The Battle for the Final Bullpen Spot

As spring training finally gets underway, the Tigers find themselves with an Opening Day roster that’s mostly set. There’s been a lot of coverage on the competition for fifth starter, second baseman, and fourth outfielder (or starting left fielder, if you believe that Delmon Young will get most of the playing time at DH).

Dave Dombrowski has also mentioned that there will be a competition for the one remaining bullpen spot that was supposed to go to Al Alburquerque before he had surgery.

You know the other names already. You’ve got Jose Valverde to close, Joaquin Benoit for the eighth inning, Octavio Dotel for the seventh inning, Collin Balester for the long relief duties, and Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth as the lefties (Yeah, I know there are a lot of fans and bloggers who don’t like Schlereth. I’m not especially enamored of him myself, but the Tigers seem really fond of him, so like it or not, he’s on the roster unless he completely falls apart in spring training).

So who is that seventh guy going to be? Let’s take a look at the most likely candidates:

David Pauley: Pauley came to the Tigers along with Doug Fister at the trade deadline last year and never really got into a groove. It got to the point where he rarely pitched at all and he was left off the postseason roster.

Now, there may be several reasons why he didn’t pitch very much. I think it was some combination of Leyland not trusting him for some reason, starters going deep into games, and other bullpen guys pitching well. I also think that the lack of work contributed greatly to his struggles. When he was with the Mariners, he often pitched on one or two days rest (occasionally three or four). There were instances with the Tigers where he would go eight or nine days without pitching. You can throw bullpen sessions all you want but it’s not the same as game action.

His ERA with the Tigers was 5.95 in 19.2 innings pitched, which is a huge departure from his season with the Mariners (2.15 ERA in 54.1 innings). Now, he was probably due for some regression, but certainly not THAT much, and as Dan Dickerson said during one radio broadcast, “Those 54 innings were not a mirage.”

It’s important to note that Pauley is out of minor league options (while all the other bullpen contenders do have options), and that does come into consideration when a team is deciding on those last two or three roster spots (You have the same situation with Clete Thomas in the outfielder competition).

With that in mind, and since the Tigers would really like to get something out of Pauley, they’re going to give him every opportunity to nab the job. I would say he’s the slight favorite right now, but not by much.

Luis Marte: I mentioned in the post I wrote for Bless You Boys on winter ball in the Dominican Republic that I think Marte has a very good shot at landing this bullpen role.

I’m not all that familiar with him, but he seems like the type of pitcher the Tigers like and having him on the Opening Day roster seems like the type of thing the Tigers would do. After all, there has to be some reason why he was the only pitcher called up for September. His numbers at Erie were very good, but Double A is a long way from the big leagues.

He didn’t pitch all that much with the Tigers (just four games) so it’s hard to guage his performance (Also, I’m sorry to say that I was in California for the month of September and I did not have an internet connection for most of my stay, so I never really saw him).

He had a really dominant season in winter ball, however (2.38 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 22.2 innings pitched). It would not surprise me at all to hear Jim Leyland singing his praises in the coming days. However, even though I say he has a really good chance of making the team, I am not necessarily saying that this is a good idea.

First, he’s barely pitched in Toledo at all. I’m of the persuasion that Triple A is a necessary part of a player’s development, especially pitchers. Occasionally you get guys like Justin Verlander or Alex Avila who successfully made the transition from Erie to Detroit without a stop in Toledo, but they’re the exception.

Another thing is that I haven’t been able to get a good read on Marte yet (I know that’s not the most scientific way of putting it, but my instincts have served me well for the most part). I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I really haven’t seen him yet, but I just can’t figure him out. At this point, I feel like he’s got an equal chance of being the next Al Alburquerque (in terms of “coming out of nowhere” success, not in terms of injury) as he does being the next Freddy Dolsi.

I’d hate for him to be rushed, but if he pitches well in spring training, I don’t think that’s going to stop the Tigers. By the way, Marte still has minor league options remaining, and I could definitely see a scenario where he pitches better than Pauley but Pauley doesn’t pitch terribly.

Duane Below: Below is a candidate for the fifth starter job, but if he doesn’t get that, he could definitely be placed in the bullpen (especially since Toledo has five rotation spots and more than five starter candidates). He had a decent turn as a long reliever for the Tigers last year, although he did start to struggle a bit in late August and into September. He was most well-known for retiring the first 22 batters of his relieving career (he had previously started two games before being moved to the bullpen). One thing he might have going against him is that the Tigers plan for Collin Balester to be the long man, and I don’t know if they plan on having two multi-inning relievers.

