The Tigers have a very balanced mix of minor league veterans, organizational soldiers, and hot young phenoms that will be looking to fill out bullpens from West Michigan to Toledo.
With injuries to Craig Dingman and Matt Mantei early in spring training, the Detroit bullpen is currently in a state of flux. As it stands now, the bullpen is almost certain to include Todd Jones, Jamie Walker, Fernando Rodney, Chris Spurling, and Roman Colon. The final two slots are still up for grabs between guys like Franklyn German, Hector Mercado, Bobby Seay, Joel Zumaya, and Jason Grilli. Once the Detroit 25-man roster becomes clearer, things will begin to settle out for the rest of the organizational rosters.
Minor league veterans Kevin Hodge, Tim Crabtree, and Steve Green are all strong candidates for the Toledo bullpen in 2006, and they should provide valuable innings to a team trying to defend it's International League crown. Also looking for time will be those pitchers left out of the mix for a slot in Detroit, as well as hard throwing relief prospect, Mark Woodyard. Woodyard has been slow to progress since joining the organization out of Bethune-Cookman College in 2000.
In addition to the aforementioned pitchers that will be almost exclusively vying for slots in Toledo, there is a group of pitchers who could be riding the bus back and forth from Erie to Toledo with some regularity this season. Minor league free agents Tony Fiore and Alex Herrera fall into this group of prospects. Herrera is an intriguing player that has the potential to become a nice scrap-heap find if he starts to figure out his plus stuff. Two solid performers at Erie this year will look to make strong spring impressions in hopes of seeing time at AAA in 2006. Both John Birtwell and Corey Hamman are guys that often get taken for granted when compared to guys with blazing fastballs and tons of saves, but both have been invaluable at all their stops in recent seasons. If given the opportunity, look for them both to be solid, if unspectacular this season.
The bullpen for AA-Erie will be stocked with a crew that proved dominating at Lakeland in 2005. Led by dual closers Eulogio de la Cruz and Chris Homer, the Lakeland pen locked down the late innings of games and helped lead the L-Tigers to an outstanding record. In the setup role will be lefty Danny Zell, who has the stuff to be in a starting rotation, but the workload just seems too much for him. As a bullpen arm though, he has been positively unhittable the last couple of seasons, and there's little to suggest that will change in 2006. The two Brians, Rogers and Hensen may not make you take a second look at the radar gun, but both have been impressive relievers and will look to provide reliable innings between the Erie starters and the duo that is expected to lock down the 9th inning.
Three other pitchers who should be considered somewhat of a long shot for the Erie roster are Felix Sanchez, Jermy Rodriguez, and Anthoney Tomey. Sanchez came to the Tigers in exchange for Jon Connolly and has battled injuries that have sapped much of his plus velocity, and taken the bite out of a once filthy slider. Despite significant control problems, Anthony Tomey has a potentially dominating power arsenal, and the imposing mound presence managers love in the late innings. After an outstanding season for West Michigan in 2005, the 24-year old Tomey could jump all the way to Erie if things break right this spring.
Even without the three pitchers mentioned above, the bullpen at Lakeland has a great chance to be one of the most dominating in all of baseball. Led by several 2005 draft choices, Lakeland could see a lot of exciting arms this season. Kevin Whelan will assume the closing duties for the L-Tigers, and his dirty fastball-splitter combination could see him moving up the ladder in a hurry. Three additional draft choices from last year; Kevin Ardoin, PJ Finigan; and Jeff Hahn will also look to take on a lot of innings out of the pen in '06. Finigan has by far the highest ceiling of the three, and he could move just as quickly as Whelan, now that he is focusing solely on pitching for the first time in his career.
After coming over in an off-season trade for Kenny Baugh, Ricky Steik will look to fill a role out of the Lakeland bullpen as well. Steik has a promising repertoire, and the Tigers are hopeful he can validate the trade of an experienced AAA starter. Ed Clelland, Tony Peralta, Lavon Lewis, Ian Ostlund, Freddi Dolsi, and Matt Righter will also be looking to find innings with Lakeland, or possibly West Michigan.
The remainder of a large group of college relievers drafted by the Tigers in 2005 will help close down games for West Michigan in 2006. Draft-mates Loren Fraser, Jake Baxter, Tim Robertson, Anthony Claggett, and Matthew Norfleet will look to build on strong showings in the New York-Penn League last summer. Norfleet and Claggett will compete for, and likely split the closer duties for the ‘Caps. Both pitchers have above-average fastballs, and mean streaks to suit the challenge of the late innings.
Two guys with huge fastballs and little control will look to try and crack (and remain in) the West Michigan bullpen after disastrous 2005 campaigns. Colin Mahoney and Jay Sborz have plenty of power, but little else to go with it, and they will have to make significant strides to be successful, let alone make the Whitecaps opening day roster. Some additional pitchers that will have outside chances at bullpen slots include Erik Averill, Gibbs Wilson, and Luis Gil. Averill had been a starter through most of his collegiate career at Arizona State, but his future is likely in a bullpen, where his above average control could help him move quickly.
With an emphasis on developing pitchers throughout the system, the Tigers are beginning to build quite a stable of hard throwing relievers. With such a wealth of bullpen arms, the odds increase that a few will reach Detroit in dominating fashion, and help a Tigers bullpen that has been mediocre in recent seasons. The organization hopes to be aggressive with some of their collegiate relievers, meaning the bullpens throughout the system could be in for constant change throughout the 2006 season.