DETROIT – Who will pitch the ninth inning for the Detroit Tigers now that Gregory Soto is no longer with the team?
It’s one of the many questions facing A.J. Hinch and Scott Harris as spring training ramps up. While the starting rotation is pretty much set, the next few weeks will determine who starts at third base and left field, who backs up Eric Haase, and who replaces several departed relief pitchers.
The success of the bullpen came as a surprise to most last season, especially since Jose Cisnero, Kyle Funkhouser, and Andrew Chafin started the year on the injured list and Tyler Alexander was thrust into the rotation to cover for more injuries.
But it didn’t matter. Detroit got strong relief pitching basically from the start of the season to the finish line, thanks to breakout performances from previously unproven guys like Alex Lange, Joe Jimenez, Will Vest, and Jason Foley.
This year’s bullpen will have a very different look. Michael Fulmer was traded to the Minnesota Twins at the deadline, Joe Jimenez was sent to the Atlanta Braves in December, Chafin opted out of his contract and signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Soto is now with the Phillies.
Those four pitchers combined for 241 appearances, 213.2 innings, 243 strikeouts, 50 holds, and 37 saves with the Tigers last season -- that’s an enormous amount of late-inning production to replace.
Chris Fetter has developed a knack for getting the most out of relievers, though. He did so not only with Lange, Vest, and Foley last season, but also Wily Peralta, Drew Hutchison, Rony Garcia, and Daniel Norris when injuries forced the Tigers to get creative.
Spring training will determine who joins Cisnero, Lange, Vest, and Foley when the team heads to Tampa Bay in late March. But who will start the season as the closer?
Let’s get one thing straight: All relief pitchers want to be closers. Not only is it the most prestigious and impactful role in the bullpen, it’s also by far the most lucrative.
Just this offseason, the best closer in the game, Edwin Diaz, got $102 million to stay with the New York Mets for five more seasons. Kenley Jansen got $32 million over two years from the Boston Red Sox after slamming the door 41 times for Atlanta. Raisel Iglesias got $58 million from the Los Angeles Angeles just last offseason.
So, no matter what they say during spring training interviews, Detroit’s relief pitchers are salivating at the chance to slide into that ninth-inning role.
Even if Hinch doesn’t officially name a closer, everyone will know the pecking order by the time spring training ends.
Who will be at the top?
As wide open as the competition seems right now, it’s going to be hard for one of the unproven newcomers to earn enough trust to pass Cisnero, Lange, Vest, and Foley during a month of exhibition games.
I’m also going to eliminate Foley because, while his surface numbers were fine in 2022, he doesn’t miss enough bats to handle the ninth inning. Foley struck out just 43 hitters in 60.1 innings and posted an 8% whiff rate. You simply can’t be an MLB closer in this era without a little dominance.
Foley is also the only one of the four who hasn’t recorded a save in his MLB career. Vest got his first last season, Lange got one in 2021, and Cisnero got four in 2021.
Cisnero feels like the safest bet, especially if nobody really stands out this spring. He’s been a rock since joining the Tigers, with a 2.94 ERA in 116.1 innings since the start of 2020. The walks are too high, but Cisnero has that classic closer’s knack for getting himself out of jams.
The upside pick would be Lange, who has some of the most electric stuff in MLB. He can throw in the upper-90s, and his curveball paved the way for a 100th percentile finish in whiff rate last year.
Lange can miss bats and suppress hard contact with the best pitchers in baseball -- his kryptonite is walks. There’s definitely some benefit to Lange being “effectively wild,” but if he could drop that walk rate down below 4.0, it would be much more manageable.
Vest probably needs both Cisnero and Lange to play their way out of the job. He’s coming off a resurgent season but lacks the typical dominance teams like to see from a closer.
As it stands, before spring training games begin, this seems to be a two-man race between Cisnero and Lange, with Vest as a possible insurance option. Could someone else enter the fray with a strong spring? Absolutely. But nobody knows what to expect from the nearly two dozen other arms invited to Lakeland.
It will be difficult for the Tigers to replicate last year’s bullpen success because of all the offseason attrition, but the first step in building it back up is to find an anchor. Then the rest of the roles can start falling into place.
The next five weeks will determine who gets the first shot.