While some managers have taken a more progressive approach to bullpen utilization and situational relief, Ausmus has preferred the more traditional role-based approach, with a closer in the ninth, a setup man in the eighth, and middle relievers sprinkled in after. Given that, this analysis will focus its aim at those roles, and who will fill them.
Last off-season, the Tigers handed righty Joe Nathan a two-year, $20 million contract to solidify the closer role with the club. Unfortunately, it was a tumultuous season for the now-40-year-old, as he got off to a very rough start, and even when things calmed down in the second half, he looked more like he was holding on than he was rediscovering his rhythm.
Nathan posted a respectable 3.70 ERA and 3.42 FIP in the second half of last season, but still wasn’t over-powering. In fact, his strikeout rate fell to 7.0 K/9 and his walk rate jumped to 5.6 BB/9 while his fastball velocity sat at around 92 MPH, more than a one MPH decline from the first half of the season.
Nathan’s struggles with runners on base was a persistent challenge throughout the season, as his wOBA against skyrocketed as soon as someone reached base on him, sitting at .374 (and .390 with men in scoring position). Given that, while the velocity is a minor concern, it seems reasonable to believe that the key to Nathan’s success will be limiting the free passes he gives out, and continuing to induce ground balls, especially with the hope of bringing shortstop Jose Iglesias back to the infield for reinforced defense.
However, there’s the possibility that Nathan could falter, and do so even worse than what happened last year. At 40 years old, his best days are clearly behind him, and if his velocity continues to decline as we saw last year (which was already down from the year before), and he continues to struggle to throw strikes, the Tigers will be hard pressed to keep him in that slot. And if they have to look elsewhere, they just might turn to 24-year old fireballer Bruce Rondon.
Rondon was expected to play a big role in the Tigers’ 2014 bullpen, until he lost the season to Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in March. He’s spent the last nine months rehabbing, with the Tigers throughout the season and in Venezuela with the Navegantes del Magallanes this off-season.
Rondon is young and relatively inexperienced, with only 30 big league appearances across half a season at the MLB level. But he packs a punch with a 100 MPH fastball (average of 100.32 MPH per Pitch INFO, to be precise), and saw tremendous growth with both his slider and changeup before being shut down at the end of 2013.
It’s unlikely Rondon would be ready for such a role on Opening Day, but barring injury, it’s almost assured that Nathan will start the season as the club’s closer, and will hold the role until at least Memorial Day. That would likely be enough time for Rondon to steady himself after returning to action, and position himself for the role.
It would by no means be a guarantee, but the Tigers organization has always had an obsession with high velocity relievers, and has prioritized stuff over experience many times. If Nathan falters, Rondon could become the guy the club counts on.
Last year, when the Tigers acquired Joakim Soria at the deadline, they thought they were getting the ideal late-inning reliever to help steady their ragtag group of relievers. That belief was well-founded given Soria’s long track record of success (which the Tigers got to see first-hand when he was with the Royals) and his very impressive first half of the season with Texas.
Unfortunately, Soria struggled out of the gate for the Tigers, then languished in no man’s land with no clearly defined role, got hurt after he was rushed into a game in August after Nathan faltered in a key situation, and never looked the same when he returned.
Soria gave up home runs, stopped striking batters out with a 4.9 K/9 rate, and no matter what runs allowed metric you examine (ERA, FIP, xFIP, RE24), was bad in his limited time with the Tigers. Nevertheless, the organization picked up his $7 million option for 2015, and plans to hand him the setup man role.
For what they’re paying him, and for what his track record of success looks like, this seems like a smart move on the part of the Tigers. It’s likely that his two months of struggles last summer is simply an outlier to an otherwise very good relief career. But, what if they’re not? What if Soria’s late season struggles continue? The Tigers could look to re-signed reliever Joel Hanrahan.
The Tigers signed Hanrahan to a minor-league deal in May, hoping that he’d be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery by the All-Star break and would serve as bullpen reinforcement. But, due to a combination of factors didn’t recover as quickly as hoped, and wound up being shut down late in the season. The Tigers still were clearly encouraged by what they saw when he was working out though, as they re-signed him to a one-year Major League deal worth $1 million, plus substantial incentives.
Hanrahan saved 76 games over two years for the Pirates in 2011 and 2012, and in 2013 was slated to be the Red Sox closer, before injuries shut him down. Hanrahan has always had good stuff, striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings for his career, but likely so many other relievers the Tigers have had a preference for, has had control issues, as he’s also averaged 4.4 BB/9 for his career.
So, like others, there are risk there. But Hanrahan combines the stuff the Tigers usually covet (a mid-to-upper-90’s fastball and a very good slider) with a track record of success. It only makes sense that if for some reason Soria can’t hold up in the role, the Tigers would next turn to Hanrahan to bridge the gap between the middle innings and the ninth.