Tigers' long-relief corps to sport new look in '11

Tigers' long-relief corps to sport new look in '11

Tigers' long-relief corps to sport new look in '11
DETROIT -- Zach Miner and Eddie Bonine did a little bit of everything on the Tigers' pitching staffs the past few years. Now that they won't be doing anything in Detroit, the club has a little bit of bullpen adjustment to do.

In all fairness, the Tigers felt like they could move on without Miner or Bonine, or else they wouldn't have taken them off the 40-man roster in the first place to make room for other players. Still, they had a good level of interest in re-signing both of them to Minor League contracts and bringing them back on Minor League deals before they signed elsewhere.

It wasn't simply a courtesy. In Miner, the Tigers had a right-hander who could serve as a spot starter -- he made 18 starts in 2008 and '09, even after manager Jim Leyland said the club saw Miner more as a reliever long-term -- as well as a long reliever or a situational arm. At his best, he could bridge a long gap from a starter's early exit to the back end of the bullpen, and he could come in for a batter when Leyland needed a ground-ball out in a jam. When he struggled, his nibbling around the strike zone made him a poster child for Leyland's complaints about too many walks from his staff.

When the Tigers lost Miner last year to an elbow injury that eventually led to Tommy John surgery, they turned to Bonine and his fluttering knuckleball to fill the void. Bonine made only one start last year, and not a particuarly long one at that, but he salvaged some disastrous outings from starters to take leads into the later innings. At his best, his knuckler was an efficient pitch that he could use it to induce early swings and quick outs. At his worst, his command woes left hitters sitting on one pitch and pounding it.

Bonine signed with the Phillies in November after the Tigers set him loose as a Minor League free agent. Detroit made a last-minute effort to re-sign him, but couldn't top the salary Philadelphia offered should he make the 25-man roster. Miner agreed to a Minor League contract with the Royals last week, then said Kansas City and Detroit were the two clubs pursuing him aggressively.

Even if Miner had re-signed, the Tigers were already putting together their bullpen without him, given the strong possibility that he'll miss the start of the season to fully rehab from surgery. His jump to the Royals makes that a permanent adjustment in Detroit. It could involve more than one reliever, but the Tigers believe they have the talent to move on.

"We feel we have some very good arms in our organization," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Monday afternoon.

One big advantage Dombrowski pointed out is their late-inning relief depth. With closer Jose Valverde, eighth-inning reliever Joaquin Benoit and setup men Joel Zumaya and Ryan Perry, the Tigers potentially won't have to do nearly as much mixing and matching as they have in past years.

Both Zumaya and Perry, Dombrowski mentioned, are capable or pitching one or two innings an outing. On days when Benoit has the eighth inning, it means Zumaya or Perry could enter in the sixth when needed and carry through the seventh. Zumaya retired four or more batters in 14 of his 31 outings last year, including 14 of his first 20 before being shifted to eighth-inning duties in June. That role came partially from the Tigers' belief that longer outings would stretch out and strengthen Zumaya's arm coming off shoulder surgery, but there was also a fit for him there in the relief puzzle.

Perry averaged just over an inning per outing last year, but he induced four or more outs in 13 of his final 30 outings after the All-Star break, including three outings of at least two innings over the season's closing month. The key for him in that regard is his efficiency, attacking hitters for outs on contact rather than looking for swings and misses.

The Tigers kept left-hander Brad Thomas on their roster for long relief and spot starts after he filled the swingman role for much of last year. At this point, he would seem more likely to stick in that role than be shortened for a lefty specialist's job.

If any one reliever stands to benefit most from the departure of Miner and Bonine, it could be second-year sinkerballer Robbie Weinhardt. He isn't necessarily a long reliever, though he had a trio of two-inning performances to his credit last year. His strength, though, is in the ground-ball out.

Though Weinhardt allowed a .380 average on balls put in play in his Major League audition last year, he induced six double plays over just 29 1/3 innings and 135 plate appearances, and his ratio of groundouts to popouts hit 1.71. There's a value for that with Leyland, who has talked in the past about liking a reliever who can get a big ground-ball out with runners on base and the sacrifice fly in play.

One possibility that looks remote right now is a converted starter fillng a long-relief role. Dombrowski said Monday the Tigers most likely won't shift any of their young starters into bullpen spots.

"We feel our five guys are pretty well set," Dombrowski said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.