The Tigers' bullpen woes ran deep during Dave Dombrowski's tenure as General Manager. Having watched the prime years of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Justin Verlander go by without a World Series championship, much of the blame is placed on the previous regime's inability to build a decent bullpen. While it seems Dombrowski learned from past mistakes (see Kimbrel, Craig and Smith, Carson), Al Avila is attempting to rid the demons that have derailed seasons in Detroit several times over.
The 2015 Tigers carried on the nefarious tradition of an underachieving ‘pen, posting a negative fWAR. Detroit churned through 22 relief pitchers through 505 innings. Only the Braves and Red Sox threw out a corps of relief pitchers worth less than Detroit.
The Tigers ‘pen ended the season with 7.04 strikeouts per nine (29th in the majors) and 3.6 walks per nine (22nd in the game). Detroit's 4.38 earned run average was fourth-worst in the majors, and they had the third-worst fielding independent pitching at 4.37.
Despite the transient nature of relievers, it is undeniable Al Avila inherited a mess from his predecessors. Avila came out strong in the early portion of the offseason; so far, the Tigers have signed a number of relievers in the hope they alleviate at least one glaring weakness.
With a window that is likely to be open for the next few years before a major roster rebuild likely is required, Detroit has already made several acquisitions via trade and free agency in the hopes they quell the late-inning hemorrhages. Last month, the Tigers acquired Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers in exchange for minor leaguer Javier Betancourt and potentially a player to be named later.
Rodriguez is 33 years old and has the mystique of the ‘proven closer' label. He clearly slides right into the closer role in Detroit and is certainly a welcome addition, despite his age. K-Rod posted a 1.0 fWAR in 2015...of the 22 relievers who pitched for the Tigers last year, only Blaine Hardy created more value. Rodriguez posted a career-best 5.1 percent walk rate and his best strikeout percentage since 2007.
To supplement Rodriguez in the ‘pen as their set-up man, the Tigers signed Mark Lowe to a two-year deal. The 32-year-old Lowe fits the profile of proven reliever but similar to K-Rod is on the wrong side of the aging curve. He is coming off a decent year in which he posted a 1.2 fWAR in 55 innings with a 1.96 ERA and 2.57 FIP for the Mariners and Blue Jays.
The addition of a southpaw is imperative to rebuilding a pen, and Justin Wilson will act as the southpaw setup-man for Brad Ausmus next season. Avila traded Luis Cessa (one of the pitching prospects acquired from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade) to the Yankees for Wilson. On the way to a 1.5 fWAR, he put up a career-high strikeout rate (27.1 percent) and a career-low walk rate (8.2 percent). He is just 28 years old (a spring chicken in the Tigers' world) and arb-eligible and under team control until 2019.
In addition to the new players, Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson are likely to hold down their two middle relief spots. Hardy led the Tigers in fWAR last season, posting a 1.1 fWAR in 61.1 innings (all three newly-minted relievers were better in 2015). Alex Wilson put up the second-highest reliever fWAR for Detroit with 0.6.
In addition to Hardy and Wilson, righty Bruce Rondon is working in Winter League to solidify his position in the bullpen, a position not guaranteed by Brad Ausmus but one that will likely come to fruition.
Al Avila took over the front office of a last place team with an aging core of veterans. Despite divisional rivals' youth and recent success, he addressed an area of significant need in only a few short weeks. The Tigers still have some holes on their team (third base comes to mind, as Nick Castellanos still has yet to put up a positive fWAR), but Avila already addressed a glaring weakness. Tigers' fans hope it works out better than in the past.