The Tigers have only one area where bringing in free agents is 100% necessary: The Bullpen. While there is potential at second base, left field and catcher, they have legitimate in house/stand pat options there. The bullpen: they do not, with Drew Smyly possibly leaving to join the rotation it means that the two most reliable pieces in the bullpen last year, Smyly and Benoit, could both be gone.
That would leave the Tigers with options such as Al Albuquerque, Phil Coke, Darin Downs, Jose Veras (if option is picked up) Luke Putkonen, Evan Reed and Bruce Rondon. That bullpen has potential, Albuquerque has a devastating slider, Rondon showed promise when healthy late in the year and Veras was adequate as a set up man down the stretch. But, this is not a bullpen that most teams would want to move forward with when expectations are World Series or bust.
Here are five potential options for the Tigers to bring in arms to solidify the back end of games:
1. Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals: Forced into the closer role in St. Louis after Jason Motte was injured, Mujica pitched very well in 2013 and had 37 saves in 64.2 Innings Pitched. He had a remarkable .7 BB/9 rate and a FIP of 3.71 which is above average. Late in the year, Mijica wore down and definitely hurt his value a bit, but that could play into the Tigers hands. If they offer him a multi-year contract with out the expectations of a closer, he could be a very valuable set up man with excellent control, something the Tigers bullpen has lacked recently. Mujica could probably be signed for a similar contract that Joaquin Benoit was signed to a few years ago and he is just 28 years old.
2. Matt Belisle, Colorado Rockies: Belisle has a 2014 option that could be exercised for $4.25 Million, but is only a $250,000 buyout so it could go either way and the Rockies may want to use that money elsewhere in free agency, so Belisle has a good chance of hitting the open market. And if he does, only Joaquin Benoit has been more durable as a reliever over the last 3 seasons and Belisle had the better 2013 between the two. In 73 innings pitched Belisle had good control with just 1.85 BB/9 and a FIP of just over 3. Also, despite pitching half his games in Coors Field, Belisle was still quite effective at keeping the ball inside the ballpark. Belisle is most likely looking for a 2-3 year deal for $4-5 million per year and at 31, he should still be effective for the duration of the contract.
3. Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers: Nathan had a great bounce back couple of years for the Texas Rangers as their closer in 2012 & 13 after Minnesota let him go due to injuries. Nathan declined an option with the Rangers for 2014, so that most likely means he is looking for a multi-year contract and for a 38 year old, that is risky business for the Tigers. Nathan was effective with 43 saves last year and over 10 K/9, but his control was a bit erratic at times and even though he has been effective, signing him to be your closer is putting faith in a soon to be 39 year old is not the most comforting. Nathan probably signs for 2 years $14-18 Million with a contender. The Rangers, Tigers, Yankees, Indians are possibilities.
4. Chad Qualls, Miami Marlins: The other most used reliever on the free agent market is Chad Qualls. In 2013 Qualls threw 66 innings for the Marlins and had decent control and a FIP of 3.32 which is above average. Qualls will turn 36 late next year so breaking down is a concern, but he has a track record of being an effective set up man and late inning reliever that a 2 year contract at a rate in $3-5 million range would be pretty helpful in the bull pen.
5. Grant Balfour, Oakland A’s: Balfour is a hot name to be on the open market this off season after 38 saves for the A’s. Despite the saves total and illusion of a good ERA, Balfour had almost 4 BB/9 innings last year and if he didn’t pitch half of his games in Oakland with all that foul territory space, he would probably be less effective. Turning 36 this off season Balfour is probably going to try to go for one last big contract and look for 3 to 4 years and the Tigers will hopefully not want to get involved in that, rather retaining Joaquin Benoit at that length but, expect to hear Balfour’s name associated with the Tigers due to closer needs.
The Tigers could also simply resign Benoit and IF (BIG IF) they trade Max Scherzer, get bullpen help back in return in addition to other assets.
Expect to hear these names above and possibly even more this off season as the Tigers look to strengthen that bullpen through trade or free agency as that is definitely the weakest part of the team that fell just short of their goal of a World Series.