Led by K-Rod and Lowe, Detroit bullpen should be much improved in 2016

Closer Francisco Rodriguez should make the ninth inning much easier to watch for Tiger fans in 2016.

Closer Francisco Rodriguez should make the ninth inning much easier to watch for Tiger fans in 2016.

What a difference a year makes.

From a huge calamity last year to a potential strength this year, the Detroit Tigers bullpen, which produced the 27th-worst earned run average in baseball in 2015 (4.38 ERA), underwent a major face lift over the course of the past offseason.

The question is: will that face lift be beautiful or hideous?

Al Avila and his front office comrades not only added a proven closer in veteran right-hander Francisco Rodriguez, who is the active leader in saves with 386. They also added two reliable back-end of the pen arms in righty Mark Lowe and lefty Justin Wilson, who will share time in the seventh and eighth innings.

Rodriguez (2.21 earned run average in 2015), Lowe (1.96 ERA) and Wilson (3.10 ERA) all had fine seasons in ‘15.

More importantly, they each also recorded fielding independent pitching (FIP) marks lower than three and at least 1.4 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

Lowe had the lowest FIP at 2.57 in time split between the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays.

Additionally, Rodriguez produced the most WAR with 1.7, followed by Lowe with 1.5 and Wilson with 1.4.

When you compare those numbers to the relief arms on Detroit’s roster last year, you’ll find that left-hander Blaine Hardy was the only relief arm who recorded an FIP below three (2.89) while right-hander Alex Wilson was the only reliever to post a WAR of higher than one. He finished with a WAR of 1.7.

Wilson was thrust into a late-inning role after the loss of Joe Nathan at the start of the season to Tommy John surgery and the trade of closer Joakim Soria to the Pittsburgh Pirates before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The 29-year-old performed aptly, posting a 2.19 ERA in both a career-high 59 games and a career-high 70 innings pitched.

The unexpected large amount of work caused him to be shut down during the final week of the ’15 campaign with bicep tendinitis.

The Texas A&M product, who has been battling shoulder soreness this spring, even started a game and got the chance to close a few along with hard-throwing Venezuelan right-hander Bruce Rondon after Soria was dealt.

Wilson blew two saves in four chances while Rondon, who had trouble finding the plate and finished with a 5.81 ERA in 35 games and 31 innings, blew four saves in nine opportunities before being sent home by skipper Brad Ausmus in late September for exhibiting a lack of effort.

With the presence of Rodriguez, or should I say “K-Rod,” a man who has averaged 31 saves a season and who closed out 38 and 44 games the past two seasons, respectively, Wilson can shift into a middle-innings role that will deepen the club’s pen and offer Ausmus more flexibility in the fifth and sixth innings of ballgames.

If Rondon makes the big league club out of spring camp, which is far from a certainty seeing as how the 25-year-old has been hit around this spring, he should also be slotted for a middle-innings role.

The same can be said for Hardy and right-hander Drew VerHagen, both of whom should also be expected to provide the Tigers with multiple innings out of the pen from time to time.

These same two finished a combined 13 games for Detroit in ’15, with Hardy finishing 11 of the 13.

The number should be much lower in 2016, and in fact, more than likely will be under 10.

And that’s a good thing for the Tigers, who no longer suffer from a shortage of capable late-inning relief arms due to Avila’s wheeling and dealing this past offseason.

Subsequently, the bullpen should be a strength and should allow Ausmus’ squad to stay in games for longer periods of time, which is a perfect antidote for a starting rotation that might lack the ability to go deep into games for a second straight campaign.