DETROIT – The 2018 Detroit Tigers season has been unlike any other in the last decade. They came into the season with low expectations, but have overachieved through the first 62 games.
But while many things have changed, one has stayed the same: Detroit's bullpen troubles.
The Tigers' bullpen has struggled again this season, ranking in the bottom 10 in terms of runs allowed, batting average against, earned run average, losses and strikeout rate. Detroit relievers are tied for the MLB lead in blown saves and have one of the worst strand rates in the game.
The Tigers haven't had a reliable bullpen in more than a decade, but some excellent arms have been through the system. Whether it's been through trades or free agency, many of those relief pitchers ended up on other teams.
If the Tigers could assemble seven of their former pitchers, they would have one of the best bullpens in baseball. Here's a look:
Long relief: Chad Green (New York Yankees)
2018 stats: 23 games, 2.25 ERA, 28 innings, 36 K's, 7 BB, 1.04 WHIP
Path from Detroit: Traded from Tigers to Yankees in 2015 as part of Justin Wilson deal.
Chad Green was the Tigers' No. 19 prospect in 2014 because of an above average fastball and good control. He's no longer starting at the MLB level, but he's become an excellent relief pitcher.
Green posted a 1.83 ERA and struck out 103 batters in 69 innings for the Yankees last season, posting a 0.74 WHIP. He's off to another great start in 2018, striking out well over a batter per inning with low walks and hits.
As a former starter, Green's versatility has been valuable for the Yankees. He's pitched more than an inning nine times this year and is very capable of giving up to three innings at a time, as he did multiple times in 2017.
Middle relief: Joakim Soria (Chicago White Sox)
2018 stats: 21 games, 3.98 ERA, 20.1 innings, 24 K's, 4 BB, 1.28 WHIP
Path from Detroit: Traded from Tigers to Pirates in 2015 for JaCoby Jones. Signed with Royals as free agent in December 2015. Traded from Royals to White Sox in 2018 as part of three-team trade.
Soria was awful for the Tigers in 2014, but rebounded nicely the following season. He's been solid ever since, and 2018 is no different.
Every bullpen needs a guy who can keep a game close when the starting pitcher leaves down one or two runs. That would be Soria's role in this bullpen.
His 2.63 FIP suggests Soria has been very unlucky this season. He has an elite strikeout-to-walk rate in 20.1 innings and has only allowed two home runs.
Middle relief: Jose Alvarez (Los Angeles Angels)
2018 stats: 30 games, 2.42 ERA, 26 innings, 27 K's, 6 BB, 1.04 WHIP
Path from Detroit: Traded from Tigers to Angels in 2014 for Andrew Romine.
Jose Alvarez has quietly been a very reliable relief pitcher for the Angels the last four seasons, appearing in 224 games with nearly a strikeout per inning, a 3.43 FIP and 1.29 WHIP.
This season, Alvarez has allowed only seven runs in 26 innings with an excellent strikeout-to-walk rate. He doesn't allow walks or home runs, so he's the perfect pitcher to come in when the game is tied or close and the starting pitcher gets pulled before six innings.
He's excellent against left-handed hitters, holding them to a .663 OPS in his career.
Late innings: Fernando Rodney (Minnesota Twins)
2018 stats: 22 games, 2.57 ERA, 21 innings, 20 K's, 7 BB, 1.19 WHIP
Path from Detroit: Granted free agency from Tigers in 2009. Signed with Angels in December 2009. Signed with Rays in January 2012. Signed with Mariners in February 2014. Traded from Mariners to Cubs in 2015. Signed with Padres in February 2016. Traded from Padres to Marlins in 2016 for Chris Paddack. Signed with Diamondbacks in December 2016. Signed with Twins in December 2017.
Every bullpen needs a little excitement, right?
Fernando Rodney has long been considered a ticking time bomb that could implode at any moment, and teams have played hot potato with him for years, signing him to one-year deals and crossing their fingers that he can squeeze one more season out of that excellent change-up.
