SAN DIEGO -- Building a bullpen isn't always about which relievers a team acquires, Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski argued. It can also be about when a team adds them, and when it holds onto others.
It was a nod to the idea that relievers, more than other players, can go from standout to fallout from one year to the next, and vice versa. It was also a glimpse into the Tigers' philosophy towards their bullpen assembly this offseason under the scrutiny of the national spotlight and the postseason stage.
"I know it's been our focus, and our bullpen didn't do well as we had hoped last year," Dombrowski said on Monday at the Winter Meetings. "We talk about the up-and-down nature of bullpens. We've talked about that since we've been here with other guys we've discussed. You have to be careful."
For all the struggles Detroit's bullpen endured last season, especially down the stretch and in its American League Division Series sweep loss to the Orioles, the Tigers have made relatively subtle changes, not an overhaul. Their biggest moves so far have been the decision to pick up Joakim Soria's $7 million club option for 2015 and to give Joel Hanrahan another shot on a Minor League contract that would pay him $1 million if he makes the Major League roster. Detroit also added right-hander Josh Zeid off waivers from Houston after a struggling season shortened by a foot injury.
"We really like him," Dombrowski said of Zeid. "Statistically, we like him. We've had good reports on him. He had a bad foot last year that required surgery. They fixed the problem. Two years ago, our reports on him were to be a solid guy at the Major League level. So we think he's worth a gamble to take him. That's what you try to do in making your analysis."
The Tigers are counting on a healthy return for Bruce Rondon after Tommy John surgery last April. They're hoping for a bounceback from lefty Ian Krol, who had two effective months before going onto the disabled list with a tired arm in June, and closer Joe Nathan, who struggled for the bulk of the season. They're also hoping renewed health and a set role for Soria yields better results.
Thus, when asked if he's comfortable with his left-handed relief pitching, Dombrowski went down the line with most of his bullpen.
"We like Ian Krol a lot," Dombrowski said. "Did Ian Krol have a good year last year? No, he did not have as good of a year as we anticipated. But it doesn't mean that he won't bounce back and pitch well this [coming] year. ...
"We like Soria a lot. He's been a good pitcher in the big leagues, a quality pitcher. We like Rondon a lot. All indications are that he should be fine. Now, it's like any other injured player: They have to go and do it. But I feel confident from what [doctors] are saying that he has a real good chance to be healthy and ready to go for the year. ...
"Well, all of a sudden you start putting guys like Soria and Rondon in your bullpen, and it's appreciably better right off the bat than what it was. Now, Nathan didn't have as good of a year as what we had hoped, but he's been an established player. [Al] Alburquerque's a solid guy."
Add in Krol, and add contributions through the system -- including a converted starter in lefty relief -- and Dombrowski argued a part of their solution could come from within.
"You might fix your problem internally," Dombrowski said, "not that you don't continue to look in other places."
Though the Tigers were viewed by some as a favorite to land top left-hander Andrew Miller going into the offseason, they had only one conversation with his agent at last month's General Managers Meetings. Miller signed a four-year deal with the Yankees last week.
The Tigers have never signed a reliever to a four-year contract under Dombrowski. The only non-closing reliever to sign a long-term deal since he took over as GM in 2002 was Joaquin Benoit, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal with Detroit after the 2010 season.
Detroit has also stayed away from several other big-name setup relievers, including All-Star Pat Neshek.
"Did anybody here think [last offseason] he was [going to be an All-Star]? I know we didn't, so we were wrong," Dombrowski said. "And so, it's just a situation where sometimes you just have to hit it at the right time with some guys, and you kind of get fortunate. And last year, we did not pitch as well.
"Now, I'm not just striking it up to fortune. But I think we have five solid starters right now, and if you're going to address an area, it's probably going to be your bullpen, because that's the one area where we don't have an established, successful performance from the year before. But the reality is, sometimes you can fix things internally."
It doesn't mean the Tigers won't be shopping for relief help this week and beyond to bolster the bullpen, but it reinforces the expectation that they'll be looking at smaller deals to do it, hoping to pick up relievers at the right time.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.