Detroit Tigers 2014 bullpen preview

Heading into this offseason it was widely believed that the Detroit Tigers would completely revamp their bullpen full of sure things and impact arms. On second thought….

Signing Joe Nathan was a huge deal, obviously. Detroit desperately needed a lockdown closer and now they have one. No disputes will arise as to who should get the ball in the 9th inning, which will be a refreshing departure from season’s past.

However, the rest of the unit is shaky at best. Arguably Detroit’s best reliever in 2013 was Drew Smyly, and he is once again in the starting rotation. So who are all these guys? Will they be any good? One thing I do know for sure, when you add up this many question marks you rarely like the answer.

Here in part 4 of this series I will dissect the 7-man bullpen as it currently sits, which could surely change by Opening Day. For part 1 of my preview series covering the infield, click here. For part 2 focusing on the outfield, click here. And for part 3 checking in on the starting rotation, click here.

Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

He has saved 80 games over the past two seasons in 86 opportunities. He is relentlessly consistent and is fresh off of one of his best seasons ever with a 1.39 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 73 K’s in 64.2 innings of work. The concerns are that he is 39 years old and is a Tommy John surgery veteran. Obviously Detroit isn’t too worried as they handed the ageless wonder a 2-year deal worth $20M. Signing Nathan was paramount to the rebuilding project in the Tigers bullpen. Unfortunately, GM Dave Dombrowski seemingly took so much comfort in Nathan that he felt he could take risks with the rest of the unit.

Bruce Rondon

I love Bruce Rondon. And Bruce Rondon terrifies me. He projects as the most likely 8th inning man for the Tigers in 2014. His power arsenal really came together in August before basically being shut down in early September for the rest of the year with arm trouble. Last spring, Rondon, now 23, was clearly lacking confidence but credit the organization for handling him with care and getting him right in the head. He is a dangerous bullpen weapon. Then why does he terrify me so much? Because for this bullpen to be really good and not horribly average I believe they need 75 innings out of Rondon, and that worries me greatly. Between AAA Toledo and the Tigers last year he pitched just 58.1 innings, but that marked a career high. And at the end of those 58.1 innings he couldn’t keep working and had to stop throwing altogether. Rondon is the key to this year’s pen. He must stay on the field and not get Zumaya’d on and off the disabled list.

Ian Krol

Krol came over in the Doug Fister trade and has basically been dubbed this year’s version of Drew Smyly, circa 2013. The Tigers love his power left-handed arm, but the track record is extremely thin on Krol. He is just 22 years old and has a mere 27.1 innings on his big league resume for a struggling Nationals team last season. Can he come to the American League to a team expected to do big things and be a reliable piece to Brad Ausmus’ bullpen puzzle? Nobody knows. His minor league track record doesn’t sparkle in the same way that Rondon’s did but Krol has nice upside as a strikeout pitcher. In 274.1 minor league innings, despite a 3.48 ERA, his strikeout to walk ratio was a solid 246:63. Krol has to be good because the other lefty still lurking is Phil Coke who hasn’t gotten a whole lot of outs over the past two years. It’s a lot to ask of a kid like Krol.

Al Alburquerque, Detroit Tigers

Al Alburquerque

Al Alburquerque

The 27-year old Senor Slider is coming off of his worst year as a Tiger. The previous knock on him was whether he could stay healthy with a splash of command trouble. Now his inability to throw strikes is front and center. Few players’ K to walk ratios will make you foam at the mouth and vurp all at the same time, but here’s Al’s from 2013: 70 K’s (wow!) to 34 walks (oh, dear Lord!) in just 49 innings pitched. He lost his way so much that he spent a good while in Toledo trying to find the strike zone. Alburquerque is so reliant on his slider that he often ignores his mid 90’s heater to a fault. Last year he threw 860 pitches and 557 of them (64.8%) were sliders. It doesn’t matter how good a pitch is – throw it enough and big league hitters will punish you, or watch it miss the strike zone. Alburquerque needs to learn how to pitch in 2014 rather than just throw. If he can’t do that then he’ll remain a fringe piece to the Tigers’ pen.

