rondon will take us on the customary roller coaster ride with his fair share of free passes. What is more concerning is whether he will leave pitches out over the plate. If so, he will pay for his mistakes exponentially more in the majors than he has on the way up.

Fortunately, Rondon does not have a history of being hit hard at any level. Just five homers allowed over five years, and 6.1 hits per 9 innings is very solid. That doesn’t always translate to the majors, but there is a good chance of success.

The other area of concern that has gotten attention this spring has been finding a potential platoon partner for Andy Dirks in left field. But even if Dirks regressed sharply, and no platoon mate could be found, the magnitude of the problem would pale by comparison with the problem of having a closer blowing more than one in every four or five save opportunities. For all the criticism given to Jose Valverde last year, he still saved 87.5% of his save chances (35 of 40).

But even setting the closer issue aside, there is still cause for concern about the Tiger bullpen, by comparison with either the lineup, or the starting rotation, or even the team’s defense. The club has systematically addressed each weakness in the lineup with the acquisition of Torii Hunter in right field and the return of Victor Martinez as the full time DH.

The Tiger rotation looks to be one of the best
, if not the best in the American League after signing Anibal Sanchez to a five year extension. Even the team’s defense, which ranked second worst in the league according to UZR or DRS, has been shored up as Omar Infante will be at second base for the full season, and Torii Hunter replaces Boesch in the outfield, while Delmon Young will be flashing the leather in Philadelphia. Take Raburn, Boesch, and Young out of any defense and it’s bound to improve by a large margin.

Now, the Tigers have some very good relief pitchers on their roster, and the list includes some savvy veterans. Joaquin Benoit was lights out for much of the season, other than the first couple of games and a scary stretch during the playoffs. Octavio Dotel was one of the more under rated relievers in the league. Duane Below and Brayan Villarreal did a nice job in the middle innings during the first half of the season. But other than that, the peripheral statistics in the bullpen were largely unimpressive.

Valverde’s peripherals were not good, but he managed to get the job done. Whether a rookie could do as well on the bottom line with the same number of base runners is highly questionable. Phil Coke needs to be better than a 4.00 ERA, 1.65 WHIP and .324 .375 .479 .854 opponent’s batting line. That’s just not good pitching, despite some decent streaks along the way.

The Tigers also have a quantity of good young talented pitchers in their bullpen, any one of whom could step up and play a vital role. Brayan Villarreal quietly posted a 2.65 ERA and held hitters to just a .201 average and striking out 10.87 hitters per nine frames. In my book, he is one of the better relief pitchers in the league who could play a big role.

Al Alburquerque, when healthy, can be dynamic and is capable of being dominant. Darin Downs was fairly effective later in the season. Luke Putkonen has very good stuff, but is just starting out on the learning curve. There is talent on the roster, but who will step forward is an open question. One that the Tigers are hoping will be answered sooner, rather than later this season.