Adam Wilk: Wilk is another name that’s popped up in the fifth starter mix, and like Below, he could land a bullpen role if he doesn’t win the fifth starter job, but I think he’s more of a longshot on both counts (for the record, I highly doubt that the Tigers would put Jacob Turner, Casey Crosby, or Drew Smyly in the bullpen, so I’m not going to profile them here).

Wilk’s stint in the big leagues wasn’t as successful as Below’s (He gave up at least one run in each outing, although it surprised me that he only appeared in five games; it felt like more), but I get the feeling that Jim Leyland likes him (I was a little surprised that he wasn’t called up in September, although he had been battling some elbow inflammation near the end of the season in Toledo). Because of that, he could get a longer look than you might think, but I still think that one of Pauley, Marte, or Below is more likely.

Brayan Villarreal: In case you didn’t see my bio, I’m going to warn all you new readers right now that I love this guy. I think he’s incredibly fascinating and very talented, although he still needs to learn how to execute his pitches better if he wants to be successful in the big leagues.

Villarreal made the team out of spring training last year (straight from Erie; remember what I said about that), and did a good job at first. And then a couple of different things happened.

The first is that the Tigers entered a stretch where their starting pitchers were pitching really well and didn’t need as much help from the bullpen. A second, is that Al Alburquerque emerged as a breakout (though puzzling) reliever and Joaquin Benoit started to pitch a whole lot better. This meant that Villarreal wasn’t getting as many opportunities as he had been. He often went several days without pitching, and like David Pauley, the rust showed.

The Tigers eventually sent him to Toledo in May. He came back up for one disastrous outing in July and spent the rest of the season in Triple A. His performance in Toledo (where he was a starter, then went on the disabled list, then came back as a reliever) was a little uneven, but it always seemed like weird things happened when he pitched (I saw him seven times, so I got a good handle on what normally occurred). For example, I have never seen someone give up so many infield singles. It’s almost ridiculous how many infield singles he gives up (and it’s made even more puzzling by the fact that he’s very quick and he’s a decent defender).

He pitched in winter ball this past season, and he pitched quite a lot. I profiled him in my Venezuelan winter ball wrap-up, so I’m not going to repeat a whole lot of that, but I will say that it was a decent season (3.69 ERA in 46.1 innings pitched). He had three blowup outings that kind of inflated his ERA a bit, but more often than not, he did his job and came through for his team.

One thing that may work for him in this bullpen competition is that he’s demonstrated a lot of versatility. His winter league team, the Caribes de Anzoategui, used him as an eighth-inning setup guy, a multi-inning reliever, and a starting pitcher, and he performed decently in all of those roles.

With that in mind, he could snatch the bullpen spot if he pitches as well in spring training this year as he did last year. I consider him a dark horse candidate at this point, but I don’t think it would be a good idea for him to start the season with the Tigers. I think he was rushed last year, and it showed eventually. Because I like him so much, I want him to be a successful member of the Tigers for a long time, and so I’d like for him to demonstrate he’s ready this time around by pitching well in Toledo first. There will be another opportunity sometime in 2012. Someone will get hurt or be ineffective, and when that happens, I want him to be in position to take advantage of it.

Jose Ortega: I’ve got to throw one oddball candidate in here, right? Ortega is all over the map when it comes to prospect rankings in the Tigers organization. I’ve seen him as high as tenth and as low as 43rd. Supposedly, he has the best fastball of any pitching prospect in the system, and I’ve seen firsthand that he doesn’t always know where it’s going. He struggled in Toledo last year (6.30 ERA in 55 innings), but I also saw enough to know that if he puts it together, he could be a force. However, at this point, he’s even more of a dark horse than Villarreal.

There are a couple others who may step forward and make a surprise bid, or the Tigers might trade for someone (although I REALLY hope this doesn’t happen, because I don’t think it’s necessary), but I think these are the six most likely candidates, with Pauley, Marte, and Below being the frontrunners. We’ll see what happens once these guys get to pitching, though.

  • catswithbats

    I think Matt Hoffman is my dark horse last-spot-in-the-bullpen candidate. idk, I guess it’s one of those crazy gut feeling kinda things. I could see any of these guys getting the spot, though, honestly. It feels really wide open right now.

    • Doc Worn

      I can see that happening

    • Erin Saelzler

      I thought about profiling him, but it seemed like having Coke, Schlereth, AND Hoffman all in the bullpen would be kind of redundant. If there is a third lefty, it would be more logical to go with a guy who can throw multiple innings like Below or Wilk. However, stranger things have happened, and there does seem to be a little bit of media buzz building around Hoffman.

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