John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Roundtable: How to Fix the Detroit Tigers Bullpen

This week's Roundtable question for the TigsTown staff: What would you do to try and improve the Tigers beleaguered bullpen?

Paul Wezner, Executive Editor

The Tigers last week took an obvious first step to fix the bullpen by removing Francisco Rodriguez from the closer role, and while the team is holding out hope that he can figure some things out, as I detailed a few weeks ago (TigsTown Analysis: Francisco Rodriguez / K-Rod's Struggles), that doesn't seem likely. Having a late inning trio of the Wilson's and Shane Greene has been serviceable thus far, but each of the three has concerns as well - Justin Wilson tired late in the year last season and lost effectiveness, Alex Wilson doesn't get many strikeouts and is dependent on his defense, and Shane Greene has battled injuries and control/consistency issues. And that's your "reliable" trio. The rest of the bullpen is clearly a level below, and unlikely to be relied upon for recording valuable outs.
The Tigers can always hope that one of the younger, high potential relievers could find their way in the near-term - Bruce Rondon could regain his fastball, Joe Jimenez could refine his slider, or someone a little further down the ladder like Victor Alcantara could vault their way up to contribute. A welcome scenario, but not terribly likely, and as some say, "hope is not a strategy."
Beyond internal options, the Tigers could start exploring the market right now for relievers that might be available for trade. It would seem unusual for the club to be a buyer right now, but in the right market for the right player, it could be an option - especially if it was a short-term rental that wouldn't saddle the Tigers with salary beyond 2017, or alternatively, a younger player that still has years ahead of him that could be viewed as a key piece in the future. There are likely to be a half dozen teams that will plan on selling in the not-too-distant future that could be willing to part with a quality reliever for younger talent. Of course, that would prove costly, and would fly against what the Tigers are setting out to do, which is get younger (and cheaper) talent.
The last course of action would be to take the parts the Tigers have and try and reshuffle them. To date, manager Brad Ausmus has embraced very traditional bullpen roles, but for this to have any significant impact, the Tigers would have to break from that philosophy and get creative. This would have to look something along the lines of mixing and matching relievers based on matchups, using a number of relievers in short stints on a frequent basis, and having a number of arms to turn to. This would likely require the Tigers to finally cut bait with Anibal Sanchez, and possibly K-Rod as well, offering the team more options in the hopes of capitalizing on individual strengths. Have three left-handed specialists, call on multiple pitchers per inning, use your "closer" in the 8th inning rather than the 9th, and a number of other out-of-the-box ideas.
This doesn't seem to be a great option either, but if the Tigers want to stick to the plan of not trading prospects for big league talent, and none of the younger arms emerge in the next ~30 days, the Tigers might need to make a drastic shakeup in the bullpen to improve their unit's chances of being effective overall.

 

Mark Anderson, Director of Scouting

With the big move already made -- removing Francisco Rodriguez from the closer's role and inserting Justin Wilson -- the Tigers have already taken a strong step to solidifying things late in games. Unfortunately, I don't believe there's much more the club can do in the short term that will truly lead to different results on the field. The club can try to shuffle the hot hand onto the roster by moving guys like Blaine Hardy, Kyle Ryan, Chad Bell, Daniel Stumpf, and Brucon Rondon back and forth between Toledo and Detroit. They can also consider shifting guys currently in the Toledo rotation -- guys with bullpen experience like Buck Farmer and Drew VerHagen -- to the bullpen and seeing if they catch lightning in a bottle. That said, none of these moves substantially impacts the club's relief corps; it's shuffling middling relievers in and out of roles to help in the middle innings. While this can certainly help as young starters like Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, or even a struggling veteran like Jordan Zimmermann, leave outings a little early and the team needs to lean on relievers in the 5th, 6th, and 7th innings, but we're not talking about these moves having a substantial impact on the club's ability to keep teams down in the late innings. Short of the unlikely immediate development of electric arms like Joe Jimenez, Jairo Labourt, or Sandy Baez, the club doesn't have the up-and-coming relievers necessary to change the face of their late inning crew, and even if those guys take steps forward as players, their ability to immediately affect the late innings is dubious, at best. At the end of the day, the Tigers are going to have to rely on the hope that Rodriguez gets on track and one of Jimenez or Rondon figures "it" out, or some under the radar moves for intriguing 6th or 7th inning relievers on other big league clubs with the potential to elevate their game and help beyond the middle innings.
 

Chris Brown, Staff Writer

Bullpens can be a very funny thing. At times it seems like every reliever on the team is pitching well, and then suddenly they all dart in the opposite direction like a flock of starlings, and no one can get any outs. Take last year, for example. In May the Tigers bullpen produced the 4th worst Wins Above Replacement and the 4th worst Win Probability Added in baseball, but for the month of June they ranked 1st in WAR and 3rd in WPA. I mention this volatility for two reasons. One is to point out that the Tigers bullpen has actually been pretty good lately. It’s been a bit hard to see through the haze of implosions from Anibal Sanchez and Francisco Rodriguez, but Justin Wilson is performing like one of the best relievers in baseball, Alex Wilson has been impressively steady, Shane Greene appears to be on a bit of a hot streak, and Blaine Hardy looks like a capable lefty specialist. The other reason I mention last year’s bullpen fluctuations is to point out that this current run of good pitching can vaporize at any moment.

No team can survive with what amounts to a four-man bullpen, but that’s what the Tigers are trying to do right now. Anibal Sanchez is no longer a viable major league pitcher. He has the highest ERA, the highest home run rate, and the 4th worst WAR among all qualified pitchers since the start of 2015. It’s painful to eat so much salary, and it has to be hard to say goodbye to a solid teammate who was a key part of division-winning squads, but I would cut him. Then there’s K-Rod, the deposed closer whose career appears headed along the same path as Sanchez. I would give him a few chances to pitch against favorable matchups in the 6th or 7th inning to try to get his confidence back, but if he continues to struggle he will need to be cut, too. Chad Bell, who is currently the seventh member of the bullpen, made his MLB debut the other night and showed some promise, but it’s far too early to declare him dependable.

So the Tigers need to find at least two, and probably three solid arms for their bullpen. Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen, Warwick Saupold, and William Cuevas aren’t ideal long relievers, but it’s hard to imagine them all being worse than Sanchez has been. Joe Jimenez will almost certainly play a role, with a chance to become another much-needed late-inning arm, and I would bet we’ll see Bruce Rondon again before the season is over, but I don’t think the Tigers will be able to fix all of their holes internally. If I were running the Tigers, I’d be looking to trade for another setup man right now. Perhaps I’d call the Braves and take another shot on Jim Johnson, or see what the Padres might want for Brandon Maurer or Brad Hand. Whatever the Tigers decide, they need to do it soon, because it’s only a matter of time before the bullpen is in crisis again.


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