You may remember last year’s Detroit bullpen as being something of a mess, especially once Bruce Rondon proved that he was not going to be able to grab the closer’s job right out of camp as the Tigers as hoped. They tried to bring back Jose Valverde, with disastrous results, Phil Coke got a brief shot, and they picked up Jose Veras for depth, but the majority of saves ended up going to Joaquin Benoit, who proved effective in the role after being bumped up from his setup man spot.
Now, Benoit is off to San Diego. Veras is with the Cubs. Valverde is trying to make the Mets. Drew Smyly is in the rotation, replacing Doug Fister. Darin Downs is in Houston. Of the five most-used Tiger relievers in 2013, three are no longer in the Detroit bullpen, replaced by several new names. It’s a bullpen in transition. Let’s get to it.
I looked into Nathan’s arrival when he signed with Detroit in early December, so let me revisit some of what was said about him then:
But he’s also 39 years old, and the list of relievers to finish 50 games in a season at that age is pretty short, especially when you consider that of the 10 times its been done, four were from the incomparable Mariano Rivera. Other than Rivera, it’s been done just twice this century (once apiece by Todd Jones and Trevor Hoffman), and while that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it’s not as though the odds are tilted in his favor.
He’s also coming off a career-low .228 BABIP, a never-going-to-happen-again 0.28 HR/9 and 3.0% HR/FB, and a career-high 23.3% line drive percentage. Plus, he’s dealing with a fastball velocity that fell a mile-and-a-half from 2012, one that caused him to rely on his slider more than ever.
Since then, Eno Sarris looked at Nathan and concluded that there’s considerable risk here. Chris Cwik looked at Nathan and concluded — wait for it — that there’s considerable risk here. It should come as no surprise, right? A 39-year-old with one recent blown elbow on his resume who just had some serious velocity issues is going to raise all kinds of red flags.
Now, that said: Nathan was really, really good last year in fantasy terms. You’ll take 43 saves from a closer every single time. You’ll love a 10.16 K/9, as long as you don’t get it out of Craig Kimbrel. You’ll take a 1.39 ERA and a .159 batting average against and you’ll laugh all the way to the bank. He was really, really good in 2012, as well, and so what that means is that even if there’s some regression, as nearly everyone thinks there will be, he’s got room for it. He can be somewhat worse than he was last year and still be an extremely valuable, top 10 fantasy closer.
I have a really hard time seeing Nathan just completely falling apart like Trevor Hoffman did with Milwaukee in 2010; even a potentially diminished Nathan — and we should note, the velocity issue is more about us being concerned than it is anything that hurt his performance — is someone you want on your team. I wouldn’t take him above Kimbrel, or Aroldis Chapman, or Kenley Jansen, or a few others, but Nathan remains an upper-level closer on a team with the best rotation in baseball, one that should hand him his share of leads to protect.
The set-up guys
Nathan’s presence obviously hurts Rondon’s value, because it limits any chances he might have for saves. It doesn’t destroy it, however, because while we associate his name with “the guy who couldn’t hang on to a golden opportunity,” that’s selling him short. Rondon went back to Triple-A, but still managed to get in 30 appearances with the big club, where he proved that the legend of his fastball was for real, averaging 97.9 MPH on the pitch and striking out 30 in 28.2 innings. Considering he only just turned 23 in December, that’s impressive, and while his walk rate could use improvement, it wasn’t disastrous.
Rondon may very well be the next Tiger closer after Nathan moves on, but he will need to sort out his platoon splits first. Though we’re obviously not dealing with large sample sizes, his half-season at the big league level are what we have to go on, and while a .231/.265/.344 against righties is fine, a .283/.396/.477 against lefties is not. He had similar issues in the minors as well. As a setup man, new manager Brad Ausmus should be able to limit his exposure to lefty hitters, and that may make his 2014 stats look nice indeed, but that is the major hurdle preventing him from reaching the next level. Even so, the strikeout potential makes him worthwhile in AL-only leagues right now, and potentially in deeper mixed leagues too.
One wonders what Chamberlain might have been had the Yankees just given him a role and let him stick to it. (Or if he hadn’t blown out his elbow… or hurt himself on that trampoline… or… ) As it is, he’s now 28 and coming off the worst year of his career, and hoping desperately that the “change of scenery effect” really works. He’s going to need more than a new home, however, since he walked a Marmolian 5.57 per nine last year, along with an extremely poor 1.71 HR/9. The good news is that he can still touch 95 at times, but he’s not fooling anybody with it, not when his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% were the lowest he’d had in years. Chamberlain’s arm is still worth dreaming on, as the Tigers have. You’d just do better to wait and see if he can get his command and longball issues under control before spending a roster spot on him.
Only two pitchers walked more (min. 40 innings) per nine innings than Chamberlain did last year. One, as you might have guessed, was Carlos Marmol. The other? Alburquerque, who really is the most Marmol pitcher you can find other than the genuine article himself, in that he has elite strikeout skills — 12.86 K/9 in 2013, 13.20 for his career — and absolutely no idea where the ball is going at any given time, with a 6.05 (!) career BB/9. In his first two years in the bigs, he managed to turn that skillset into a 1.59 ERA. Last year, it was a messy 4.59, thanks in large part to the ground balls that had previously accompanied his whiffs and walks turning into line drives and fly balls. In addition to a solid fastball, Alburquerque presents a plus slider, but he’ll have to find those missing grounders to be of use to the Tigers. Whether or not he’s of use to you depends almost entirely on whether your league counts walks or not. If not, he’s a sneaky value.
We’re going to lightning-round the remainder of the back-end or fringe or simply less interesting names here, starting with Ian Krol, part of the return on the Fister deal. He’s a LOOGY, more or less, with some potential for more if he can show some improvement against righties. A lefty specialist is a useful member of a bullpen, but his fantasy value is limited, since he doesn’t pile up strikeouts and won’t be in the mix for saves. In holds leagues, maybe.
Coke has been mildly interesting over the years, right up until a 2013 season that saw his strikeouts decline and his walks rise to untenable levels. It didn’t help that he blew a save in the second game of the year and then missed the last half of September with elbow troubles. If anything, it was a surprise that he wasn’t non-tendered, but he’s as far away as ever from fantasy relevance.
Jose Ortega got into 10 games in May (and one more in June), but didn’t even merit a September appearance, though he apparently was recalled. He throws hard, can miss some bats, and has huge control issues. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, except he’s more likely to start 2014 in Toledo than he is Detroit.
Luke Putkonen has been bouncing around the organization since 2007, and finally made a good impression in 2013: 8.49 K/9, 2.73 BB/9, 3.03 ERA. That just might be enough to get him a return engagement in 2014, though for someone who throws as hard as he does, he tends to get more done with his breaking pitches than his fastball. As a minor league starter, he didn’t miss enough bats, though like so many others, that changed once he was moved into the bullpen. The ceiling here is probably limited, but if I’m picking a lottery ticket out of his group, it’s probably him.
Beyond them, there’s Evan Reed, Casey Crosby, Jose Alvarez, Melvin Mercedes, local boy Duane Below, returning from a stint in Miami… Tigers fans may want to know these names. Fantasy players need not bother.