There are seven bullpen slots to hand out over the next two months, and if healthy, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Bruce Rondon, Al Alburquerque, Blaine Hardy, and Tom Gorzelanny have claim to six of them. It’s a bullpen, so injuries are likely and someone could always wind up struggling out of nowhere, but barring something unexpected, these guys have nameplates on their lockers already.
Joel Hanrahan is going to get his shot as well, but considering his health issues over the last couple of seasons, penciling him in for significant innings is probably foolish. Teams always need more than seven relievers to get through a season, but it looks like the Tigers are currently sitting on six safe roster spots and one that’s an open question. Allow me to make the case for Kyle Lobstein.
We have two things to consider. First, is Lobstein the best option for the team and, second, would taking a year in the pen stunt his growth into a useful starting pitcher?
Let’s take the second part of this first. Many pitchers have taken a bullpen year to break into the Majors, allowing them to ease into the environment, the workload, and the quality of competition. The Cardinals do this somewhat regularly, with Adam Wainwright being the most famous example that Tigers fans want to forget. It’s always possible that Lobstein shows himself to be an elite reliever and the Tigers never move him back, but that’s not exactly a bad outcome.
If he shines, maybe inertia takes over and you have to keep him there, but you can live with that. The more likely scenario is that he spends a year in the pen, like Drew Smyly did, and then shifts back into the rotation when two slots come open next year while the Tigers plot a new rotation direction.
Typically, the problem with moving a guy to the pen from a development standpoint is that it limits the time he has to work on his third, fourth, and fifth pitches. This isn’t much of a concern for Lobstein because he has a pretty diverse arsenal already. He throws a few variations of his fastball, a nice changeup, and toys with multiple breaking balls. Sure it might help to get more time refining each, but Lobstein’s limitations as a pitcher have more to do with power than they do with his in ability to develop extra pitches.
Beyond that, while I’m a fan of Lobstein, the Tigers and the industry in general don’t view him as a top prospect by any definition. If they move him to the pen and it goes south, it’s not like they ruined the development of a Verlander or a Kershaw. It’s a lot easier for teams to play around with low ceiling players.
So if we’re on board with the risk to Lobstein’s career individually, we now need to consider if he’s even a good option out of the pen or if the Tigers are better off letting him sit in Toledo staying warm for the first rotation injury.
Among the candidates for the last spot in the pen, we find Hanrahan, Ian Krol, Josh Zeid, Alex Wilson, and then a host of other prospects/minor leaguers who could fill the role at some point. Hanrahan is going to get the job if he looks healthy and sharp, but we’re going to bet against that here. That leaves us with Krol, Zeid, and Wilson as the real contenders.
Krol was terrible in 2014 and has never impressed above Double-A. He has a nice hook and some heat, but I’d bet on Cespedes to hit the catcher’s glove from 250 feet over Krol from 60 feet. Additionally, while the A’s tried him as a starter, his history of multiple inning outings is very limited over the last two plus seasons. He’s not someone you’d want to rely on to get nine outs, which isn’t a huge deal, but it’s something Lobstein brings to the table. And his numbers against righties are a danger to your health.
Zeid is largely unremarkable. He throws plenty hard, but hasn’t shined in five years and hasn’t been stretched out in three or four. Maybe the Tigers have a plan to change his delivery or add a pitch, but there’s just nothing in his history that indicates he’s super useful.
Wilson is more intriguing because while he’s never stood out, he’s also been pretty solid at every stop. He’s a fastball-slider guy whose strikeouts haven’t translated in MLB time, but he’s coming off a low ERA and was part of the Porcello deal, so he’ll get a chance to make the pen even if it looks like he’s more suited for a right-handed matchup role.
Which brings us back to Lobstein and his potential virtues. First, Lobstein is the best fit if you need someone to go multiple innings. Realistically, Hardy is probably the only guy in that bullpen who you could ask to shoulder more than one inning with any regularity. There’s some potential for this group to do well, but this isn’t a group of durable workhorses. The last spot in the pen needs to go to someone who can give the team length every couple of weeks while being useful in between.
And that’s Lobstein. Lobstein not only offers some length insurance, but he’s left-handed and can further the Tigers’ matchup goals. Having three lefties isn’t a necessity, but it will allow them to deploy one of the specialists earlier in the game. Lobstein also had a very reasonable platoon split in the majors (.274 to .301 wOBA) and other than a few too many doubles against righties, his career numbers in the minors are shockingly similar against both sides of the plate. That makes sense for a guy who features a solid changeup, so we can probably buy the numbers.
And finally, Lobstein’s biggest flaw is that he sits around 88 mph with his fastball. This is why no one projects him to be a mid-rotation or better arm. He has good secondary stuff and his mix of command and deception is very solid. He just doesn’t throw hard enough to get elite major league hitters out with enough regularity. Guys like Lobstein never get any love because it’s extremely hard to be an impactful starter with only 88. But when guys move to the pen, the velocity ticks up. Lobstein in relief mode is likely to sit closer to 90, and 90 with the rest of his virtues might just be enough to make him valuable for one and two inning stints.
Recall how much Smyly improved when he moved to the pen in 2013. Lobstein’s only going to see a lineup one time and he’s going to throw harder. There’s a real chance he could take to it, and while no one should expect Smyly caliber performance, it’s reasonable to expect a Smyly caliber jump in performance. I don’t see that potential with any of the other leading candidates for the job.
So while no one is excited about the Tigers pen, if the team is creative and gives Lobstein a chance to take on the middle inning-flex role, they could wind up making up for flaws elsewhere. Teams that succeed are teams with depth, which has been the weakness of the Tigers for several years. They have some elite talent, but very little oomph at the bottom of the roster. If they can turn a Triple-A starter into a quality reliever, it will be a step in the right direction.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44