Tigers reluctant to part with young arms
Promising pitching prospects have club confident about future
DETROIT -- The Tigers will head into next week's Winter Meetings looking to continue their bullpen makeover. At the same time, some important additions to Detroit's relief corps might already be in the system.
While first-year general manager Al Avila continues to make moves, he's also emphasizing the need to develop relievers from within the system. In the process, he has been quietly touting pitching prospects potentially playing a role in the Tigers bullpen in the very near future -- potentially next summer.
The Tigers acquired Francisco Rodriguez after balking at the asking prices on other closers on the trade market. Avila has emphasized more than once that he's trying to hold onto as many young pitchers as he can for depth.
"We did explore the closer market out there -- [Craig] Kimbrel, [Aroldis] Chapman, [Mark] Melancon," Avila told MLB Network's Christopher Russo on his High Heat program Tuesday afternoon. "We checked in with Tampa, Seattle. We checked in with a lot of clubs. The thing is you have to realize what you're giving up. You might not have all the players that the other club is looking for in a trade, and you may not want to give up all the players that a certain club may want in return. And we certainly faced both situations. A club would say, 'You don't have enough,' or we said, 'That's too much; if we make that trade, we're putting in jeopardy the season because we would have a lack of depth.'
"Of course, we're going to still try to add to the bullpen to make it stronger. In saying that, by keeping some of the young guys that we have that we like, we feel also in the near future, we may have a closer, maybe two, coming from our own system. And I've always said the best closers sometimes come from your own system, if you can create them. And I do believe that in not trading some of these guys away, we may be able to come up with a really, really good one at some point down the stretch if needed, not to mention moving forward in future years."
With Neftali Feliz and Al Alburquerque non-tendered, the right-handed relief mix is wide open after Rodriguez. Alex Wilson and Drew VerHagen both have a good shot, but Detroit will need at least two more right-handers -- one likely an acquisition.
The Tigers have balked at giving up Daniel Norris, the prized young pitcher from the David Price trade, or Michael Fulmer, the biggest return piece from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade. Assuming Detroit adds one more starter, Norris would go into Spring Training as the favorite for fifth starter. Fulmer, who has yet to pitch above Double-A, would be a dark horse for the rotation. He could have a better chance to crack the bullpen.
Avila has said Fulmer will get a look in relief. Manager Brad Ausmus echoed that, saying Fulmer's talent makes him at least a consideration. That doesn't make him a closer in waiting, but it makes him a potential relief answer now. After all, before Joel Zumaya overpowered hitters in 2006, he competed with Justin Verlander for a rotation spot in Spring Training.
Bruce Rondon has been the Tigers' closer of the future since 2013, but has struggled to capture the role -- first beset by injuries, then by inconsistency once he got his shot down the stretch last season. His reaction to losing the job earned him a trip home in early September, but Avila has said they expect him to report to Spring Training ready to compete for a job. If he's healthy and his mind to right, he still has a chance to claim a major role.
Beyond that, the Tigers have two closing prospects further down in the farm system. Joe Jimenez, Detroit's 12th-ranked prospect according to MLB.com, was a stellar closer at Class A West Michigan, allowing just 23 hits over 43 innings with 11 walks and 61 strikeouts, and a Futures Game participant last July. Paul Voelker is an unranked prospect who saved 18 games at three different levels, holding opponents to 40 hits over 55 1/3 innings with 20 walks and 63 strikeouts.