Is the Detroit Tigers bullpen finally taking shape?

This past offseason the Detroit Tigers bullpen was a known commodity, set to be a primary strength of the team, if not the most formidable position group on the entire club. As camp wore on, things didn’t go quite as planned and the team has been reeling and adjusting ever since.

Most notably, the injury to Joel Zumaya sent a ripple effect through the entire bullpen, something the Tigers knew they would need to address, and have been working tirelessly to do so ever since.

Joel Zumaya did what Joel Zumaya does, get injured. Throwing in his first spring game of the year, scar tissue broke loose around the screw in his surgically repaired elbow and he’s barely picked up a baseball since. He was cleared to throw from 60 feet by Dr. James Andrews a few days ago but felt discomfort right away and is once again searching for answers. Optimistically, we could see Zumaya in 2-4 weeks. Realistically, we know it could be much longer. My personal feeling on this is to sandbag him until he is fully healthy and then some. Maybe wait until after the All-Star break to bring him up, turn him loose, and hope he lasts 3 months for what team officials hope will be a defining stretch run.

So with Zumaya on his all too familiar shelf, Ryan Perry was instantly elevated to a more prominent role as the team’s 7th inning go-to guy. Perry was his typical wobbly self in his first 2 appearances before an eye infection of all things put him on the 15-day DL. Perry is set to begin a rehab assignment as soon as he is cleared to wear his contacts again, which should be any day now. He will likely return on schedule next Wednesday in Seattle.

Perry’s DL stint opened the door for 2 players: Brayan Villarreal and Robbie Weinhardt. Villarreal made the team out of camp and continues to defy minds with his 95 MPH heater and sharp slider. His 6’0’’, 170 lb frame doesn’t represent the typical body that could generate that much heat but he has done so with great effectiveness.

Consider that the first professional hitter he faced was Alex Rodriguez in the opening series in New York. Villarreal fell behind ARod and coughed up a deep home run as a result. He has been lights out ever since including 2 huge scoreless innings (7th and 8th) in the series clinching game against Texas on Wednesday afternoon. That performance came just one day after getting a big out without even throwing a pitch, keeping Detroit in it long enough to allow the first of two straight walk-off wins. Villarreal came in on Tuesday with the speedy Julio Borbon on first and picked him off to end the inning before he even offered to home plate. For now, Villarreal has secured the 7th inning role and more importantly, the confidence of Jim Leyland.

Robbie Weinhardt was the safe pick when Perry hit the DL and was called up as a result. He didn’t fare very well in his 2 appearances and is limited by being a sinkerball/ground ball-inducing specialist who sometimes struggles in that role. Detroit acted swiftly by sending Robbie back down and calling up another young fireballer in Al Alburquerque, something that I hinted at in my last article.

As hard as it is to spell his name, it’s equally as easy to get excited about the 24-year old’s arsenal. He has a plus slider that he commands very well. In fact it was the command of his mid-upper 90’s fastball that the Tigers told him to work on as he just missed the opening day roster. At just 6’0’’, 195 lbs. Alburquerque can bring the smoke. He has fanned 8 in just 4 innings thus far at AAA Toledo. He has yet to give up a run and struck out 5 of the 6 outs he recorded in his last appearance on Monday.

So let’s regroup really quickly here. The current bullpen lines up like this:

Closer: Jose Valverde

Setup: Joaquin Benoit

6th/7th Innings: Brayan Villarreal, Al Alburquerque, and Daniel Schlereth

Middle Men: Brad Thomas and Enrique Gonzalez

If the newcomer Alburquerque does well this week I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gonzalez be the next man optioned to Toledo when Perry is ready to roll. Swap out Perry for Gonzalez and I really like the arms in this bullpen. Eventually throw Zumaya in the mix and you have the making of a lights out bullpen in Detroit.

The difficult part thus far in 2011 has been for the middle guys to get the ball to Benoit and Valverde to close out games. With Villarreal showing he is for real and Alburquerque offering up a big dose of potential and hope, Leyland might finally be finding the right keys to his bullpen car.