Tigers plan to bulk up bullpen from within
Detroit — Dave Dombrowski was trying to make a point about the up-and-down nature of bullpens in Major League baseball.
"How many of the 10 clubs that got to the postseason last year had the same closer the entire season?" he asked.
The Royals, Tigers, Cardinals and Dodgers, that's it.
"That's how unstable that spot is at times," said Dombrowski, Tigers president and general manager. "Bullpen guys are different from other positions. It's one spot where, for whatever reason, guys go up and down. So when you are looking at free agents, you have to ask yourself, is this guy a lock to perform next year or not?
"Usually, with bullpen guys, there are more question marks."
The Tigers haven't signed or acquired any marquee relief pitchers this offseason — much to the consternation of most of their fan base — so on paper it would appear last year's bullpen concerns haven't been addressed.
Dombrowski would dispute that notion.
"I feel good about (Joakim) Soria and (Bruce) Rondon, I can tell you that," he said.
The Tigers are confident Soria, whose $7 million option was picked up for 2015, will return to his previous All-Star form after being injured and struggling down the stretch last season. They also believe hard-throwing right-hander Rondon is healthy after missing last season with a torn ligament in his elbow.
With those two, plus closer Joe Nathan (who is coming off the worst season of his career) and Al Alburquerque, Dombrowski feels like the back end of the bullpen will be improved.
"We have our back end guys," he said. "I would like to take my chances with (Atlanta's) Craig Kimbrel, (Cincinnati's) Aroldis Chapman and (Kansas City's) Greg Holland, but there's not many of those guys around."
Assuming Alburquerque, Rondon, Soria and Nathan get through spring training in good health and good form — no guarantees on either — there will be some heavy competition for the final three spots in the bullpen.
With Phil Coke out of the mix, Ian Krol, Blaine Hardy, Kyle Ryan and possibly Kyle Lobstein will be fighting for one, possibly two, left-handed reliever spots.
And with Joba Chamberlain out of the mix, there could be as many as 10 right-handed relievers fighting for one or two spots. That includes likely non-roster invitees Joel Hanrahan, who is working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and two Dominican-born right-handers the Tigers signed from the Cubs organization — Alberto Cabrera and Rafael Dolis.
"We signed those guys so they can come in and compete for a job," said vice president and assistant general manager Al Avila. "Sometimes they do pretty well. Alburquerque was a guy we signed like that (off waivers) and he's stuck with us. We've had a long track record with these kind of guys and that's a tribute to our Major League scouts and our Latin America scouts."
Both are 26 and both stand 6-foot-4. Cabrera pitched parts of two seasons with the Cubs, 32 games, and was 1-1 with a 5.20 ERA and a 1.663 WHIP. He's struck out 31 in 27.2 innings. Dolis was 2-4 with a 5.48 ERA and 1.556 WHIP in parts of three seasons with the Cubs.
Here are the seven right-handers on the 40-man roster who will be in the fight for a spot in the bullpen.
■ Angel Nesbitt, 24, 6-1, 237 pounds. Avila and Dombrowski said he throws as hard as Rondon, upper 90s, with improving command. "He knows how to pitch," Avila said. Pitching in high-A and Double-A last season, he was 3-0 with 1.48 ERA and 0.990 WHIP. He had 20 saves, striking out 72 in 66.2 innings.
■ Josh Zeid, 27, 6-4, 235 pounds. He was picked up off waivers from Houston after his 2014 season was ruined by a foot injury. But he has shown swing-and-miss stuff. He had 24 strikeouts in 27.2 innings with a 1.373 WHIP in 2013. In six minor league seasons he struck out 394 in 385.1 innings.
"We really like him," Dombrowski said. "Statistically we like him and we had good reports on him. He had the bad foot but surgery has fixed the problem. Two years ago our reports were that he was a solid guy at the Major League level. Not outstanding, but solid and worth the gamble."
■ Alex Wilson, 28, 6-0, 215 pounds. Acquired from the Red Sox in the Rick Porcello trade, Wilson seemed to come into his own last season. He was 1-0 with a 1.91 ERA and .0882 WHIP in 18 games with the Red Sox. In two seasons in Boston he was 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA.
■ Luke Putkonen, 28, 6-6, 215 pounds. After a promising year in 2013, he missed most of last season with an elbow injury. In 30 games in 2013 he posted a 3.03 ERA and a 1.315 WHIP. He struck out 28 in 29.2 innings. He was on track to contest for a back-end role, but he may be starting from square one this spring.
■ Jose Valdez, 24, 6-1, 200 pounds. He's probably a year away, but he's got an impressive arm. At Double-A Erie last season he was 2-3, with a 4.11 ERA and 18 saves. He struck out 66 in 57.1 innings. In six minor league seasons he has fanned 239 in 199.2 innings.
■ Chad Smith, 25, 6-3, 215 pounds. He didn't make a great first impression at the big league level last season (15 hits, 7 runs allowed in 11.2 innings) but the Tigers aren't throwing in the towel. In three minor league seasons, he's posted a 2.68 ERA, a 1.202 WHIP and he's struck out 161 in 164.2 innings.
■ Buck Farmer, 23, 6-4, 225 pounds. It seems most likely the Tigers will opt to give him, as well as right-hander Drew VerHagen, some time to develop as a starting pitcher, which was their plan when they drafted him. He mostly got roughed up in his short stint with the Tigers last season (12 runs in 9.1 innings), with much of the damage coming against him in two relief appearances.
"You try to build up as much depth as you can," Dombrowski said. "A couple of years ago I was reading about a couple of clubs who were so smart to give their young guys an opportunity to pitch and they did well."
The Tigers are banking on a similar fate for 2015.
Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky