Detroit Tigers Bullpen: Depth Chart Discussion

The 2012 Detroit Tigers had a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack bullpen. Despite this year’s edition lacking in name recognition, it could prove to be one of the most exciting bullpens in the league. With no clear closer and a lot of high-powered arms, Jim Leyland doesn’t have a go-to guy to rely on any longer.

While Jose Valverde racked up 35 saves and kept his ERA to 3.78 last season, his strikeout rate also plummeted and he is still presently looking for work. The Tigers are unsure of exactly how their pen will be set up, but it appears bringing Valverde back is not in the plans, at least according to Leyland. There has been speculation that the Tigers may look to make a move to solidify the back end, but nothing seems imminent.

Behind Valverde last year were a pair of very solid right-handed relievers, both of whom have a chance at save situations this year. Joaquin Benoit continued his stellar run as a late-inning man, posting a 29.2 K% and a 3.29 xFIP. Home runs were a bit of an issue, but his HR/FB rate was nearly double his career mark and is due for some regression. Octavio Dotel, meanwhile, had a strong season overall but simply can’t be trusted against lefties, making him a ROOGY of sorts for Leyland. This five-year trend of being shelled by lefties and shutting down righties should mean he sees a more extreme split in terms of batters faced, although the lack of lefties in the bullpen could convince Leyland to leave him in against them anyway, splits be damned.

Speaking of lefties, Phil Coke is another closer candidate in Mo-Town. Coke wants the job and is working hard to get it, but his left-handedness is probably a factor going against his quest for the closer’s chair. That’s not to say lefties can’t be closers, but the Tigers’ pen looks to be thin on lefties, with only one other southpaw currently pencilled in alongside Coke. Having him close would severely limit Leyland’s flexibility in the middle innings, but he’s probably third in line if Benoit and this next name falter.

The favorite in the early going was Bruce Rondon. Rondon hasn’t pitched in the majors yet but was lights out across three levels last year. Projection systems are very bearish on his ERA potential due to command issues, but he has some serious strikeout potential. He’s really struggling in the early parts of spring training, but the Tigers aren’t discouraged.

If Rondon can settle down over the next few weeks, the job is likely up for grabs between him and Benoit, with Coke a dark horse if the team decides to keep an extra lefty by hanging on to both Duane Below and Darin Downs. That would bump one of Al Alburquerque or Brayan Villarreal, though, and those are actually two names to file away for later in the year if the position remains unsettled. Villarreal had a 29.2 K% in 54.2 innings last year but got very lucky with his HR/FB rate, while Alburquerque worked his way back from injury to post a 0.68 ERA in 13.1 innings. Al-Al has always been a flamethrower, with a 36.2 K% for his career, but he’s also only cracked 50 innings twice in his career, dating back to 2006.

It’s a messy situation in Detroit, as Leyland doesn’t believe they have a closer at present. It really is up in the air, but these three names deserve a close follow throughout spring, with Alburquerque a recommended add if your format values middle relievers.

Closer: Benoit, Coke, Rondon
Setup: Benoit, Coke, Rondon, Dotel
LOOGY: Downs
Dark Horse: Alburquerque
Longshot: Villarreal

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Blake Murphy is a news editor at The Score, and is a freelance sportswriter covering baseball, basketball, hockey and more. Think Bo Jackson, without the being good at every sport part. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

7 Responses to “Detroit Tigers Bullpen: Depth Chart Discussion”

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  1. Tak says:

    There’s been whispers of using Ricky Porcello to nail down games as well…

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    • Blake Murphy says:

      That’s an interesting idea. He doesn’t really have a closer’s arsenal, but maybe if he limited it to two pitches he’d be able to dial in better? One of he or Smyly will be on the outside looking in, I just think it makes more sense to have a 6th starter ready at AAA then bolster a decent bullpen.

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  2. novaether says:

    The tigers have a bullpen well suited for a closer-by-committee format. Sadly, Leyland is too much of a dinosaur to enact that policy.

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  3. Edge O says:

    Go back to Leyland’s Pirate days. The early days of his time in Pittsburgh Don Robinson and Jimm Gott shared SVs. Then it was Stan Belinda and Bill Landrum. The ’92 team finished first when Belinda saved 18, Bob Patterson 9, and Roger Mason 8. In ’93 Belinda had 19 and the household name Mark Dewey had 7. Remember names like Alejandro Pena and Rick White? They shared SVs in ’94. His final year in Pitt. Dan Plesac had 11 and Francisco Cordova led with 12. Then with the Marlins Matt Mantei and Antonio Alfonseca shared. Even in Detroit Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney spent a year sharing the SVs. I assume by dinosaur you mean he’s old and not set in his ways then I agree. Bruce Bochy must have been following Leyland’s career.

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    • majnun says:

      If you are going back 20+ years as evidence of what Leyland will do in 2013, wouldn’t that mean that he WAS set in his ways?

      I’m only joking. This was an excellent comment.

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  4. Randy says:

    I realize that the audience of Fangraphs cares a lot about which relief pitchers are getting saves and holds for fantasy purposes, but I feel like every article like this warrants a disclaimer about the myth that every team needs an anointed closer to pitch the 9th inning.

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