Joba Chamberlain

Chamberlain is 28 years old now and hasn’t been good over the course of a full season since 2010. Maybe Dombrowski knows something we don’t see in the numbers. The good news is Joba can still ride his fastball up into the mid 90’s with ease. The bad news is he walked 26 hitters in just 42 innings last year while giving up over a hit per inning. Add that all up and you get an unsightly 1.74 WHIP. With the command issues Rondon can have, coupled with Alburquerque, Coke, and now Chamberlain, Ausmus might start losing those flowing locks at a rapid rate sooner than expected. Chamberlain was a low risk investment at 1-year and $2.5M. If he comes full circle and returns to pitching the way he did early on in his career he will provide a lot of support to Nathan. If not, he’ll be run out of town by midseason. Oh, and do us a favor Joba, lose the flat-billed cap look.

Phil Coke

This is where things really start to break down. Coke, save for an unexpected moment of dominance in the 2012 playoffs, has been a train wreck over the past two seasons and honestly not all that great in any of his four years in Motown. Consider his WHIP’s over those four seasons, starting in 2010 – 1.44, 1.45, 1.65, 1.67. He is just far too hittable. In 2012 the big problem was not being able to get right-handed hitters out. Last year he couldn’t get anybody out as lefties hit .299 against him and righties .282. Detroit believed in the 31-year old’s power arm enough to give him a non-guaranteed 1-year deal at $1.9M. So if he shows no signs of breaking out of his funk in spring training the Tigers can cut him and pay only a small portion of the salary and finally move on.

Luke Putkonen

As of today, Putkonen projects as the likely 7th member of the bullpen. The spots occupied by Alburquerque, Chamberlain, Coke, Krol, and Putkonen could all have turnover this year but in his limited big league work to date, Putkonen has shown some solid game. He’s 27-years old and will be motivated to stick around to really kick start his professional career. His power right-handed arsenal can roll up strikeouts in a hurry and if he stays consistent and earns the trust of Ausmus, could prove to be a very valuable member of the bullpen.

Melvin Mercedes, Detroit Tigers

Melvin Mercedes

The Other Guys

With so much possibility for turnover, keep the following names in mind as the season moves along:

  • Duane Below
  • Evan Reed
  • Luis Marte
  • Jose Alvarez
  • Jose Ortega
  • Casey Crosby
  • Melvin Mercedes
  • Corey Knebel

For my infield preview, click here.

For my outfield preview, click here.

For my starting pitching preview, click here.

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  • tiger fan forever

    sign santana for 2 yrs and put smyly back in the pen this would take care of two problems and then if scherzer and the tigers do not agree to contract then trade him for a boat load of players to fill thier needs before deadline and we still have good rotation

  • Alex Peters

    I came here looking for a preview of Joba Chamberlain’s facial hair, only to find none. Very disappointing…

  • Lucas Rains

    I didn’t understand why we didn’t pick up the option on Veras. If I’m not mistaken it was for either $3 or $4 million, which isn’t that much more than the 1-year deal Joba got. Veras got taken for granted I think, especially after the grand slam he gave up in Game 6 of the ALCS. He was a proven guy, coming off a pretty solid season, so I was surprised we let him walk. Good news with all of this is we have three starters that could go the distance on any given day, making the bullpen’s job a bit easier.

    • Frankie Russo

      IMO the problem with Veras was he didn’t like his role, and you could read it by his body language. Me too liked the guy, but he came over as a closer as was used as a “once in a while set up” reliever or specialist to pitch to one or two batters. He didn’t like it. That might have cost him his stay in Detroit.

  • burrwick

    What is it with DD and his neglect of the bullpen? This bully looks like he is going with the “wing and a prayer” strategy. Each one of these guys needs to have career years to get the kind of bullpen production needed for a team with championship aspirations. Can’t see it happening and there should be tinkering going on all year to upgrade this group. Great article Joe.

  • BobWhite

    Should be fun.

  • Vince in MN

    After Nathan you have six question marks. And the backup list doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. I expect that several of these fellows will prove effective, but all of them? – too much to hope for there. Jeff Jones is going to be working overtime from day 1 with this bunch.