By Ashley Scoby
Ask 100 Tigers fans what annoyed them most about the 2015 season, and 98 of them will probably mention the bullpen.READ MORE: 3 People Arrested In Shooting Death Of Ypsilanti Township Man On Facebook Live
The bullpen’s performance isn’t exactly a favorite topic of manager Brad Ausmus, either. He knows it was shaky at best, brutally bad at times, and inconsistent always. But the hopes for a better year from the pen are high, after the club added significant depth in the offseason.
Last year’s initial depth pretty much evaporated as the season went on. Joe Nathan injured his elbow at the beginning of the year, then went on the season-ending disabled list months later. At the July trade deadline, reliever Joakim Soria was a tradepiece to the Pirates.
Bullpen implosion: engage.
“When we had Soria and Nathan going into the season, we had a mix and match of guys, righties and lefties, that we could use in the sixth and seventh,” Ausmus said to Stoney and Jamie Samuelsen Friday morning. “Well now Nathan’s down, Soria goes to the ninth, now we’ve got to mix and match in the seventh and eighth. Then we trade Soria at the trading deadline. Now we’ve got to mix and match in the ninth.”
Guys who stepped into those empty spots – Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy were two that Ausmus pointed out as doing a solid job – weren’t experienced enough to make a real impact.
“We were asking them to do something they weren’t ready to do,” Ausmus said. “It was unfair to them as well but we didn’t have any other choice because they’re really our best performers.”
Of the 35 saves the Tigers accumulated in 2015, Soria had 23 of them. Once he left, finding a reliable reliever was a state of emergency for a team already struggling to even stay at the .500 level.READ MORE: Carlos Santana 'Doing Well' After Collapsing Onstage At Pine Knob Music Theatre
In September against the Rays, Detroit burned through 10 pitchers on its way to a sloppy 8-7 win.
The 2016 season will theoretically carry much more stability. Justin Verlander is no longer a one-man band in the starting rotation, after both Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey signed.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson all join a previously-sputtering bullpen.
Bruce Rondon, who has shown flashes of talent and production, will be given another chance to perform after being sent home prematurely last season.
“We’re hoping he comes in with a fresh mindset,” Ausmus said. “He pitched a little bit of winter ball and he’s a guy with tremendous ability. If he comes in with the right frame of mind, he’s got an opportunity to get on the team again.”
Whether Rondon makes the roster or not, the Tigers can finally boast a stable of pitchers that provides flexibility.
As the Tigers attempt to make the playoffs again – after missing them last year with a last-place finish in the AL Central – that pitching depth could make all the difference.MORE NEWS: Interest In Unionizing Grows Among Michigan Starbucks Workers
“We needed two starters and we got them, Zimmermann and Pelfrey,” Ausmus said. “We needed back end of the bullpen – K-Rod, Lowe, Wilson. I think this (Wilson) is kind of an under-the-radar move. He’s a guy with average velocity as a left-hander (of) I believe a tick above 95 (mph). You just don’t see that a lot – a power arm. We haven’t had a power arm from the left-handed side, really. Now by getting those guys, you talk about some of the guys who were forced to pitch later in the game. Now they’re able to pitch probably where they’re supposed to pitch. … I think it makes our bullpen much, much stronger.”