Detroit — Another cold and gray day across Michigan, still a month from when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report for spring training and still no end to the lockout in sight — though the owners and players’ association are finally getting back to bargaining on economic issues Thursday.
So, let’s talk Tigers. Specifically, let’s talk about the bullpen.
Funny how times change. For most of the previous decade, the bullpen was the squeaky-wheel topic between seasons. It’s rarely discussed these days. It certainly wasn’t at or near the top of general manager Al Avila’s shopping list this offseason.
“We’ve got the makings of a pretty darn good bullpen,” Avila said at the season-ending press conference in October. “I think you’ve seen that this (past) year. And, as we all know, bullpens can tend to go up and down. You’ve got to be very careful on how you project that going into next season.
“But I’ve got to say, I feel pretty good about our bullpen going into next year.”
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As hard as it may be to trust, given the Tigers’ history of late-inning implosions, the bullpen might be considered one of the team’s strengths heading into spring training.
Start with the three-headed monster at the back end — Gregory Soto, Michael Fulmer and Jose Cisnero. They saved 36 of the team’s 77 wins and combined for 211 strikeouts in 195 innings. All three feature upper-90s fastballs, but there is more to their success than just old-fashioned country hardball.
Soto, an All-Star last year, posted a 51% swing-and-miss rate with his four-seam fastball and 43% with his slider. Fulmer got hitters to chase at a 32% clip, getting 33.5% swing-and-miss rate with both his power sinker and slider. Cisnero limited hitters to a 32% hard-hit rate, which ranked in the top 9 percentile, with a 30% whiff rate on his four-seam fastball.
Technically, Soto will come to camp as the closer. But as manager AJ Hinch said, “Sometimes our closer might pitch in the seventh, the eighth, the ninth and sometimes the sixth inning.”
That Hinch can have that kind of flexibility with three closer-capable relievers is huge.
For most of last year, right-hander Kyle Funkhouser emerged as a fourth leverage and multiple-inning reliever. With a 95-96 mph sinker and four-seam and an 87-mph slider, Funkhouser missed a lot of bats (44% whiff rate with the slider, 26% overall) when he commanded the strike zone.
He also got a 53% ground ball rate last year, which is useful.
Those four pitchers alone give the Tigers’ bullpen a chance to be good. There are two younger pitchers who, if they continue to mature, could make it great — right-handers Alex Lange and Jason Foley.
Once Lange simplified his delivery and locked in his mechanics, he was a force. In his last 17 games covering 18.2 innings, he struck out 18, allowed just three runs and an opponent batting average of .191.
When he was able to command his 96-98 mph fastball and work in favorable counts, he was able to put hitters away with both his curveball (48% whiff rate) and change-up (46% whiff rate).
Foley, too, had to work through some command issues in his rookie season. In his first six games he gave up six hits, two walks and hit three batters in 6.1 innings. He was called back up in September and allowed just a run and two hits in his last five games.
His stuff plays. He’s got a heavy sinker (96-98 mph) that generated a 58% ground ball rate, a sweeping slider and a four-seam fastball that he’s struggled to locate up in the zone. If he can master that pitch, he could be another significant piece for Hinch next season.
Also in the mix going into spring will be Joe Jimenez, Bryan Garcia, Rony Garcia and lefty Miguel Del Pozo.
Lefty Tyler Alexander could end up in the bullpen, too, reprising his long relief/spot starter role. Presently he is penciled in as the No. 5 starter, but Avila said he is still shopping for another veteran starter.
Veterans Brett Anderson, Carlos Rodon, Chris Archer, Martin Perez, Garrett Richards and Michael Pineda are names that have been linked to the Tigers.
And while Avila didn’t rule out adding more relief help before spring training, it’s not a pressing need.
“If we don’t sign a bullpen guy, that doesn’t mean that at the trade deadline we can’t trade for a guy,” Avila said. “You never know at that point because of either injury or a guy just didn’t pitch as well as the year before. You can make that adjustment then, too.
“We just have to be very flexible and just be open to whatever opportunities that arise, whether it be this winter or trading deadline or anywhere in between.”
Still, for what it’s worth in the mid-January chill, it has been a while since the Tigers could feel this good about their bullpen heading into spring.