DETROIT – A bullpen that once thought to be the Detroit Tigers’ greatest strength now appears to be a glaring weakness as Opening Day arrives.
When the Tigers signed left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin last month, he joined a group of late-inning relievers who acquitted themselves well last season:
- Gregory Soto: 63.2 innings, 3.39 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 1.351 WHIP, 76 strikeouts, 40 walks
- Jose Cisnero: 61.2 innings, 3.65 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 1.330 WHIP, 62 strikeouts, 31 walks
- Michael Fulmer: 69.2 innings, 2.97 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 1.278 WHIP, 73 strikeouts, 20 walks
- Kyle Funkhouser: 68.1 innings, 3.42 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 1.405 WHIP, 63 strikeouts, 38 walks
- Tyler Alexander: 106.1 innings, 3.81 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 1.260 WHIP, 87 strikeouts, 28 walks
- Alexander: 15 starts, 26 relief appearances
- Andrew Chafin: 68.2 innings, 1.83 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 0.932 WHIP, 64 strikeouts, 19 walks
- Chafin: 43 games with the Chicago Cubs, 28 games with the Oakland Athletics
Having six relievers he could trust promised to be a rare luxury for manager A.J. Hinch. But since then, injuries have decimated the position.
Cisnero was placed on the 60-day injured list Wednesday with a shoulder strain, and both Funkhouser and Chafin will begin the season on the 10-day IL.
Alexander, meanwhile, was thrust into the starting rotation for at least the first few weeks when new Tigers starter Michael Pineda missed spring training due to visa issues.
Fulmer, meanwhile, battled ineffectiveness and major velocity drops throughout the shortened spring training. He allowed six hits and three runs in only four innings while striking out three batters. His injury history doesn’t bode well for the unusual build-up to this season, either.
That leaves Soto as the only member of this group who appears fully ready for Opening Day. He’ll be joined in the late innings by Fulmer, Joe Jimenez and Alex Lange.
Though he has moments when his former top prospect pedigree shines through, Jimenez has been unreliable as an MLB reliever. Last season, he walked 35 batters in 45.1 innings and posted a 5.96 ERA, 5.22 FIP and 1.522 WHIP. His 57 strikeouts kept him on the roster.
Lange, meanwhile, finished the season extremely strong and posted a 4.04 ERA, 4.40 FIP and 1.486 WHIP. He struck out 39 batters and walked 16 in 35.2 innings. This spring, he allowed four runs in 3.2 innings with five strikeouts.
The final six spots -- rosters will include two extra spots in April to help teams overcome the lockout-shortened spring training -- appear to be filled by (with 2021 stats):
- Jason Foley: 10.1 innings, 2.61 ERA, 5.59 FIP, 1.258 WHIP, six strikeouts, five walks
- Rony Garcia: 3.2 innings, 2.45 ERA, 7.26 FIP, 0.818 WHIP, two strikeouts, two walks
- Drew Hutchison: 21.1 innings, 2.11 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 1.453 WHIP, 10 strikeouts, 11 walks
- Will Vest: 35 innings, 6.17 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 1.600 WHIP, 27 strikeouts, 18 walks
- Vest: Rookie stats with the Seattle Mariners
- Elvin Rodriguez (minors): 75.2 innings, 5.83 ERA, 1.295 WHIP, 80 strikeouts, 29 walks
- Rodriguez: Stats are from 18 starts with Double-A Erie
- Jacob Barnes: 28.2 innings, 6.28 ERA, 5.30 FIP, 1.465 WHIP, 33 strikeouts, 11 walks
- Barnes: 19 games with the New York Mets, 10 games with the Toronto Blue Jays
How do I put this eloquently? Uh, “These relief pitcher statistics are not desirable” (unless you’re a hitter).
A full 60% of Hinch’s bullpen options are, let’s say, “unproven” at best and “unusable” at worst. That’s not even counting the very real possibility that Jimenez and Lange struggle.
Al Avila did an excellent job revamping the roster this offseason with the additions of Tucker Barnhart, Eduardo Rodriguez, Javier Baez, Michael Pineda, Austin Meadows and Chafin. But this bullpen could be the team’s undoing, just like it was for the competitive Tigers teams of last decade.
With a young starting staff and an offseason likely to yield even shorter outings for those starters, relievers have never been more important. Unfortunately, injuries have turned the bullpen into a glaring weakness.