Is the 2016 Tigers bullpen an improvement?

Alex Wilson
Alex Wilson Photo courtesy of Detroit Tigers

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—Dustin Blitchok

If there is anything the Detroit Tigers and team owner Mike Ilitch showed us this offseason, it was a strategy of using all available resources to recover after an underwhelming season.

The boldness and ambition were deeply admired by many and questioned by some, as the Tigers became the first team in history to give two free-agents contracts of at least $100 million, to starter Jordan Zimmermann and outfielder Justin Upton.

Despite the weight those names carry, it was the Tigers' bullpen that received the biggest overhaul.

As it stands now, no bullpen arms from last year's Opening Day roster will appear will be appearing April 8.

The team had the second-worst bullpen ERA last season, second worst in the American League, and the highest BAA in the sport, with opponents hitting .271 against the Tigers' relievers.

The numerous changes put the bullpen in a better place than it was a season ago. The only two reliable options in 2015, midseason call-ups Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy, will now make the Opening Day roster.

Judging by the offseason moves, the Tigers are following a blueprint set by the Kansas City Royals over the last two seasons of having seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-inning roles.

The first move Tigers general manager Al Avila made to fix an underperforming bullpen was locking down the ninth inning by acquiring Francisco Rodriguez from Milwaukee. A bona-fide closer his entire career, "K-Rod" has a career 2.69 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in his 14 big-league seasons.

Rodriguez turned 34 in January and is set to make $7.5 million in 2016, with a club option for $6 million in 2017.

Next, the Tigers searched high and low for a free agent reliever and were able to snag 32-year-old Mark Lowe.

Lowe was once an up-and-coming lively arm with a high ceiling. He underwent multiple elbow surgeries, eventually developing some inconsistency in his pitching. Last season, the journeyman reliever signed a minor-league deal with the Seattle Mariners and landed as one of 2015's most successful relievers in the sport.

Lowe might be one of the most underrated and intriguing new Tigers in the den. Detroit signed him to two years, with the hope he can post numbers similar to the 1.96 ERA and 1.06 WHIP he notched last year.

The Tigers have a closer and they have a setup man. Next, they needed to add depth. With the free-agent pool thinned out, the Tigers searched for what they needed via trade.

They went to the New York Yankees, acquiring 27-year-old Justin Wilson.

With just four years of major-league experience, lefty Wilson has a solid start to his career, compiling a 2.99 ERA in three seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates before posting a 3.10 ERA with the Yankees in 2015. Despite being a southpaw, left-handed hitters have a career .235 batting average versus Wilson, as opposed to a .209 BAA from righties. This makes him more valuable in late-inning situations.

Wilson is under contract for another three seasons, as he just entered his first year of arbitration in the offseason.

Let's not forget that Detroit has in-house options. In addition to Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy, they have Drew VerHagen as a stretch reliever — a sixth starter, if you will.

VerHagen was one of many Tigers who auditioned with the team down the stretch. He came up through the organization primarily as a starter, but a series of injuries set him back. VerHagen found himself in the bullpen for 2015 in an effort to rebound. He compiled a respectable a 3.41 ERA in 20 minor league games before making 20 appearances with the Tigers, registering an impressive 2.05 ERA.

If there is one thing the 25-year-old can work on, it's cutting down his walks. It's a small sample, but VerHagen walked more batters (14) than he struck out (13) in those 20 games with Detroit.

There's plenty to be excited about for the Tigers in 2016. The big-picture question is: "Can Detroit return to the form of their four-year AL Central championship run?"

The wholesale changes in the bullpen will be pivotal in that turnaround.

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