The bullpen was Detroit’s Achilles’ heel in 2014, but surprisingly, Dave Dombrowski didn’t do much in the off-season to fix it. Fans would rather not have to cringe and hide their eyes in the late innings this year, but for 2015 the Tigers’ bullpen is a vast collection of question marks.
JOE NATHAN. With a long career as a top closer, Nathan seemed a solid addition last winter, but the Tigers would have been better off keeping Joaquin Benoit as their closer. In 2014 Nathan was horrible, especially in the first half, and he didn’t handle the resulting boos well, famously flipping the fans the bird last August. At forty, it’s wishful thinking that his off year wasn’t a career-ending plunge. With millions owed Broadway Joe, Brad Ausmus will keep running him out there—but this time, with a shorter leash. Maybe careful handling plus a major attitude and mechanics adjustment will add up to Nathan being acceptable this season or (far less likely) returning to vintage form. More likely, he’ll again be a sad old shadow of that former self, and the Tigers will have to eat his salary and turn elsewhere.
BRUCE RONDON. The long heralded future closer is finally healthy and ready. At least that’s the headline story. He’s certainly needed. Rondon’s heat is high, no doubt, touching 100 mph, but is his command and control equally impressive? We’ll see. You can’t realistically expect him to step in and immediately become the ace closer the Tigers need so badly now—can you? But he has the tools, and the Tigers need him to solve their bullpen problems. For Rondon, it’s time to sink or swim, and the sooner Ausmus throws him into the deep water, the faster Tigers fans will know what to expect in 2015—a savior or another disappointment.
JOAKIM SORIA. Detroit fans got the wrong impression last year about Soria, who was the victim of a strained oblique muscle. Soria actually has a track record as a reliable closer when he is healthy, and this year he will fill the same role for which he was acquired in mid-season in 2014: insurance against Nathan’s demise. Soria has a career 2.57 ERA, a WHIP of 1.057, and a four-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio; in other words, he’s quite capable of saving games (and helping save the bullpen from another disastrous season). However, he seems fragile at age thirty. In his first five seasons with Kansas City, he pitched at least fifty-three innings annually. Since then, however, due to various injuries, Soria has logged zero, twenty-three, and forty-four MLB innings the last three seasons. Questions about Soria’a health have taken a backseat to questions about the health of more prominent Tigers this spring—but they may be more important.
AL ALBURQUERQUE. His signature slider is impossible for righties and lefties to hit. And he fans twelve batters every nine innings. The problem that has always plagued Quirky is control: he has walked 5.1 per nine innings over his career. Last year, however, he had his best season since his impressive rookie season in 2011. And most importantly, his walk rate went down significantly, reaching a new low of twenty-one in fifty-seven innings; in other words, acceptable. Al A decided to stop throwing his fastball, which is very hittable, and throw his slider even on three-ball counts, and it worked. Just cover your eyes if he throws anything else.
TOM GORZELANNY. He can throw left-handed, so he can be a major league reliever as long as he can walk out to the mound. And given the Tigers’ need in this department, it’s no wonder they snatched up the thirty-two-year-old journeyman. He’s always been a pretty reliable LOOGY, and since Detroit finally waved goodbye to the perennially disappointing Phil Coke, the acquisition makes sense. But let’s hope 2014 was an aberration traceable to a shoulder injury that kept Gorzelanny on the shelf until June—because last year left-handed batters pummelled him to the tune of .324/.439/.353, which is quite alarming.
JOBA CHAMBERLAIN. For the first half of the 2014 season, he was the bullpen’s savior. In this off-season, nobody was interested, so the Tigers took him back at a bargain rate. It may pay off. Even if you don’t like his look, the burly bearded one keeps showing flashes of the promise that made him a top Yankees prospect—and at least until the All-Star break, last year he seemed to have finally put it all together. And then it again all fell apart. So who is the real Joba? We’ll get another chance to find out.
ANOTHER LEFTY. Ian Krol, Blaine Hardy, or Kyle Ryan. Take your pick. Hardy was the Tigers’ best reliever last July and August; his career track record suggests that was a fluke. Krol is the last remaining Tiger to be acquired in the infamous Doug Fister deal; he’s still young and might fill the LOOGY bill. Ryan is also young and was a starter in the minors; he’s got lefty junk and no heat. One of the three might step up, but none of the three is a sure bet.
ANYONE ELSE might win a spot in the pen; that’s what spring training is for. But no one is worth writing home—or here—about at this juncture.