Now to the Achilles heal of last year's team. How bad was the bullpen? Their -4.35 WPA suggests they cost the Tigers approximately nine wins. While the defense certainly hurt, the inability of the starters to get deep into games is not as big of a problem as I had assumed. The team finished in the middle of the pack in starter's innings.
The bullpen competition is wide open this year. In doing these projections, I am going to assume five right-handers and two southpaws. This has been the standard setup since Leyland took over the reigns three years ago. Listed among the candidates is every pitcher in camp not among the projected starters with three exceptions. Eddie Bonine, Jon Kibler, and Rick Porcello are not listed because they appear to be exclusively starters at this point.
Redundant Players, already mentioned with the starters:
Kyle Bloom, L: A rule 5 pick, so the Tigers will want to be extra sure there's no potential before sending him back to Pittsburgh. I haven't heard anything about Bloom in a while, but you'd have to imagine a strong spring would leave him as the second lefty, much to the chagrin of Macay McBride and Clay Rapada.
Alfredo Figaro, R: Hasn't pitched above Lakeland and hasn't succeeded above West Michigan. Figaro will need to have turned a few corners before getting a bullpen job this year. I'd say he's likely destined for a rotation in Erie or Lakeland, or if they want to get him on a fast track, to relief.
Chris Lambert, R: Possibly a long reliever candidate. I don't see room for him right now. With three options remaining, I don't think the Tigers would mind using one to send him to Toledo to start games.
Zach Miner, R: As I mentioned yesterday, Miner is still a candidate to start. If one of Robertson and Willis show something in the spring, Miner could be off to the bullpen to be a starter in waiting. It confounds some people, but Miner still has two options years left just in case. No team gets 162 starts from their opening day rotation; very few get 120. He will get a chance to start games, but can be valuable as a long man.
Fu-Te Ni, L: Another wild card this spring. A strong camp could have Ni making those of us who find Monty Python unfunny and annoying want to stay away from Comerica Park. As it stands, I'm projecting him for Toledo, because unlike three other lefties in competition for bullpen jobs, he can be sent there without being lost.
Ryan Perry, R: Hey look! Another complete unknown. It's not hard to forsee a scenario where Perry makes the big league club out of spring. However, until that happens, I'm going to have him slotted for Erie.
Dontrelle Willis, L: I get the feeling Willis will either be fully recovered and in the rotation or struggling to throw strikes and in limbo. I don't see him in the bullpen right now.
Full time relievers:
Rudy Darrow, R: Darrow may be one of those "Use him while you've got him" guys. The sidearmer has a very painful looking motion, one that has already sent him under the knife in 2005. Take a look at this picture to see what I mean.
Stop me if you've heard this before. Darrow is a candidate for the pen if he impresses the right people this spring. The mere fact that there is competition for the bullpen spots tells me things will improve this year.
Freddy Dolsi, R: After a meteoric rise to the bullpen last year, you have to wonder if Dolsi did enough to stick around. Once again, a lot will depend on his spring. We'll pencil him in for now.
Casey Fien, R: After almost making the team out of spring last year, Fien put up a fine season in Erie and Toledo. Since being drafted in 2006 in 164.2 IP, Fien has struck out 173 batters and walked just 34. I'm sold.
Brandon Lyon, R: I don't particularly care who's closer. Getting outs in the 7th and 8th innings is important too. That said, Lyon seems to be the front-runner for the closer spot. He's an upgrade on Todd Jones, and is as close as a lock as a reliever can be.
Macay McBride, L: Kyle Bloom will get a lot of talk as a Rule 5 draftee, but Macay McBride, being out of options, can't be sent to Toledo if he misses the team either. Recovering from Tommy John Surgery, the DL could be an option for McBride if there isn't room for him. I haven't heard anything about how his rehab is going.
Clay Rapada, L: I'm racking my brain for reasons that Casey Fossum was on the roster over Rapada last year. With one option year remaining, Toledo could be his destination again while Bloom and McBride fight over the second lefty spot.
Juan Rincon, R: The former Twin signed a minor league deal and will have to show something in order to make the team. The last two (post-steroid) years have been pretty ugly for Rincon. I don't see him making the squad without a major resurgence or some Leyland Veteran Fetish.
Fernando Rodney, R: It's February 10, and Fernando Rodney hasn't had an injury yet in 2009. Another "lock" for the bullpen unless that shoulder acts up. He's got almost two months, so I'd say that's fairly likely.
Bobby Seay, L: Probably a lock as the bullpen's primary lefty. Seay has been solid in the bullpen, but you would ideally like to see some dominance. You have to pencil him in for now.
Zach Simons, R: Lumped in with Perry, Fien, and Darrow as rookie relievers with a shot with a nice Spring. A word of warning with Simons: That .232 BABIP in Lakeland last year was pretty fluky. He may not be the pitcher his surface numbers in Lakeland suggest.
Scott Williamson, R: Scott Williamson is a great pitcher when he's healthy. Unfortunately, he hasn't been healthy since 2003. Matt Mantei, Part 3, I think he retires during the spring.
Joel Zumaya, R: Cutting to the chase, I don't think Zumaya will be ready for the season. I'm projecting him for the DL, hoping that the Tigers take it easy on him. Zumaya is Exhibit A in why you should use big arms while you've got them.
So, in summary
Lyon, Rodney, Miner (assuming he's not in the rotation), and Seay appear to be locks. I've got Bloom in as the second lefty because he can't be demoted (and McBride can go on the DL). Dolsi's got a job to lose, and Casey Fien seems to be the closest to MLB ready among the rookie candidates. Zumaya and McBride start on the DL. Willis accepts his assignment to Toledo or Lakeland. The rest will go into the minor league pool of candidates as we work our way down.
This is a wide open competition, and I will be adjusting this frequently based on some of the news from Lakeland. The position players are next.