Solutions to Tigers' relief depth may be in place
Development of Alburquerque, Perry key to stabilizing bullpen
DETROIT -- Al Alburquerque was a midseason game-changer for the Tigers bullpen, a gifted young right-hander with an upper-90s fastball and a close to unhittable slider. He had more than his fair share of control issues, but they seemed like flashes of inconsistency once he finally settled into a rhythm. Come the postseason, he was a nervous rookie who had limited opportunities to pitch since early August because of injuries, and the resulting damage -- including a Robinson Cano grand slam -- showed.
Ryan Perry was another hard-throwing, slider-slinging arm the Tigers pounced on when their first-round pick came up in the 2008 Draft. He was the cornerstone of Detroit's concerted effort to draft and develop relievers, and the relief version of Rick Porcello when the Tigers brought him up in 2009. He just finished his third Major League season with some of the same questions -- consistency, command, aggressiveness and mechanics -- that he carried as a rookie, and while he's a valued setup man when he's at his best, he's a middle reliever kept in reserve when he isn't.
Those are two considerations to keep in mind when talking about the Tigers and their possible bullpen needs heading into the winter, following a postseason stretch in which their lack of relief depth became the difference in the American League Championship Series against the Rangers. At one time, that seemed like an unlikely fate, when they brought back lefty Phil Coke from the rotation midseason, eased Alburquerque into a routine and got Perry back into a more consistent form at Triple-A Toledo.
Add in lefty specialist Daniel Schlereth, setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde, and Detroit's late-inning bullpen looked deep. Tigers relievers compiled a 2.37 ERA with 146 strikeouts over 156 innings and a .208 opposing batting average from Aug. 4 until season's end.
The postseason numbers, of course, looked way different. Compared to a Rangers bullpen that took perfect advantage of former starter Alexi Ogando to gobble up innings, the Tigers' bullpen looked thin. That doesn't necessarily mean the Tigers will be doing that much beefing up in the middle innings.
The first factor team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski raised when asked about the bullpen last week was Alburquerque. When healthy, Dombrowski said, he was their answer to Ogando, but they never had him right down the stretch. They think they can get him back to his top form next year.
As for Perry, Dombrowski laid down the challenge, saying he needs to step up. With Perry a year away from arbitration, he faces a critical season for his big league future.
Get those efforts, and Dombrowski likes his bullpen's depth.
"You've got Valverde. You've got Benoit. Alburquerque was a little bit of an unusual situation at the end of the year, but he'll be healthy," Dombrowski said. "So that's three guys that have established themselves from the right side. You've got Coke, and really as a second left-hander, Schlereth, and it is going to be tough to find a better second left-hander as he matures. So that's five guys right there. You've got Perry and we've got a bunch of other young arms."
They could still look for a veteran arm, but not necessarily in a late-inning role.
"One thing we could address to make ourselves better," Dombrowski continued, "is to maybe make ourselves deeper in the bullpen with one more established guy -- not someone who is going to pitch the seventh or the eighth, or be the No. 1 lefty. But that's something you can look at."
That could take a lot of different forms. The free-agent market is littered with aging relievers who might have outlasted their time in high-pressure roles but still prove useful in leveraged situations. If the Tigers pursue a veteran starter to push top prospect Jacob Turner in camp, maybe spend less than a full season in the rotation before giving way, they could end up with the valued swingman they lacked.
That was the difference for the Rangers. Ogando was essentially an extra starter who pitched more like a front-liner, and with a young arm and previous bullpen experience, could cover multiple innings without wearing down over a long postseason series. Brad Penny, the Tigers' starter in the bullpen, couldn't match that, serving more as an emergency innings-eater who didn't pitch until the last game.
Ogando's type of role works in the postseason. In the regular season, though, the innings required make it a different challenge. So to line up a pitching staff and work a rotation that way is next to impossible without wearing down multiple relievers.
The goal in the regular season is to have a rotation averaging at least six innings per start, something the Tigers struggled to do until this year. The Rangers and Cardinals didn't do that in the postseason, but in short series, they didn't have to.
"It never has surprised me that a deep bullpen wins as you go on," Dombrowski said. "I will say, though, that sometimes a deep bullpen like that, that's not the same way you would approach a whole season. Those bullpen people may not get enough work if they were in those roles during the whole season, because you could not go with starters going three and four innings on a regular basis all year long. And this year in the postseason, it was very unusual.
"I think that you had probably a fewer number of starts that were deep into the game than you had in a long time for a club winning. But over a long season, that would be tough to win that way."
That's not how the Tigers want to build a bullpen. They still would like to have it deeper, one way or another.