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Detroit Tigers’ Positional Preview: Thanks to Change, Bullpen One Major Area of Uncertanty in 2014

February 14th, 2014 at 9:53 AM
By Max DeMara

With spring training set to begin and the baseball season just around the corner, we're previewing the Detroit Tigers position by position.

While the Detroit Tigers' starters look to be a very consistent group in 2014, there figures to be much more uncertainty in the bullpen considering the amount of change that was made during the offseason.

'Joe Nathan' photo (c) 2013, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

With Joaquin Benoit off to San Diego and given Drew Smyly is heading back into the rotation, the Tigers needed to add a new closer, setup man and lefty specialist, and did all three with the addition of Joe NathanJoba Chamberlain and Ian Krol. Otherwise, the team is banking on plenty of young players to bridge the gap and step up in a vital year.

Today, we're talking about what to expect this year from some of the bigger names in Detroit's bullpen.

1. Joe Nathan. 2013 was arguably Nathan's best season in the business, as the closer went 6-2 with a 1.39 ERA, 43 saves and 73 strikeouts in a hitter friendly ballpark. As a result, when he opted out of a contract in Texas, Nathan immediately became the top closer available, and Detroit's number one target. The team signed him to a decently friendly deal and quickly locked down the ninth inning. Nathan knows the Central Division after pitching for years in Minnesota, and is the closest "sure thing" in the Tigers' pen for 2014. The only concern: when will signs of age ever begin to show?

  • What To Realistically Expect In 2014: Seeing as Nathan has been consistent much of his career, expect nearly the same type of numbers with the Tigers. Perhaps they won't be as gaudy, but Nathan should get plenty of chances to close games out in Detroit, meaning it's not wise to bet against him. Expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 saves with an ERA no higher than 2.20 this year.

2. Joba Chamberlain. The Tigers needed someone else established to throw into the late inning mix, and Chamberlain was available after finally being allowed to walk from New York. Many Yankees' fans would say that move came too late thanks to all of Chamberlain's injuries and inconsistencies. Still, Detroit seems to have bought low on a man with a power arm and big pitch potential. He hasn't logged over 70 innings pitched since 2010 and his ERA has been an elevated mess most of his career. The new surroundings should help, however, in addition to a new pitching coach and 

  • What To Realistically Expect In 2014: Not much. With Chamberlain at this stage, it's better to expect less and be pleasantly surprised. If he stays generally healthy, appears in 80 innings while maintaining a 3.30 ERA and collecting 20-25 holds, the Tigers will be ecstatic. Pencil him in for that considering the lower pressure surroundings and more pitcher friendly locale in Detroit.

3. Bruce Rondon. Perhaps the biggest wild card of the bunch, many argued that Rondon's late-season injury cost the Tigers a shot at making it back to the World Series for the second straight year. Considering how the bullpen was exposed against the Boston Red Sox, that could be true. Healthy and ready to take over the eighth inning, Rondon has power stuff and was putting it together before getting injured. Can he stay healthy and cut down on the walks? If so, the back end of the bullpen will have major teeth.

  • What To Realistically Expect In 2014: Rondon is the type of guy who could quietly have a breakout year without many noticing due to the fact he's not the closer. Expect him to be nasty in the eighth inning, and have high strikeout numbers. He might also have high walk totals and struggle to keep his ERA from going over 2.00, but that's to be expected as he works through his second full year on the team.

4. Ian Krol. Obtained in December's Doug Fister trade, Krol comes over from the Washington Nationals where he pitched in a role similar to Smyly in Detroit. The lefty had a 2-1 record with an elevated 3.95 ERA and 22 strikeouts. He held left handed hitters to a .220 batting average, and will be counted on to step into Smyly's spot in the bullpen, especially if Phil Coke doesn't make the team or struggles. Krol's age (22) should make him a candidate for improvement, and Detroit hopes he turns out better than Daniel Schlereth.

  • What To Realistically Expect In 2014: Krol won't be as dominant as Smyly, but he won't be bad, either. Expect a solid, 3.20 ERA with 40 strikeouts in a specialist role. He'll likely hold left handed hitting down, as well. Don't leave him in the game to face a right hander, though.

5. Phil Coke. Most of 2013, Coke was completely miserable out of the bullpen when he wasn't hurt, and was a far cry from the man who helped the Tigers lock down innings eight and nine on the way to the 2012 World Series. Coke is the biggest wild card—perhaps even bigger than Chamberlain—because he has the ability to dominate left and right handed hitting when he's on and can pitch in any late inning situation. Can he find confidence to regain his lost mojo, however?

  • What To Realistically Expect In 2014: Like Chamberlain, after last season, don't expect much from Coke. He needs to build up his confidence during the spring with some solid outings and earn the trust of the staff for the regular season. If he finishes the year as an asset with a sub-4.00 ERA

6. Luke Putkonen. Statistically, Putkonen did well when he came in, collecting 29.2 innings, holding a low 3.03 ERA and collecting 28 strikeouts. Though he was rarely used with the game on the line, expect that to change a bit this year, especially if the Tigers need to bridge the gap in the sixth inning should a starter depart early. As he gets more time, expect Putkonen to remain a solid pitcher. He won't wow anyone, but he can get the outs he needs in the situations he needs them.

  • What To Realistically Expect In 2014: Nothing outstanding off the bat, but if Putkonen gets into a groove and proves himself to be dependable, his role could expand. Expect that to happen a bit this year, as all of his numbers will climb a bit.

7. Jose Ortega. The value of Ortega is felt most in his ability to be a spot starter and an innings eater in the event of an early game catastrophe from a starting pitcher. Ortega can provide that role to the Tigers best this year, and that should be his spot on the team. Don't expect to see much of him unless a starter gets hurt or the team is in need of some capable long relief.

  • What To Realistically Expect In 2014: Much the same as last year. If Ortega is able to provide the Tigers with a solid option when needed in mop-up duty with an occasional spot start, that's all he'll need to do.

Max DeMara is the editor at @detroitlions101 and a contributor for @Pistons_101 and @tigers_101. Follow each to connect with him there on Twitter.

Tags: Baseball, Bruce Rondon, Detroit, Detroit Tigers, Ian Krol, Joba Chamberlain, Joe Nathan, Luke Putkonen, MLB, Phil Coke

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