Henning: Tigers bullpen so full, some aren’t missed

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Clearwater, Fla. — With the usual mix of sore arms and fat pitches sure to alter things during these final three weeks of spring camp, the Tigers are writing in very soft cement any plans for an Opening Day pitching staff.

But you can see it taking shape. And if they were to break camp today, with five starters essentially unchanged, only the Tigers bullpen would be a mystery.

Here’s the way it would shake out if manager Brad Ausmus went by all the evidence so far gleaned from 11 Grapefruit League games and nearly a month of practice-field auditions.

Francisco Rodriguez. Mark Lowe. Justin Wilson. Drew VerHagen. Bruce Rondon. Kyle Ryan. Blaine Hardy.

There are your probable seven relievers — today, anyway.

Why the above group is interesting, and why general manager Al Avila’s offseason work is looking even sturdier, is because of the pitchers who today would not crack the 25-man, big league roster.

Alex Wilson: Last year’s Most Valuable Reliever (an award just invented and conferred) has a tender shoulder and hasn’t come close to throwing a pitch in a game. Had the Tigers thought a month or more ago Wilson would be on the shelf, they’d have been asking for a pharmacy’s heaviest anti-anxiety remedy. But he’s barely been missed.

Shane Greene: He was viewed as possible bullpen ballast after last year’s arterial surgery fixed a scary problem that sabotaged his 2015 season. Greene is throwing with his old Yankees-days zest. But he needs work, as a more precious starter, and probably begins the year at Triple A Toledo, which should be good for him and for the Tigers.

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Michael Fulmer: He, too, nearly got a bullpen draft notice. But the Tigers for now have enough relievers that a prized prospect can continue his rotation apprenticeship at Toledo. Full-time work in Detroit is not far away.

Meanwhile, a guy who could always spot-start in a pinch, Matt Boyd, is all but sure to be buffed and polished at Toledo, as is that half-forgotten kid with the big arm, Angel Nesbitt, who is throwing 97 and 98 mph. Nesbitt should be an easy call-up as soon as the disabled list opens for business.

A simple deduction is there are more capable arms in Tigers camp in 2016 than has been seen in Florida in years. There is quantity and a surprising amount of quality. As much, anyway, as can be forecasted in any year where pitching is always at a premium.

Call to arms has answers

Just as obvious is that a fair amount of shuffling and mixing will be done as throbbing elbows or sky-high ERAs keep that Toledo-Comerica Park shuttle bus humming.

Begin with some facts of life sure to attack Ausmus’ rotation to see how this sudden — and maybe illusory — depth could be a season-saver.

There simply are more decent arms in Tigers camp in 2016 than typically has been true. The question, as always, is whether quality can catch up with the quantity Avila brought this year to Lakeland.

Begin with Ausmus’ rotation. And with a few inevitable realities.

Anibal Sanchez is a first fact of life. Expecting him to pitch six months minus a stint on the DL is a happy thought for the Tigers, especially if Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann can go the distance. But, based on history, Sanchez isn’t a great percentage bet to make 30-plus starts.

Daniel Norris is 22 and, incredibly, has never thrown more than 90 innings in a professional season. He will need to skip the occasional start just as he’ll require some early exits as the Tigers watch his workload.

Mike Pelfrey is for now Ausmus’ fifth starter. But he had a tough second half in 2015 and owns a career 4.52 ERA. So, the potential for him stumbling, or needing a bullpen sabbatical, is plausible.

Feel free to envision in 2016 Greene, Boyd, or Fulmer taking their share of scenic travels along I-75 as the Tigers deal with a team’s normal need for anywhere from six to 10 starters.

Nice to have options

A bullpen that looks amazingly strong in March will have its breakdowns, as well. What’s startling is how much has changed in that old Tigers trouble spot.

Fans scarred by Rondon’s past will be nervous about trusting him in any long-term role. But strange as it will seem to his doubters, Rondon has the stuff to ride shotgun in those late innings and be a force. He’s back from Tommy John surgery and is throwing his old high-octane gas, in tandem with a slider.

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Mix in VerHagen, who is nearly as heavy on the throttle as Rondon, and a bullpen now featuring K-Rod, Lowe, and Justin Wilson, has a far different look, with left-handers Ryan and Hardy ranking as reasonably safe fits.

Nesbitt will be in Toledo tuning up. So, too, will Joe Jimenez, who next to Fulmer might be the best young pitcher in Detroit’s system. He’ll be at Double A Erie and a quick trip from Detroit if his progress and a team’s needs are a match.

Not for a moment does any of this imply Detroit’s pitching, 27th out of 30 teams in 2015, has turned into a world-beater. What it means is there should be comfortable options the Tigers in the past eight or more years haven’t come close to knowing.