Tigers Add Joe Nathan To Uncertain Bullpen

Since Monday night, the Tigers have gone to considerable lengths to remake a pitching staff that ranked among the game’s best in 2013. On Monday, it was the confounding trade that sent Doug Fister to Washington for some stocking stuffers; on Tuesday, reports surfaced that they’d signed closer Joe Nathan to a two-year deal, after reportedly being rebuffed by Brian Wilson.

Dave went over the Fister deal already, so we won’t rehash it here, except to point out that it’s quite likely that Drew Smyly will shift from the bullpen to the rotation to replace Fister. At the moment, that means the Detroit bullpen, a source of so much concern last year, has added Nathan via free agency and Ian Krol in the Fister trade, while subtracting Smyly and free agents Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras. They now have a closer, but do they have a better bullpen?

Remember, last year’s Detroit bullpen took a lot of heat, but that that was mostly because they had such a hard time nailing down the ninth inning. Bruce Rondon couldn’t handle the early opportunity he was given, and the return of Jose Valverde was a short-lived mess. Benoit eventually took over and did a solid job in the ninth, though that pushed everyone else behind him up a spot.

But despite the games in the ninth, this wasn’t a bad bullpen. Overall, the Tiger bullpen was more or less middle of the road by FIP and xFIP, with an expectedly lower rank in ERA due partially to the infield defense issues that have been discussed repeatedly. They did gain a benefit from being asked to throw the fewest innings in baseball thanks to the outstanding Detroit rotation, but were otherwise a decent, if unexciting group.

Of course, that’s not the same thing as a “good” group either, and only two of those relievers threw even 50 innings last year. That would be Smyly (76 IP, 2.31 FIP) and Benoit (67 IP, 2.87 FIP) and now, unless Benoit resigns, both are gone. Throw in Darin Downs, who threw 35.1 innings of 3.53 FIP ball before being lost to the Astros on waivers last month, and three of the five Detroit relievers with the most innings thrown are out of the picture.

That left Al Alburquerque (and his 6.24 BB/9), Phil Coke, coming off a career-worst season that included time spent in Triple-A, and Rondon, who missed most of September with a sore elbow, as the primary returning relievers, and so you can see how this might be troublesome.

This process of fixing this bullpen starts with Nathan, who is coming off what looked to be on the surface one of the best years of his career last year. That 1.39 ERA sure is shiny, and even if a 2.26 FIP doesn’t quite back it up, it’s hard to complain about a 2.26 FIP. It’s also difficult to argue with with 73 strikeouts in 64.2 innings, and if you buy into “ninth inning experience,” well, Nathan has plenty of that.

But he’s also 39 years old, and the list of relievers to finish 50 games in a season at that age is pretty short, especially when you consider that of the 10 times its been done, four were from the incomparable Mariano Rivera. Other than Rivera, it’s been done just twice this century (once apiece by Todd Jones and Trevor Hoffman), and while that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it’s not as though the odds are tilted in his favor.

He’s also coming off a career-low .228 BABIP, a never-going-to-happen-again 0.28 HR/9 and 3.0% HR/FB, and a career-high 23.3% line drive percentage. Plus, he’s dealing with a fastball velocity that fell a mile-and-a-half from 2012, one that caused him to rely on his slider more than ever:

nathan_pitches

You look at all those warning signs and you think to yourself, well, those are all red flags that should make you terrified about a 39-year-old pitcher. But even with some amount of expected regression, Nathan should be better than most of the pitchers Detroit threw out in 2013, and he’s been so good for so long that it’s difficult to see him completely falling off the table.

So despite the risk, 2/$20m (as has been reported), sounds about right, and is in fact exactly what FG readers predicted. It’s probably not the most efficient use of cash to pay for an old reliever who is at least partially valued on “saves,” but nor is it an egregious overpay for a team that badly needed help. Considering that that Wilson apparently didn’t want to come to Detroit and that guys like Fernando Rodney and Edward Mujica aren’t without risk of their own, it’s not like the team was overflowing with options anyway.

The other new Tiger, Krol, is a much less interesting player, a 22-year lefty who made his debut for the Nationals after having been acquired from Oakland in the Michael Morse / John Jaso trade last year. There’s value in reaching the bigs at 22 and holding lefties to a .273 OBP in an admittedly small sample size, but there’s some concern that LOOGY is his ultimate ceiling, since he’d dealt with platoon splits in the minors as well.

But back to the original question: is this better? This was the expected top six of the Detroit bullpen two days ago…

’13 ERA
’13 FIP
’14 ERA
’14 FIP
’14 $
Smyly
2.37
2.31
3.04
3.34
min.
Alburquerque
4.59
3.72
3.41
3.45
min.
Rondon
3.45
3.01
3.40
3.50
min.
Coke
5.40
4.14
3.50
3.96
$1.9m
Ortega
3.86
5.36
4.50
4.54
min.
Reed
4.24
3.86
4.08
4.08
min.

