Much Work To Be Done In Detroit Tigers Bullpen After Joe Nathan Signing

By Thom Tsang
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

After the confounding Doug Fister trade with the Washington Nationals, Detroit Tigers fans had better hope that Joe Nathan is just the beginning of Dave Dombrowski‘s master plan to tweak the pitching staff, because 4.6 fWAR pitchers in their prime going into their second year of arbitration don’t grow on trees in MLB … regardless of how high they might be on Robbie Ray.

That’s not to discount the Nathan signing, of course. The two sides had been linked prior to the deal being reportedly consummated, and though the amounts are not yet known, a two-year deal is at least a sensible term.

While there’s no doubt that the veteran closer will fill an all-important hole in the bullpen that’s been the source of much stress for Detroit fans, it’s hard to saw whether the Tigers managed to get better overall as is. With Fister now gone from the rotation, the assumed move is to shift long reliever Drew Smyly over to the starting role he’s arguably deserved for a couple of years now, with the hope that he could be a 2.0-plus fWAR starter.

Considering that he was a 1.9 fWAR reliever with a 2.37/1.04 ERA/WHIP and .218 BAA over just 76 innings in 2013, the chances of him converting some of that relief magic back to the starting role he was familiar with in the minors are pretty good, especially considering that he’s a guy who doesn’t rely on high heat to get by.

In fact, in an ideal-world situation, Smyly could actually come close to matching the kind of numbers that Fister put up, while giving them that important lefty in the otherwise all-righty rotation. That doesn’t really justify moving Fister for what seems to be an undervalued package, of course, but the overall sentiment of the plan is there as far as the starting rotation goes.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say it works out there, and the Tigers still have an top-tier rotation going into 2014. Where does this leave the bullpen?

Well … not in fantastic shape. While the Tigers will have what should be a formidable 1-2 punch in Nathan and Bruce Rondon, it’s worth pointing out that the latter only has 28.2 innings of big-league experience. The youngster has the stuff to succeed, but  a 6.36/1.59 home/away ERA split is somewhat concerning, and the small sample means he’s still something of an unknown quantity in a high-leverage role.

Even if he’s just fine, though, taking the most valuable member of the bullpen out (Smyly topped Joaquin Benoit‘s 1.6 fWAR) doesn’t help things. Nathan or not, the Tigers will still need guys to get the ball to him, and the fact that the team’s options after Rondon in late innings comes down to newly acquired Ian Krol (-0.3 fWAR in 2013), Al Alburquerque (amazing stuff, but can’t hit the strike zone), and Phil Coke (5.40 ERA over 38.1 IP) doesn’t inspire too much confidence.

Where will Smyly’s 21 holds in 2013 go to? Reliability in the latter innings are still going to be an issue with the way the bullpen and constructed now, and one slam-dunk ninth-inning man does not make for an adequate solution.

Fortunately for the Tigers, the fix is not too far away. There are a number of solid relievers available tho could help, whether that be re-signing Benoit, taking a chance on the health of Jesse Crain or Ryan Madson, and picking up a bounce-back candidate like Eric O’Flaherty to fill a lefty void (when he has completed rehab). Regardless of which route they take, what is certain is that there’s much to be done in the months prior to 2014 Spring Training.

The good news? They’ve at least got the most important part out of the way.

Thom is an MLB writer for Follow him on Twitter @BlueJaysRant, or add him to your network on Google

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