The Tigers signed Joba Chamberlain to an incentive-laden 1 year, $2.5 million deal today. He’ll probably slot into the bullpen somewhere around the 6th or 7th inning, possibly as the primary right-handed bridge to ideal setup man Bruce Rondon.
This could work, of course. It’s a low risk move, the finances aren’t bad, it’s a one year deal. In a bubble, I’m fine with it. He should be fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2011, and hopefully he stays away from trampolines this winter. His velocity hasn’t really wavered, and he averaged 94.7 MPH on his fastball last year. A change of scenery from New York, where he could never live up to the high expectations placed upon him, may benefit him – he did pitch to a 3.54 ERA away from Yankee Stadium last year, but his K/BB ratio was 15/16 and his WHIP was still up over 1.5, with a 5.6 BB/9 rate overall.
And therein lies the problem I have with this move. It’s not really the move itself – Chamberlain is a decent low-risk reclamation project, and if it doesn’t work, they cut ties after this season and move on. But what happens if it doesn’t work? The move doesn’t really doesn’t leave the Tigers’ bullpen, a huge issue throughout all of 2013, any better than it was when the team was eliminated from the ALCS. And if Dave Dombrowski is to be believed – which always comes with a big caveat, mind you – we shouldn’t expect much else from the Tigers this winter.
It’s hard to argue that the Tigers have improved their bullpen. Joe Nathan is a more than capable replacement for Joaquin Benoit, but closer wasn’t really the problem for much of 2013 – bullpen depth was. Drew Smyly’s spot apparently goes to Ian Krol, who is untested and unproven at the Major League level. It would be asking a lot of Krol to replicate Smyly’s performance last year. Bruce Rondon essentially becomes what they wanted Jose Veras to be – the primary right-handed setup man. Then there’s Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque and possibly Phil Coke or another lefty, and probably another spot after that which might go to a long man who shouldn’t matter all that much.
The Tigers will hope Rondon’s elbow issues are behind him and rely heavily on him, which strikes me as a risky proposition. Krol is an unknown, and it’s difficult to tell which Alburquerque and Chamberlain the Tigers will be getting on any given day. Relievers are, of course, notoriously hard to predict. After that, the Tigers are relying on AAA depth – a rather alarming proposition if someone gets hurt or if the likes of Chamberlain and Coke can’t cut it (or something happens to Rondon).
Basically, right now, the bullpen is alarmingly similar to last year. You could definitely argue that Coke and Alburquerque (and even Chamberlain) are better than what they were last year, and if they are, the Tigers will actually end up with a decent bullpen. But that would be a dangerous assumption. I’m not satisfied with the options that the Tigers have given themselves. There’s going to be risk involved in any reliever free agent signing, particularly the number of arms coming off injuries, but I’m worried the Tigers actually are done for the winter and are going to go into the season with the bullpen options they currently have. Adding a Jesse Crain or Oliver Perez or even an Eric O’Flaherty, Andrew Bailey, or Joel Hanrahan to give themselves more choices would benefit them – all of those arms have risks, injury or otherwise, but they’ve been successful in the Major Leagues relatively recently. They’re not great options, but outside of the 39-year-old Nathan, you’d be hard-pressed to say you have a lot of faith in any of the other arms currently in the Tigers bullpen. They might prove me wrong. I hope they do. But adding more depth options to the bullpen strikes me as a good idea, because the likes of Coke, Alburquerque, and Chamberlain may well struggle again – and if they do, the Tigers will be left short on options after relying on guys who really struggled last year.