Tigers expected to address bullpen internally

With teams paying up for middle/setup relievers, Detroit to build from within

Tigers expected to address bullpen internally

DETROIT -- Brett Cecil, owner of 11 career saves, will make $7.75 million in each of the next three seasons on the four-year, $30.5 million contract he signed with the Cardinals on Monday. Francisco Rodriguez, if he isn't traded, is set to be the highest-paid member of the Tigers' bullpen with a $6 million salary for 2017, depending on what Detroit does with starters Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey.

That comparison says a lot about where the Tigers and the bullpen market are headed. They're not going in the same direction.

After years of trying to assemble a relief corps through trades and signings large and small, the Tigers now look to build their bullpen from within. Part of that is out of necessity; if payroll is pared, the team can't add much aside from a project or two such as Al Alburquerque five years ago. Even if the Tigers weren't looking to cut payroll, though, they'd likely be taking this direction.

General manager Al Avila brought in help last winter with mixed results. While Rodriguez racked up 44 saves in 2016 after his trade from Milwaukee, Mark Lowe's performance was a disaster in the first season of his two-year, $11 million deal. Justin Wilson, acquired from the Yankees for two prospects at last year's Winter Meetings, was a lefty reliever who put up reverse splits, giving up a .308 average and .772 OPS to left-handed hitters in an up-and-down season. Shane Greene had two good months as a right-handed setup man, having converted from starter with Michael Fulmer's emergence, before struggling down the stretch.

Rodriguez locks down 44th save

Even if Rodriguez stays, manager Brad Ausmus has roles to sort out. And unless the Tigers pick up a young reliever in a bigger deal, any major additions will come from within.

The first is the redemption of Bruce Rondon, who assumed a bigger role as the season went on. The hard-throwing but mercurial right-hander held opponents to a .181 batting average and .583 OPS the year. He pitched the sixth and seventh innings in low-leverage situations upon his recall to Detroit in June, but was a high-leverage reliever by mid-September. Rondon should get every chance to build on that role.

Rondon escapes the 7th

"Obviously, he improved tremendously last year," Avila said last month. "He was one of our better guys out of the bullpen. Obviously, he would be in the mix."

Rondon is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, as is fellow setup reliever Alex Wilson.

The next step is the eventual arrival of No. 5 prospect Joe Jimenez, whose rise from Class A Lakeland to Triple-A Toledo reinforced his position as the Tigers' closer of the future. That future is still in the distance, even if it's only an hour's drive from Comerica Park.

Top Prospects: Jimenez, DET

"I know there was a big push for him to come up here [in September]," Avila said, "but trust me that it would not have been in his best interests or our best interests. There were some things he needed to work on, in particular his slider, and just his command overall. There are certain things that you can do in the Minor Leagues that you can't do at the big league level.

"When we bring him up, we want to make sure that he's coming up to have success. We don't want to go through the same mistake we did with Bruce in the past, where it just didn't work out right away. We want to be a little bit more cautious with Jimenez. In saying that, I'm hopeful that he can contribute to our success at some point in 2017.

"I can't rule out that right out of the chute in Spring Training. I'm not going to rule him out, you've got to give a guy an opportunity. But is it going to be a month, two months, three months in Toledo before he makes the impact? Obviously, that's in play, too."

More help is likely to take a while. Former Vanderbilt closer Adam Ravenelle struck out 57 batters over 58 innings between Lakeland and Double-A Erie, but he still has work to do on command and consistency. Paul Voelker was another high-velocity righty at Erie who racked up 79 strikeouts over 54 innings, but he gave up damage on contact. Drew Smith showed a power arm at low Class A West Michigan in his first full pro season, but he is a long way away.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. 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.