November 1st, 2013

With Veras out, bullpen changes begin

The Tigers were already expected to head towards a different bullpen mix before team officials had to decide on Jose Veras’ $3.25 million contract option. Then they pulled a surprise and declined it.

Now, their bullpen mix is looking open, and that’s before they encounter decisions on arbitration-eligible Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque.

Detroit gave up their fourth-ranked prospect, outfielder Danry Vasquez, and Gulf Coast League teenager David Paulino to get Veras from Houston at the July trade deadline. Part of the appeal for the Tigers was the opportunity to get a season and a half out of Veras, not just a short-term rental. It wasn’t a cheap option for 2014, but considering the going rate for setup relievers, it wasn’t bad, either.

Somewhere along the lines, Veras became a rental. He wasn’t necessarily a difference-maker down the stretch of the Tigers’ drive to another division title, but he had nine holds and two saves in 12 total opportunities. Check the game logs, though, and it became clear his role changed in September. He was less of an eighth-inning setup man and more of a right-hander who was called on to get a right-handed hitter or two out in the eighth inning. It was a shorter setup role than the one Joaquin Benoit held down for 2 1/2 seasons.

That short work generally continued into the postseason, but with mixed results. The only Tigers postseason victory he pitched in was the 1-0 win at Fenway to open the ALCS, but he pitched in the two games in which leads became losses on Red Sox grand slams. Shane Victorino’s go-ahead shot in Game 6 came off Veras’ 0-2 curveball. David Ortiz’s game-tying slam in Game 2 came three pitchers after Veras, but the rally started on Will Middlebrooks’ one-out double against him. Jim Leyland played matchups from there with harrowing results.

With the bullpen in flux, Veras was seemingly a safe holdover — not somebody to build around, but a veteran who could fill a few different roles depending on how the rest of the bullpen filled out. Now, the only holdovers who played significant roles in last year’s bullpen are Coke and Alburquerque (again, they’re both arbitration eligible) plus Drew Smyly, who could end up being a starter if the Tigers were to move Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello this offseason.

That’s a lot of uncertainty in the bullpen for a team expected to contend for a World Series. It’s also a lot of opportunity for Dombrowski to build the bullpen he wants.

The initial reaction to the move is a sign the Tigers could spend big in a free-agent market that should be deep in proven relievers this year, and it might well be that. But depending on what the Tigers do elsewhere this winter, it might not be a bullpen restocked totally on free agents.

It’s worth keeping in mind that this just-finished World Series featured a battle of two bullpens that lost their closers (Jason Motte, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan) for most or all of the season. Their most expensive relievers were on the disabled list. The one major addition in the bunch, Koji Uehara, was a free-agent signing on a two-year, $9.25 million deal to be a setup man.

The Cardinals had the advantage of a bevy of gifted young arms developed through the system, something the Tigers tried to do five years ago through the draft and couldn’t (highlighted by Ryan Perry).

The Red Sox put together a postseason bullpen with Junichi Tazawa (international signing few years ago), Craig Breslow (tade last year) and Brandon Workman (draft pick). Matt Thornton, Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan did nothing.

The Tigers don’t have anywhere near the young arms of the Cardinals, but they have options coming up. Bruce Rondon, of course, is the closer in waiting. Melvin Mercedes is the hard-throwing guy behind him, and he’s coming off a very good season split between Class A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. Jose Ortega has a good arm and dominant numbers at Triple-A Toledo but mixed results in Detroit. The Tigers have to decide what they have in lefty starter Casey Crosby after two seasons at Toledo (the most recent one injury-shortened). Left-handed hitters have batted .206 (42-for-204) against Crosby in Toledo the last two years, including 8-for-52 this past season.

It’s not a foundation, but it’s a group of good arms that could fill some holes. Play the market wisely, and the combination could reshape a bullpen.