DETROIT -- The Tigers have plenty of star players who could hold the key to their trip to the World Series, from Magglio Ordonez to Miguel Cabrera; Justin Verlander to Todd Jones. The one name that rarely seems to come up is Francisco Cruceta.
He's the most prominent free agent the Tigers brought in this offseason, though he's the only free agent brought in this offseason. Amid the questions about how the Tigers will replace Joel Zumaya, who will miss at least half the season following shoulder surgery and is an unknown quantity when he comes back, club officials believe Cruceta could be part of the answer.
Cruceta has pitched just 14 1/3 big league innings in his career, none of them since 2006. If his progression goes as hoped, he could pitch plenty this year.
"We like him a lot," Dombrowski said during the Winter Caravan. "People don't know him, but he's a guy who's been a quality prospect for a number of years."
Dombrowski doesn't buy into the notion that Detroit's bullpen is a major question mark. The scrutiny, he counters, comes from the fact that the other parts of the team are so strong, especially the offense. The relief staff isn't stacked like the lineup, nor does it have as many established arms as the rotation, but Dombrowski believes it has outs.
"When you look at our club, if you're going to point to an area, it's going to be relief," Dombrowski said, "because when you look at our everyday lineup, it's pretty hard to look at a specific hole. It's also hard, if our starting pitching is healthy, to point to a hole there. So you're going to continually talk about the bullpen."
The main cogs at the back end of the bullpen haven't changed from last year, but Zumaya's loss changes roles a bit. For all the anxiousness that seems to follow Jones with each ninth inning in Detroit, he has converted 75 saves in 87 chances over the last two seasons, which is why the Tigers wanted him back once his brief flirtation with free agency ended. Only Francisco Rodriguez and Bobby Jenks have more saves with fewer blown opportunities over that stretch.
Of more encouragement for Detroit was Jones' second half. His ERA fell from 5.82 heading into the All-Star break to 1.82 afterward. Opponents' batting average fell from .302 to .243, OPS from .795 to .571, and he allowed one home run over 30 second-half innings. The statistical difference stemmed in part from no disastrous outings like June 1 at Cleveland, where manager Jim Leyland paid dearly for breaking his own rule and using Jones in the eighth inning of a save situation.
Before last season ended, the Tigers had approached Jones about re-signing in Detroit with the idea of easing Zumaya into some save opportunities. That's not a consideration anytime soon, and Jones returns as the unquestioned closer. It's the roles behind him where the ripple effect of Zumaya's loss really begins.
Instead of splitting setup duties, Fernando Rodney enters the season as the lone option. It's a situation in which he struggled early when Zumaya was on the disabled list last season, but like Jones, his stats after coming off the DL in August -- 2.82 ERA, .533 OPS allowed, 29 strikeouts over 22 1/3 innings -- provided encouragement down the stretch.
If Zumaya were healthy, Leyland could stack him with Rodney in the seventh and eighth innings. But when an accident at home left Zumaya's labrum needing surgery, the Tigers had to scramble to fill a role. They had talks regarding bigger-name free agents LaTroy Hawkins and Octavio Dotel, but a recommendation from veteran scout and special assistant Dick Egan helped convince the Tigers to take a look at Cruceta.
Egan, who had seen Cruceta in previous years, went on assignment in the Dominican Republic to look at the 26-year-old right-hander in winter ball. What Egan saw was a pitcher with good stuff who finally appeared ready to take the next step in his career.
"He thinks Cruceta's ready to pitch in the seventh or eighth inning at the Major League level," Dombrowski said. "He's a mid-90s guy with a good split and a breaking ball that's improved and better command."
How good was Cruceta this winter? After holding opponents to a .193 batting average with a 1.14 ERA and striking out 31 batters over 23 2/3 innings for the Gigantes del Cibao, the Dominican League champion Aguilas Cibaenas added him for the Caribbean Series to a bullpen that boasts big leaguers Julian Tavarez, Leo Nunez, Joel Peralta and fellow Tigers signing Denny Bautista. He pitched two scoreless innings Sunday with a fastball that topped out around 94 mph.
If Cruceta doesn't pan out, the Tigers could end up turning to another gifted arm with a disappointing history in Bautista. With a high-90s fastball and good movement on his secondary pitches, his stuff earned Dombrowski's description as a "blue-blue chip arm." However, he has yet to translate that into consistent results on the field.
With Detroit's left-handed duo of Bobby Seay and Tim Byrdak seemingly secure, the rest of the bullpen could provide the only roster fight of Spring Training, with at least three pitchers fighting for two spots. Jason Grilli and Zach Miner have been important parts of the roster for the last two years, and either could end up stepping into more late-inning work if Detroit's starters work deeper into games as hoped. Yorman Bazardo could work his way into one of those spots; he's out of options and made an impression with his solid work in the Triple-A Toledo rotation last year.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less