Detroit — There isn’t a position group in baseball, in any organization, more fragile and unpredictable than relief pitching. It’s the nature of the beast, really. Sustained excellence is rare — individually and collectively.
It has been especially so for the Tigers, whose bullpen woes this millennium have been well-documented. You can never truly know from year to year — shoot, month to month — how it’s going to go.
A recent example: If Buck Farmer had a minor league option last spring, he would have started the season in Toledo. As it turned out, Farmer had a break-out year and ended up being the Tigers’ set-up man.
There’s no rhyme or reason for when or why a reliever catches fire or flames out. So to attempt an organizational assessment of the Tigers’ bullpen depth — well, it’s an exercise in futility. What can be said with authority is that over the last five years or longer, the Tigers have amassed a large stable of hard-throwers.
The odds are a few of them might eventually contribute at the big-league level.
►Joe Jimenez: He’s certainly had stretches of dominance the last two seasons, but his 12-10 save-to-blown save rate and his 4.34 ERA point to his inconsistency. His fastball sits at 95 mph now, not 97, but his slider has become sharper. Here’s the rub: If he puts it all together this year, or next, he will likely be traded, ala Shane Greene.
►Buck Farmer: His stuff — the heavy, 95 mph heater, nasty change-up and slider — were never in question, not since the Tigers called him up straight from Double-A in 2015. What held him back was command, and last year he knocked his walk rate down from 13 percent to 8 percent and became the Tigers most-trusted reliever.
►Jose Cisnero: He worked his way back to the big leagues after a five-year hiatus and gave the Tigers some good innings last year (40 strikeouts in 35 innings). His power arm is what teams look for in back-end relievers. But his 5.0 walks per nine is a concern. He struggled this spring, too.
►Gregory Soto: This is a rare commodity in baseball — a left-handed power arm. With an upper-90s fastball and a biting slider, he should be dominant. And he wasn’t last year, largely because of his control (45-33 strikeouts-to-walks in 57.2 innings). This is all-star talent, though.
►Bryan Garcia: After fighting back from Tommy John surgery, Garcia got his big-league baptism last year. And though the results were spotty, his stuff and especially his poise and mound presence, impressed. Has the tools to be a workhorse on this staff.
►David McKay: He’s got an elite breaking ball (hybrid slider-curve with a ridiculous spin rate) and when he’s spotting his mid-90s fastball correctly, he’s a weapon. He stuck out 29 in 19 innings last year. But he also gave up 12 runs.
►Rony Garcia: The Tigers took him with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft and they see him as a future starter. To keep him on the roster this year, which is required, he’ll have to work out of the bullpen. He was very much on the bubble when camp was shut down. A shortened season with possible expanded rosters would facilitate him staying with the Tigers.
►Hector Santiago: A valuable veteran player who the Tigers brought to camp as a non-roster invitee. The 32-year-old left-hander has pitched, and is willing to pitch, in any and all roles.
►Nick Ramirez: The lefty pitched a team-high 79.2 innings last season and for his efforts was designated for assignment and signed back on a minor-league deal. He has an exceptional change-up (.216 opponent batting average) and didn’t give up a lot of hard contact (86 percent exit velocity on balls in play was in the top five percentile).
►Alex Wilson: A mainstay and leader in the Tigers’ bullpen for four years, he spent last year in Triple-A with the Brewers and Cubs. He’s back on a minor-league deal trying to add a sidearm delivery to his repertoire. It was still a work in progress when camp was shut down.
►John Schreiber: Speaking of side-armers, Schreiber made his big-league debut last season and showed promise. He struggled with his command this spring and was likely to start the year at Toledo.
►Shao-Ching Chiang: After spending eight years as a starting pitcher in the Indians system, he showed up in Tigers camp throwing 97-98 mph and was in contention for a bullpen role when camp shut down.
►Beau Burrows: He was in the process of retooling his mechanics this spring. His velocity and movement had decreased alarmingly. There has been no official announcement that he will work out of the bullpen, but given where he’s at now and the influx of young starters in the system, it seems inevitable.
►Kyle Funkhouser: His transition to the bullpen was announced and he embraced it. But he remains an enigma. He has big-league stuff, but even this spring, struggled to get people out. Hard to give up on this kind of talent, though.
►Nolan Blackwood: Another sidewinder, a 6-5 sidewinder. He came over from Oakland in the Mike Fiers trade and was impressive at Double-A Erie before getting hit around in a short stay at Toledo. The Tigers gave him five outings this spring and he allowed just two hits.
►Sandy Baez: Once a fast-rising star in the system, Baez has had to work himself back onto the radar after being DFA’d. He lost a lot of weight and came into camp as lean as he’d ever been. He pitched well this spring and would likely have ended up at Toledo.
►Gerson Moreno: Power arm who came back from Tommy John surgery still throwing in the upper 90s this spring. His command, as is often the case following surgery, did not come back as quickly.
►Wladimir Pinto: He rolled his ankle early in camp and never seemed to get back on track. The scouting reports talked of triple-digit fastballs, but he was sitting in the mid-90s when camp ended.
►Will Vest: A very athletic right-hander, he climbed three rungs and got to Toledo last year and pitched in the Arizona Fall League (though he got hit hard). He’s only been pitching for four years, so his arm is fresh and his sinking 94 mph fastball is effective. Still developing his secondary pitches.
►Alex Lange: The Tigers converted him to the bullpen after acquiring him from the Cubs for Nick Castellanos. A three-year standout at LSU, he’s a mature pitcher. Entering his age-24 season, he could climb fast.
►Others at or near Triple-A level: Drew Carlton, Zac Houston, Joe Navilhon, Trent Szkutnik, Ethan DeCaster, Chris Smith (coming off Tommy John surgery).
►Angel DeJesus: He’s 6-4 and still growing into his body and his mechanics are spotty. But he has good movement on his mid-90s fastball, as evidenced by his 85 strikeouts in 61 innings between West Michigan and Lakeland last year.
►Zack Hess: Another former LSU player, he’s 6-6 and struck out 22 batters in 21 innings at Low-A West Michigan.
►Angel Reyes: A strong-bodied right-hander with a mid-90s fastball who struck out 65 in 60 innings at West Michigan. Needs to improve his command and secondary pitches.
►Austin Bergner: Tigers’ ninth-round pick last year is 6-4, athletic and has an intriguing change-up that he throws off a 93-95 mph heater. Good pedigree, too, having played in the Perfect Game showcase as well as at North Carolina.
►Jared Tobey: The lefty from Wayne State made a strong first impression last year, striking out 41 in 28 innings at West Michigan. As this list shows, there are few quality lefties on the rise.
►Jason Foley: Undrafted, he was throwing 100-mph darts in low-A in 2017. He’s on the way back after Tommy John surgery, again hitting triple-digits on the radar gun last year.
►Max Green: Kind of a fun-loving, quirky lefty, but his long-armed, 98-mph fastball will play. He also has two different curve balls and is working on a slider.