A Tigers shopping guide, should they seek to upgrade an already solid bullpen
Detroit — A couple of weeks ago I wrote an analysis piece in which I posited that the bullpen might be one of the Tigers' strengths heading into spring training, and that it didn’t need any free-agent bolstering.
With Gregory Soto, Michael Fulmer and Jose Cisnero coming off strong seasons, the back end is both flexible and potentially formidable. With Kyle Funkhouser emerging as a fourth leverage option, that’s a pretty good base to start with.
I also believe Alex Lange has the makeup and stuff to steal leverage innings from any of those four, and with a little more seasoning and self-assurance, so could Jason Foley.
I still believe the Tigers don’t need to add to the existing bullpen mix.
But I think they will.
When the lockout out ends and free agency resumes, it seems inevitable the Tigers will be hunting for another starting pitcher and another bullpen arm.
The need for another starter seems more pronounced. Eduardo Rodriguez, whom the Tigers’ signed for five years and $77 million, is the only veteran in the projected rotation, though Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal certainly earned their shot to be at the top of the rotation in 2022.
The jury is still very much out on Matt Manning, and the Tigers are not convinced lefty Tyler Alexander isn’t a better fit to be the long man out of the bullpen.
So, as has been projected all winter, the Tigers are likely to be browsing through a bin of short-term veterans that includes Carlos Rodon, Michael Pineda, Brett Anderson, Garrett Richards and possibly old friend Drew Smyly.
The lefty Rodon, 29, is the most intriguing. He also would be the most expensive, depending on the medical reports on his troublesome left shoulder that limited him to nine starts for the White Sox after the All-Star break last season.
That the White Sox, the organization that drafted him with the third overall pick in 2014, didn’t make him a qualifying offer (which would have been worth $18.4 million) didn’t exactly extend a vote of confidence that all was well.
The Tigers, though, know first-hand of his talent. They went 5 for 52 against him in three starts last season, with 27 strikeouts in 16 innings. He’d be a high-risk, high-reward play — and probably cost more than $10 million for even one year — the kind the Tigers haven’t had much success with over the years.
That's a topic for another day. For this discussion, let’s focus on the bullpen.
Given what’s already in place, given Soto and Alexander are the two lefties in the projected mix (with perhaps Miguel Del Pozo), you’d think the Tigers would be shopping for a southpaw. If that is the case, then the two best free agents still on market — apologies to Andrew Miller and Brad Hand — would be 31-year-old Andrew Chafin and 35-year-old Jake Diekman, both finishing last season with Oakland.
Diekman’s effectiveness dropped off somewhat last year, but he still posted 83 strikeouts in 60.2 innings and he got a 47% swing-and-miss rate with his slider — which he throws off a 95-mph four-seam fastball. But he gave up a career-high 10 homers last season and has always had to battle command issues.
As a general rule, I’d be wary of spending big on 35-year-old relievers not named Mariano Rivera.
Chafin also has a wipeout slider (54.6% whiff rate) that he throws off a 93-mph two-seamer. He doesn’t punch out as many hitters as Diekman, but his overall 32% chase rate plays, especially in leverage at-bats.
With Chafin, though, it’s fair to wonder if his success last season was an outlier of sorts. In his five previous seasons, all in the National League, he posted a 4.02 ERA with a 1.36 WHIP.
But what if the Tigers weren’t committed to a lefty? Manager AJ Hinch has said repeatedly that while lefty options are nice, quality options are better. He won a World Series in Houston with one lefty in his bullpen.
So may I present for consideration, two right-handers who could give the Tigers’ bullpen a tangible, veteran upgrade — Collin McHugh and Ryan Tepera, both 34, coming off impressive seasons and likely to draw extensive interest across the league.
Both especially fit the Tigers’ needs because of their ability to dispatch left-handed hitters. Let’s do a comparison of how left-handed hitters fared against the four pitchers in this discussion last season:
► Chafin: 16 for 94 (.170) with 21 strikeouts.
► Diekman: 19 for 103 (.229) with 32 strikeouts.
► McHugh: 13 for 80 (.163) with 32 strikeouts.
► Tepera: 10 for 74 (.135) with 30 strikeouts.
Right-handed hitters didn’t do much damage off McHugh (.230) or Tepera (.180), either. So, Hinch wouldn’t have to worry too much about finding the right matchups for either guy.
Hinch, of course, already knows the value McHugh brings. It was under Hinch in Houston that McHugh first transitioned to the bullpen in 2017 after making 90 starts from 2014-2016. Aside from a nasty, five-pitch repertoire, which induced a 31% whiff rate and 32% chase rate last year, McHugh also provides length.
Twenty-five of his 37 appearances were for multiple innings. Useful.
Tepera, used in a late-inning set-up role, relies mostly on a 93-mph fastball (four-seam and two-seam) and one of the best slider-cutter hybrids in baseball. Opponents hit .132 off the pitch last season, which he threw 45% of the time, with a 50.6% whiff rate.
Again, the Tigers don’t necessarily need to go out and buy a new, shiny toy for their bullpen. But if they are hellbent on getting one, this would be a good list to shop from.