Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Six Locks?

Jim Leyland created a little bit of a stir when he told James Schmehl six of the Tigers' bullpen spots were basically locked up. As a fan, our natural reaction to such a statement is to figure out who the locks are. I know that was my immediate reaction as I Tweeted my guess at the six to Schmehl for confirmation.

After thinking about it for a while, though, I realized it shouldn't be difficult. If somebody is a lock for a role in the bullpen, it shouldn't be hard to guess who they might be. For example, if you're trying to figure out who the six locks are you can immediately eliminate the non-roster invitees. One of those guys might have a shot at a bullpen spot, but if you call any of them a lock you need to check your definition of the term.
That leaves us with the 40-man roster. Eliminate the four starters who are guaranteed jobs if they're healthy, and you have the remaining candidates to be one of Leyland's six "locks". I think there are three pitchers we can include in the group with certainty - Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel.

Each was used in high leverage situations last year and each was mentioned as a possible answer at the closer spot should Bruce Rondon struggle. That, of course, brings us to another name I'm going to count as a lock - Bruce Rondon. The closer job is his to lose, so unless he gets exposed or injured this spring he will be on the roster. That's four.

Looking at the remaining names, it helps a bit to think about each player's history. Could he have done something in the past that would qualify him as a lock? When I thought this way, my mind turned to Al Alburquerque. He's been trusted with postseason innings each of the last two seasons. When he's healthy, he's in the Tigers' bullpen. Let's go with him as our fifth lock.

See? If you're referring to guys as locks this early, it has to come that easily. I think of it like the Hall of Fame voting. If I say there are four locks in next year's first time candidates, you should be able to run down the list and see at least four players who require no argument.

With this line of thinking, I think we can eliminate most of the remaining pitchers.

Duane Below
Casey Crosby
Darin Downs
Kyle Lobstein
Luis Marte
Melvin Mercedes
Jose Ortega
Luke Putkonen

What have any of these pitchers done since the end of last season that would elevate them to a sure thing for the bullpen? What could any of them have done to somehow leapfrog Brayan Villarreal for an edge in the bullpen? Villarreal, after all, threw 54.2 innings last year and did so with a 2.63 ERA, only 38 hits allowed, 28 walks and 66 strikeouts. Yes, he struggled late and that's likely why he was left off the postseason roster, but that's a better major league pedigree than any of the pitchers listed above.

To me, aside from Villarreal, there is only possibility for the sixth lock in the bullpen. That's if Leyland was considering the odd man out for the fifth man in the rotation one of the six. So it boils down to a question of semantics. Was Leyland referring to six specific pitchers or just six specific spots?

If it was specific pitchers, I think it's Villarreal and the Tigers will see how the rotation falls out to fill the seventh spot. If Porcello wins the fifth spot, they'll consider Smyly for the second lefty and long relief option. But they'll have to weigh him against other guys like Duane Below, Kyle Lobstein and Darin Downs. If Smyly wins the fifth rotation spot and Villarreal is a lock, the entire bullpen is decided because I can't imagine Porcello going to Toledo for any reason.

If Leyland was referring to six spots in the bullpen, one would be for Smyly/Porcello. The seventh spot would be up for grabs between Villarreal and the rest. That decision on the seventh man would vary depending on whether Smyly or Porcello won the last rotation spot since Smyly is a lefty and Porcello is not. The only way I see Villarreal losing out is if a) he's injured or b) the Tigers have only one lefty in the bullpen and they opt to go with two.

Regardless of the meaning of Leyland's statement, we can see the Tigers' bullpen is largely sewn up. We can be fairly certain about who will be handed close leads. There is just the slightest question of how the Tigers will want to construct the pen to deal with matchups and mop-up situations.

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