Detroit – The Tigers haven’t had a pitcher throw more than 80 innings out of the bullpen in 17 seasons, not since Joel Zumaya worked 83.1 innings in 2006. Alex Wilson (2016) and Nick Ramirez (2019) were the only two to exceed 70 innings in the last nine seasons.
The last Tigers’ reliever to throw 100 innings? You have to go back to the great Willie Hernandez who pitched 106.2 innings in 1985 after working an unfathomable 140.1 innings as a closer in 1984.
So, what’s the point?
The limitations of the Tigers’ presumptive starting rotation are such that, while producing a 100-inning reliever might be a tad farfetched, there is a chance the workload for more than one will exceed the 80-inning mark this season.
Think about it. Spencer Turnbull missed the entire 2022 season recovering from Tommy John surgery after throwing just 50 innings in 2021. Matthew Boyd, even though he averaged 163 innings between 2017 and 2019, pitched only 13.1 innings out of the bullpen last year after working just 78.2 innings in 2021 before undergoing flexor tendon surgery.
Workload restrictions are likely to be in place for both at points throughout the season.
Matt Manning, who battled through shoulder pain last season, threw only 63 innings. Michael Lorenzen, who is entering just his second season as a starting pitcher, was limited to 18 starts and 97.2 innings last year.
Even a veteran like Eduardo Rodriguez with his workhorse history made only 17 starts last season, covering 91 innings.
It’s hard to envision any of the Tigers’ starters approaching 200 innings in 2023. There is likely to be, especially early in the season, a lot of shorter outings, five innings or less. As a result, manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter are going to have to get creative in terms of how they budget innings for the starters and reallocate those innings to the bullpen.
Here’s the fun part, though: This sets up as a potential strength for the Tigers. They have a group of talented young pitchers who are built for this.
Lefty Tyler Alexander and right-hander Rony Garcia have already been deployed in this role – spot starts, multiple-to-extended relief outings. Rule 5 draftee Mason Englert is a starting pitcher by trade but his best hope of winning a roster spot and staying with the Tigers will be in the bullpen.
But those aren’t the pitchers we’re talking about here. How impactful might the likes of right-handers Beau Brieske and Garrett Hill be in that role? Or lefty Joey Wentz for that matter? Or righties Alex Faedo or Reese Olson?
Obviously, the long-range plans for those pitchers is to be starters and most will likely be part of the rotation at Triple-A Toledo to start next season. But Hinch and Fetter are going to keep the best arms in Detroit. And using those young pitchers for two-to-four innings roughly every third or fourth day wouldn’t curb their development path.
Brieske and Hill seem like prime candidates for the role. Hill, in order to lighten his workload, made nine relief appearances covering 19 innings last season. His fastball, especially after he altered his windup, spiked from 92 mph to 97 mph. He wasn’t able to sustain the upper-90s heat last season, but it’s in him. He struck out 19 in 17.2 innings out of the pen, though his 11 walks were problematic.
Brieske made 15 starts before he was shut down on July 12 and his four-seam sat between 94-95 mph. You’d expect that to tick up in shorter bursts.
Both have five-pitch arsenals, too. Brieske has well-above average ride on his fastball while Hill has better spin on his secondary pitches. Both showed the ability to get left-handed hitters out – both struggled more against right-handed hitters, actually − in their short samples last year.
You could envision either of those two working the middle innings after either Boyd or Turnbull gets through five. Or you could see them coming in earlier and holding the game in place for nine to 12 hitters. You could envision them making spot starts if Hinch decides to elongate the rotation during a particular grueling stretch of the schedule. You could see them finishing out the final three innings of a one-sided game.
You could see them both making between 50 and 60 appearances and pushing 90 innings. And that’s if they aren’t pressed into the rotation by injury or under performance by one of the starters.
It’s not that simple, of course. The science isn’t exact about the impact of such a role on a young arm. What’s better, throwing 100-plus competitive pitches every fifth day or working multiple innings every third or fourth day? Who really knows for sure?
The Tigers, with the addition of Robin Lund, a biomechanics expert, to the big-league coaching staff − plus recent advances in sports science data, technology and training methods throughout the organization − are certainly better equipped in the area of injury detection and prevention than they were even last season.
The days of teams running guys out there until their arms fall off are hopefully over. And all the pitchers mentioned here – Brieske, Hill, Garcia, Wentz, Englert, Olson, Faedo – will be stretched out to start coming into camp and then transitioned to the bullpen.
But, man, does this create a dogfight for those final three or four bullpen spots.
We will presume that Alex Lange, Jason Foley, Jose Cisnero, Will Vest and Alexander, returning from last year’s successful bullpen run, have their spots going in. Lange, Foley and Cisnero, as it stands now, are the late-inning, path-to-victory guys – though that is not set in stone.
Of those, only Alexander and Vest are considered multi-inning pitchers.
So, that puts Brieske, Hill, Garcia, Englert, Wentz, Faedo and Olson in a fight for three spots. Also in that fight will be left-handed non-roster invitees Zach Logue and Chasen Shreve and right-handers Edwin Uceta and Brendan White, both on the 40-man roster.
It’s a lot to sort out and the situation is likely to be fluid all season. But if the Tigers can get 80-plus impactful bullpen innings out of two or three of those young arms as they mature and evolve into eventual rotation pieces, it would be a win-win – a boost to the development of those players while potentially giving Hinch more useful buttons to push on a nightly basis.