Tigers Bullpen: Closing (Down) in Motown
Detroit has a tenuous hold on 1st place in the AL Central entering the summer months. Among first place teams, they have the second worst run differential, worst home record and the entire division is well within striking distance (the last place Twins are five games out as of June 8). The Tigers’ bullpen has not done them any favors thus far and a shake up is imminent to make a deep run in the playoffs. ROTOscouting has been a man among boys in discovering future closers this season, and Detroit’s situation presents buy-low opportunities for fantasy baseball owners.
The State of the Tigers’ Bullpen
The bullpen is a bottom tier strikeout team (21st overall), has the second worst HR/FB rate (12%) and the worst LOB% (67.7%) in the league. Detroit’s bullpen xFIP is nearly a full run lower than their current ERA, which suggests a streak of bad luck. However the real problem is the ninth inning.
Joe Nathan has been terrible this year (23 IP). Manager Brad Ausmus thinks he has a mechanical problem, others have noted his ineffective curveball and Nathan himself is asking for divine intervention. Among current closers with at least 10 saves, Nathan has posted the 2nd worst WAR (-0.2), FIP (4.94), and worst BB/9 (4.30). His velocity is down nearly three MPH from 2012, hitters are swinging (and missing) less and lefties are killing him to the tune of .300/.386/.469.
The anchor of the Tigers bullpen has posted some of the worst rates of his career, and he’s hindering Detroit from running away in the AL Central. Despite his $20mm salary (and small sample size), it’s time for the Tigers’ front office and fantasy owners to consider other options.
The Young(ish) Arms
Joba Chamberlain, RHP, age 28
Chamberlain’s strikeout rate is up over 20% this year and his walk rate has fallen 57% from last season. The former top-100 prospect’s ground ball rate is nearly 51% (best since 2011) — and the Tigers reliever sports a FIP nearly a half run lower than his current ERA (2.39). Mike Newman compared the former top Yankees prospect to Sidney Ponson back in 2009 as a starter, but he’s excelled as a high leverage reliever in Motown. Among relievers, Chamberlain’s posted the 7th best WAR (min. 20 IP), has yet to give up a home run this year and is the most viable candidate to take over ninth-inning duties. Look at how the hefty right-hander stacks up with another current closer in the National League:
K/9 BB/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB FIP xFIP WAR Rondon 10.17 2.81 0.324 70.00% 51.50% 0.00% 1.75 2.67 0.7 Chamberlin 10.25 2.39 0.328 74.20% 50.70% 0.00% 1.82 2.62 0.8
Chamberlain is doing his best Hector Rondon impersonation and has the stuff to close. It’s time to cash in Joe Nathan stock and go all in on Joba while he remains in the setup roll.
Al Alburquerque, RHP, age 27
Al-Al has impact strikeout potential. He’s all but abandoned the fastball this year for a slider/sinker combination. The results are a mixed bag: the strikeout rate is down over 16% (10.73 K/9) but the right-hander’s walk rate has been cut in half (2.96 BB/9). Alburquerque’s ground ball rate is up, but the Tigers reliever has allowed too many long balls (1.48 HR/9). Look for the HR/FB rate to stabilize in the coming months. And if jettisoning the fastball has curbed his command woes, the righty becomes a dark horse option in the Tigers’ bullpen to stash in deeper leagues.
Corey Knebel, RHP, age 22 (Triple-A Toledo)
Detroit has a lack of impact talent in the high minors. However Corey Knebel has a sinking fastball he can run up to 97 mph, a plus curve and deception in his delivery. He has the stuff to close if the right-hander can continue to pound the bottom half of the zone like this:
Jeff Reese noted the effort in his delivery and trouble with command back in 2012, but Knebel can work his way into high-leverage situations if the front office needs another arm.
The 10,000 Pound Elephant
Joel Hanrahan, RHP, Age 32
The Tigers picked up Joel Hanrahan on the cheap. He brings 100 career saves and a career 9.81 K/9 rate to the Tigers. Plus, he may be ready later this month. In recent years, the power arm has struggled with command, a concern considering pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery struggle to find the strike zone initially. However, the 2011 version of Hanrahan (fewer strikeouts, walks and a higher ground ball rate) would be a welcomed addition. Maybe age and the recovery process will help force the former closer to focus on pitchability moving forward.
The Trade Market
The Tigers are built to win now, but little MLB depth and a lack of minor league talent make a trade difficult. However owner Mike Illitch has committed to bringing a World Series to Motown and is no stranger to opening the purse strings, even though they boast a top-5 payroll.
Being able to have Nathan, Hanrahan, Chamberlain, and Alburquerque in the Tigers’ bullpen will serve them well come playoff time. Fantasy owners should be cutting ties with Nathan, making offers for Chamberlain, and watch-listing Albuquerque, Knebel, and Hanrahan. Don’t blow FAAB budgets as the trade deadline approaches, but anticipate and be ready to pounce before other owners get wise.
9 Jun 2014 / Joseph Pytleski /
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