But in reality, Rodney has been pretty good in recent seasons, picking up 64 saves in 128 games with a 3.45 FIP and 1.30 WHIP in 2016 and 2017. He struck out 139 batters in 120.2 innings over that span.
At 41 years old, Rodney is at it again. He's allowed just six earned runs in 21 innings with 20 strikeouts and seven walks. He wouldn't be the closer in this bullpen, but he's got more than 300 career saves for a reason.
8th inning man: Justin Wilson (Chicago Cubs)
2018 stats: 24 games, 2.66 ERA, 23.2 innings, 30 K's, 19 BB, 1.44 WHIP
Path from Detroit: Traded from Tigers to Cubs in 2017 as part of Jeimer Candelario deal.
While an ideal bullpen wouldn't pigeonhole its best relievers into specific innings, Justin Wilson would be a good option for the eighth inning if his role had to be defined.
Wilson was a high-leverage reliever for the Tigers in 2016 and half of 2017, posting a 3.55 ERA in 99 innings while striking out 120 batters.
He hasn't been as dominant with the Cubs, but Wilson still has an elite strikeout rate. He struck out more than 12 batters per nine innings the last two seasons and is currently at 11.4 in 2018.
Walks have always been a problem for Wilson, who issues four free passes per nine innings in his career. He's walking an astounding 7.2 batters per nine innings this season, but assuming that rate comes down, Wilson will continue to be worthy of late-inning work.
Despite being left-handed, Wilson has been better against right-handed batters in his career, holding them to a .617 OPS.
Closer: Corey Knebel (Milwaukee Brewers)
2018 stats: 13 games, 4.76 ERA, 11.1 innings, 15 K's, 6 BB, 1.15 WHIP
Path from Detroit: Traded from Tigers to Rangers in 2014 for Soria. Traded from Rangers to Brewers in 2015 as part of Yovani Gallardo deal.
Don't let this season's numbers fool you: Corey Knebel is one of the most electric relief pitchers in baseball.
The 26-year-old right-handed became a closer for the first time in 2017, racking up 39 saves while striking out 126 batters in 76 innings. He was named to his first all-star team, and the only blemish was an inflated walk rate.
He missed a month with injury this season and hasn't completely settled in, but he still throws a fastball that touches 99 mph and a wicked swing-and-miss curveball.
Knebel is best used in situations where he can blow away left-handed hitters, who bat just .185 against him with absolutely no power. But if there has to be a closer, Knebel's the man for the job.
Relief ace: Andrew Miller (Cleveland Indians)
2018 stats: 17 games, 4.40 ERA, 14.1 innings, 23 K's, 10 BB, 1.60 WHIP
Path from Detroit: Traded from Tigers to Marlins in 2007 as part of Miguel Cabrera deal. Traded from Marlins to Red Sox in 2010 for Dustin Richardson. Traded from Red Sox to Orioles in 2014 for Eduardo Rodriguez. Signed with Yankees in December 2014. Traded from Yankees to Indians in 2016 as part of Clint Frazier deal.
Andrew Miller has battled injuries early this season, but he's absolutely one of the best relief pitchers in the game.
From 2015-2017, Miller appeared in 260 games with the Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees and Indians, allowing just 50 earned runs while striking out 421 batters in 261 innings. He posted a 0.79 WHIP over that span, and his 1.83 FIP proves Miller is ever bit as dominant as he seems.
He got a chance to be a full-time closer in 2015, racking up 36 saves for the Yankees, but he's even more valuable in his current versatile relief role. He can pitch multiple innings when called upon, and his incredible strikeout rate helps him get out of sticky situations for his fellow bullpen mates.
Miller can get out of a bases loaded jam in the fifth inning to keep a game close, lock down the seventh inning in a one-run game or take over in the eighth and close the door. He was one of the precursors to the new era of bullpen aces, and when healthy, he's still among the elite.