…and this is what it may be now (’14 projections via Steamer, of course):

’13 ERA
’13 FIP
’14 ERA
’14 FIP
’14 $
Nathan
1.39
2.29
2.70
3.10
~$10m
Alburquerque
4.59
3.72
3.41
3.45
min.
Rondon
3.45
3.01
3.40
3.50
min.
Coke
5.40
4.14
3.50
3.96
$1.9m
Ortega
3.86
5.36
4.50
4.54
min.
Krol
3.95
4.96
3.41
3.56
min.

It’s more expensive, to be sure, and Nathan is likely the best pitcher in either iteration, though some of the upgrade is lost because he’s just replacing Smyly, the second-best pitcher here. Either way, this is a bullpen that still needs one more good arm, whether that’s bringing back Benoit or adding someone else.

Yet really, this unavoidably comes back to the bewildering Fister trade. Sure, Detroit is one of the few situations where adding “a proven closer” like Nathan makes some amount of sense. But the Tigers had more than the ninth inning to fill, and a bullpen anchored by both Nathan and Smyly would have looked a whole lot better than what they had or could have, especially if you believe that Smyly is at least a mild step down from Fister in the rotation. Yes, A-ball pitcher Robbie Ray looks like an intriguing prospect, though as so many others have said, Fister should have been worth more. Nathan’s a worthwhile add, but the fallout of the Fister deal is impacting the bullpen, and not in a positive way.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


20 Responses to “Tigers Add Joe Nathan To Uncertain Bullpen”

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  1. Slats says:

    I miss Todd Jones.

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  2. pft says:

    Amazing how folks jump to conclusion despite the offseason being only 1/2 over.
    Its not guaranteed Smyly is moved to the rotation, maybe Kay makes the jump, or there is another deal in the offing. Tigers may very well sign another free agent for the bullpen.

    As for the Fister deal, it makes no sense unless it means Ellsbury or Cano is coming to town

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    • ralph says:

      I dunnno, given that Fister was projected to earn about $20 million over the next 2 years, and Nathan is being paid just that in very close proximity to trading Fister, it seems more likely that shedding Fister’s salary was meant to allow for Nathan’s salary than to allow for Ellsbury/Choo/Cano/etc.

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  3. Windsor Greg says:

    Dumbrowski is not that far removed from this unflattering moniker. Yes, he has fleeced a few, but there’s no guarantee he’s the 2nd coming of Trader Joe, or even Branch Rickey. Those who are waiting for a fallout of more trades that will make Fister make more sense cannot occur, since the Fister deal is just plain bad. Plus, I thought Illitch was 85 and needs a World Series ring before he dies. He’s worth $7 billion. For Pete’s sake, just spend and win one.

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    • Doctor J says:

      Go somewhere else with that “Dumbrowski” shit. He’s one of the best GM’s in all of sports and has totally embarrassed a couple franchises with the trades hes made.

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      • KJ says:

        How long are we going to keep up this “one of the best GM’s in all of sports” meme? He’s certainly one of the most active GMs in the league, but having a couple of trades stick to the wall doesn’t make him one of the best.

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        • Jon says:

          I think the reason that people say he’s so good is because he came on board and turned a Tigers team that went 55-106 and 43-119 in consecutive years and made them into a consistent contender and made it to the World Series in only the third season removed from that 119 loss debacle.

          Between the trades, player development, and signing the right free agents (by and large), he’s done nothing short of a fantastic job in Detroit.

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      • Greg says:

        Dombrowski also embarrassed the Tigers when he personally bailed Miguel Cabrera out of jail and let Leyland put him in the starting lineup just hours later. Nevermind that Cabrera drunkenly assaulted his wife, Dombrowski needed his bat in the lineup! How can you support a GM with priorities like that?

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    • bada bing says:

      How does this comment not have negative votes?

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  4. Stringer Bell says:

    I don’t care, this doesn’t do anything for me after the debacle that was last night.

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  5. highrent says:

    Point taken but I will say this Luke Gregerson may have a better year than Johnson to put it in perspective. I agree sometimes you have to overpay but its still an overpay. I think beane did a good job because its likely he doesn’t have much in the budget. But yeah on the surface its an overpay and there is much not to like.

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  6. Franco says:

    Man, you’d have to imagine some team would’ve given them half a good bullpen for Fister.

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  7. Tim says:

    Inflation is big, but I’m skeptical that it’s this big. Only one 39+ reliever-season has ever been worth seven digits, and the best one put up by a guy who didn’t wear #42 is $7.3m.

    I’m becoming more confident in my prediction that the Tigers traded Fielder for the right to overpay different guys.

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  8. Nathan says:

    Letting Veras go was crazy. Letting Benoit go in exchange for Joe Nathan is not so crazy.

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  9. I feel like most closers in free agency would be overpriced. Not necessarily in $/WAR every time but because surely you have a few decent arms who are failed starters making significantly less. Seems a lot like paying full time price for a bench player. Especially since they typically exclusively work the 9th. Imagine if bench bats who only came up to bat when you are leading a game after 9 innings. I know that’s not apples to apples because 50-70 innings pitched is 1/3-1/4 what a starter would do so a bench equivalent would be 200ish AB but come on. Just seems ridiculous to me.

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