DETROIT – The two best pitchers in the Detroit Tigers bullpen are on the injured list, but the team has continued to win, thanks in part to three other relievers who have stepped up.
Detroit placed Jose Cisnero on the 10-day injured list Tuesday after he slipped and cut open his elbow. Gregory Soto joined him over the weekend when he took a line drive off his ring finger, resulting in a fracture.
Cisnero and Soto have been the team’s top two high-leverage relievers this season, combining to throw 125.1 innings with 138 strikeouts and 22 saves. Along with Michael Fulmer, they’ve made up the best trio of back-end relievers the team has had in years.
Despite those injuries, the Tigers just finished off an excellent week, winning four of six games against the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays. The scores in those four games: 1-0, 4-1, 4-3 and 2-0.
How is the team managing to win close games against the best teams in the league without Cisnero and Soto? The rest of the bullpen -- three players in particular -- stepped up.
While the two pitchers below haven’t pitched well until more recently, Funkhouser has been a reliable arm out of the bullpen for most of the season. A.J. Hinch has often gone to Funkhouser in critical middle-inning situations with runners on base or to face the heart of the opposing lineup.
But now, Funkhouser is even more important. He’s moved up to join Fulmer as one of the team’s top two relievers, with excellent results.
After allowing six earned runs on six hits and three walks across three innings in his first two September outings, Funkhouser has bounced back to pitch 5.1 scoreless innings since Sept. 10. During that stretch, he’s struck out three batters while allowing three hits and two walks.
Funkhouser earned an extra-innings win against the Rays on Sept. 12 and then pitched in back-to-back-to-back games this weekend. He picked up holds with scoreless eighth innings on both Friday and Saturday before recording his first career save Sunday.
Before the 2021 season, Funkhouser’s future with the franchise was murky. He was a 27-year-old floundering as a starter in the minor leagues. Now, he appears to have found his footing in the bullpen and is under team control until 2027. That’s a very valuable member of the organization going forward.
Speaking of players who could become valuable members of the team for several years, the Tigers are hoping they got something out of the Nick Castellanos trade, after all.
Lange was one of two minor league players who joined the organization in that deal, and the Tigers decided to convert him into a relief role.
The first MLB stint was rocky for Lange, as he allowed 13 earned runs, 23 hits and nine walks across 16 innings early this year. He struck out 20 batters, but allowed a .977 opponent OPS (on base plus slugging percentage).
Since rejoining the Tigers on Aug. 22, Lange has looked like a different pitcher. He’s allowed just two runs on eight hits in 13.2 innings while striking out 14 batters. His 17% swinging strike rate is exactly the type of dominance the team was hoping to see out of a flame-throwing righty.
Control is still a concern for Lange, as he’s issued six free passes and hit two batters during this 13.2-inning rebound. But in his last five appearances, Lange has no walks and just one hit batter across 4.2 innings.
If he can continue to throw strikes, he has the swing-and-miss potential to become a more reliable high-leverage option.
The Holland we saw in spring training has finally arrived.
The first five months of the season were misery for the 34-year-old lefty, who pitched to a 6.81 ERA and allowed 50 hits and 17 walks across 35.2 innings.
September has been a completely different story. Holland has hurled 10 scoreless innings across eight outings this month, striking out eight batters and allowing just six hits and two walks. He was called upon to pitch four times during the recent nine-game stretch against first-place teams and tossed 4.2 scoreless innings.
Holland has held hitters to a .388 OPS in September while generating swings and misses on 16% of his pitches. The Tigers are fortunate that his turnaround coincided with the injuries to Soto and Cisnero, especially since he gives Hinch a left-handed option out of the bullpen.
The Tigers have holes to address in the starting rotation and on offense, so it would be great to see the bullpen contention-ready going into the offseason.
In Cisnero, Soto and Fulmer, the Tigers have three high-leverage relievers they can have count on heading into 2022. If Funkhouser and Lange finish the season strong, that’s a solid five.
Cisnero and Soto have already eclipsed 60 innings apiece this season -- more than double their workload from the shortened 2020 season. Since neither of their injuries are actually arm-related, this wasn’t the worst news for the Tigers.
Great organizations can turn negatives into positives, and if Funkhouser and Lange take advantage of their increased roles over the next two weeks, this could actually bode very well for the Tigers going forward.