Tigers could model 'pen after 2015 contenders

This year's ALDS teams showcased prospects, former starters in relief roles

Tigers could model 'pen after 2015 contenders

DETROIT -- New general manager, same offseason question: What are the Tigers going to do about their bullpen?

This is the question that followed Dave Dombrowski for three years, from Bruce Rondon's appointment as Jose Valverde's successor without a day in the big leagues to last offseason's decision to retool on low-risk contracts to Joba Chamberlain and Tom Gorzelanny.

Now, it's Al Avila's issue to address. And between payroll already allocated, other spots they need to fix, and so few set names, Avila is upfront about it: The Tigers are going to have to be creative.

"These are areas we're going to be experimenting," Avila told reporters earlier this month, "whether it be the use of analytics in combination with our scouts. Can we come up with a couple of names that have the potential to be closers?

"That's really one area that's going to be very important. Sitting here today, I can't tell you there's an absolute closer we're locked in on. We really have to explore every avenue to figure out who can do the job for us."

Exploring might not be a bad thing. Detroit has tried the big-name closer over the years with mixed results. While Todd Jones and Valverde put up historic seasons and closed out clutch wins on October runs, Troy Percival and Joe Nathan did little before injuries halted their Tiger tenures.

If Detroit needs examples of creativity, it can look to October. Of the four teams that made the American League Division Series, none had a big-name closer. Three had in-season changes, either by injury or by choice.

The Royals, of course, have ridden a stacked bullpen to October glory for two seasons. But one of its biggest parts, Wade Davis, was a middling starter beforehand. When Kansas City acquired Davis in the James Shields trade, he was coming off an impressive 2012 season in the Rays' bullpen. He moved back to the rotation, posted a 5.32 ERA in 2013, moved back to the bullpen in 2014, and found his calling. When All-Star closer Greg Holland went down to Tommy John surgery, Davis moved up an inning.

The Blue Jays tapped their starting prospect depth when their bullpen needed a midseason makeover. Roberto Osuna was a starter for most of his Minor League career and didn't save a professional game until June 22, his 31st Major League appearance, at age 20. Aaron Sanchez, who turned 23 in July, began the year in Toronto's rotation alongside Daniel Norris and didn't join the bullpen until being recalled in late July. He racked up 10 holds in 11 chances and became a bullpen workhorse once lefty Brett Cecil tore a calf muscle.

Both Sanchez and Osuna were Top 100 prospects. Detroit made a similar decision at midseason with 24-year-old Drew VerHagen, whose spots of late-season success give the Tigers hope for a middle relief or setup piece.

A better model for Detroit could be Texas, where general manager Jon Daniels rebuilt his bullpen with lesser-known arms he could project. Shawn Tolleson was a waiver claim from the Dodgers after the 2013 season who became a workhorse in the Rangers' bullpen, then a 35-save closer after Neftali Feliz struggled. Sam Dyson was working seventh and eighth innings in Miami when the Rangers acquired him at the Trade Deadline and put him in a setup role. Jake Diekman was a gifted but inconsistent Phillies left-hander whom the Rangers had coveted since last year until packaging him into the Cole Hamels trade. All three are under control for at least the next three seasons.

The Astros spent on bullpen help last offseason, but not on a proven closer. Houston spent $31 million total on free agents Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, and nearly signed Andrew Miller.

Gregerson, a pitcher the Tigers tried to acquire a few years ago, saved 31 Astros victories, 12 more than his previous career saves total. Beyond that, Houston received outstanding work from right-hander Will Harris, a waiver claim last winter, and lefty Tony Sipp. Unlike Texas, none of Houston's additions were hard throwers, but their styles complemented each other.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.