Former closer to fill in for injured Rondon to stabilize bullpen
KANSAS CITY -- Joel Hanrahan was an All-Star closer before Tommy John surgery derailed his 2013 season. This was an entirely different sort of late call from the Tigers' bullpen.
With Bruce Rondon out for the season following Tommy John surgery, others battling inconsistencies and Detroit struggling for depth behind closer Joe Nathan and setup man Joba Chamberlain, the team turned to Hanrahan, who was still on the free-agent market. The two sides agreed to a one-year contract, giving the Tigers a potentially critical addition for the summer and giving Hanrahan a chance to re-establish himself on a contending team.
The Major League deal includes a $1 million base salary with the potential for another $2 million in incentives.
"It's well worth the gamble for us," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said on a Friday afternoon conference call announcing the deal. "Joel's a well-established big league pitcher that can pitch in the back end of the game. We think he can stabilize our bullpen situation when he's able to do so."
The timetable now becomes the next issue to answer. By the time the Tigers announced the deal, Hanrahan was already at their Spring Training complex in Lakeland, Fla., having reported there Thursday to undergo a physical. He'll begin throwing to batters next week.
From there, Hanrahan will embark on essentially the equivalent of a Spring Training camp to get back to game action and ramp up his arm. Neither the Tigers nor Hanrahan put a timetable on it, but their comments made clear that a full rehab would put them on track for a June callup.
"I don't think anybody wants to say, 'You have to be back June 1,'" Hanrahan said. "If I'm ready in 30 days, that's great. If it takes 40 days, I think we're all on board."
Said Larry Reynolds, Hanrahan's agent: "I think the history of this is case by case, but optimistically, there's a timeframe of five to eight weeks from now. He has to go through a Spring Training scenario."
That would bring Hanrahan back about 13 months after elbow surgery ended his season in Boston and put his future into uncertainty. It made him a question mark for teams all offseason, but a logical option for Detroit as its relief issues emerged late in Spring Training.
Though the Tigers signed closer Joe Nathan in November, the bridge between their standout starting pitchers to Nathan hinged a lot on Rondon's healthy return and Chamberlain's rebound from the command issues that marked his final year with the Yankees. They've gotten what they wanted and more out of Chamberlain, but Rondon's surgery left a hole that has been felt the rest of the way through the bullpen order, leaving manager Brad Ausmus to mix and match in some innings to get to the eighth or ninth with a lead.
Detroit's bullpen had issues in the middle and late innings at different points in April, resulting in a 5.37 team ERA for relievers that currently ranks 29th out of 30 Major League teams.
The Tigers have avoided wearing down their bullpen arms through a combination of strong starting pitching and a sputtering schedule that has left them with just 23 games played so far this season, the lowest total in the Majors. Al Alburquerque (13) and Chamberlain (12) have both pitched in more than half of those games. The schedule picks up in the coming weeks.
The Tigers had been watching pitchers on the comeback trail before Rondon's injury, scouting Ryan Madson during a showcase workout in February, as well as Hanrahan around the same time.
"We watched Joel throw early," Dombrowski said. "We didn't think he was quite ready, and I don't think Joel thought he was ready. We've been interested in him all wintertime, but we were interested in other people, too."
Hanrahan threw again for teams a couple weeks ago. The Tigers, normally secretive about their interest in free agents, made little secret about Hanrahan, confirming that they were among the many teams that had a scout in attendance to watch him. He reportedly threw his fastball at 92-93 mph then, a number he expects to bump up closer to his mid- to upper-90s average before surgery. Hanrahan averaged 96.6 mph with his fastball last year, according to fangraphs.com.
"There's still a little ways to go," Hanrahan said. "Hopefully putting a hitter in there and getting the adrenaline going, the velocity will come up. I'm able to throw a slider again, which I haven't been able to do in a while."
Hanrahan likely fits in for seventh- and eighth-inning setup roles, along with Chamberlain. That would allow Alburquerque, lefty Ian Krol and others to slot into more specialized roles. It's not the closer's job that Hanrahan likely would've landed somewhere if not for the surgery, but it's an opportunity to handle clutch situations with playoff implications.
"I'm definitely excited to be a part of the Tigers," Hanrahan said. "At the beginning of [free agency], I had them pinpointed as a place I'd like to play. I had a good recruiter in Torii Hunter. He's a good friend of mine. We stayed in touch this offseason."
Hunter and Hanrahan share the same agent.
"We weren't really concerned about what role Joel's in," Reynolds said. "I think Joel's established he's one of the best closers in the game. So for us, it was about getting him in a winning environment. Joel wants to win.
"Secondly, we felt this organization's one of the first-class groups. Whether Joel closes or not, we're not really concerned about this year at all. It's about him going back and performing at a healthy level."
If Hanrahan can do that, Detroit will have the equivalent of a midseason acquisition and a bullpen boost. And Hanrahan will have a chance to help try to close a playoff race, even if it doesn't include closing games.