Detroit — Bullpen, bullpen, bullpen.
Tigers fans want to talk about the bullpen. And you can't blame them. It's been awful in Detroit for far too many years of late.
But while the Tigers passed on the big-name relievers this winter — Andrew Miller went to the Yankees, and David Robertson went to the White Sox — their bullpen has the potential to be a surprise, just based on the history of Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria.
"Bullpens are very finicky," manager Brad Ausmus said Saturday at sold-out TigerFest. "You can have a great bullpen one year, and throw the same guys out there the following year and it could be — I don't want to say awful — but it could be not so good.
"I expect Joe to be better. We never really saw Joakim Soria the way he pitches, so I expect him to be better. I'm hoping (Bruce) Rondon's healthy."
Rondon is coming off Tommy John surgery, and Nathan and Soria are coming off some of the most trying times of their great careers.
But the Tigers also have addressed the bullpen through a series of under-the-radar moves, like getting the Red Sox to throw Alex Wilson into the Yoenis Cespedes trade, a waiver claim of Ausmus' former Team Israel closer, Josh Zeid, and the signing of veteran Tom Gorzelanny. Al Alburqerque's still here.
And that's to say nothing of highly acclaimed prospects the Tigers think can help now, like Buck Farmer, Kyle Ryan, Kyle Lobstein, Angel Nesbitt and Joe Mantiply.
Nobody's saying the 2015 Tigers will be as good late in games as the 2014 Royals, but there's much more depth than there's been in quite some time. So don't be surprised if they're better than they've been — and significantly so.
"You never know where it's gonna come from," Ausmus said, "but because of the finicky nature of bullpens, it wouldn't shock me if what you said is exactly true."
For what it's worth, should the Tigers decide in the next week or so that the bullpen could still use more help, there is a large contingent of remaining free agents there, including Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain, among others. Every day they remain unsigned, the price probably comes down.
Since the 2007 season, the Tigers have been the annual favorites to win the American League Central. The last four years they lived up to the hype, winning four straight division crowns.
But the tide seems to be shifting with the big offseason moves some of the Tigers' chief competitors have made.
And that's just fine with the Tigers.
"Good," Ausmus said of the idea Detroit might not be the favorite anymore. "It's certainly different than the last few years. I'll tell you what, I think we've got a really good team. I hope the vast majority (of experts) say, 'Ahh, well, the Royals, the Indians, the White Sox.'
"I'll lay in the weeds with this team any day of the week."
The White Sox have made the biggest splashes, acquiring Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche and Robertson. The Indians have great young pitching, and added slugger Brandon Moss. And the Royals, last year's AL champions, are losing a couple key guys, but their lights-out bullpen could be even better — now that Luke Hochevar is healthy — and they did sign Edinson Volquez.
Around the horn
Ausmus said he expects improvement from Nick Castellanos on defense at third base, particularly on his first step. Castellanos is planning a trip soon to work with defensive coordinator Matt Martin in Lubbock, Texas, before heading to spring training in Lakeland, Florida. Ausmus said there are no issues with Castellanos' arm.
... Ex-Tiger Rick Porcello is starting to meet his new Red Sox teammates, but isn't ready to talk extension yet. He's a free agent after 2015. "I just got here and met the guys last night, so I think it's premature for that," Porcello told MassLive.com. "I'm just trying to settle in and fit in with everybody."
... Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said the team had interest in bringing back utilityman Don Kelly on a minor-league deal, but Kelly thought he had a better shot to play in the majors with the Marlins. That was before they signed Ichiro Suzuki, though.
... J.D. Martinez was a late scratch on the Winter Caravan. He got off the plane from Florida on Wednesday and immediately became ill with a stomach issue. Rather than letting him try to tough it out, the Tigers decided to send him home to get well.
... Tigers first-base coach Omar Vizquel is quite the fashionista, and was a hit with his wild pants this week. Saturday's choice at TigerFest was a dark base, with bold stripes. Earlier in the week on the Caravan, he went with green leather.
... Tigers single-game tickets go on sale Saturday, March 7, at Comerica Park. Prices haven't been announced yet.