Sunday, August 5, 2012

Where Does Al Alburquerque Fit In?

Last year Al Alburquerque came out of nowhere to dominate in the Tigers bullpen with a 1.87 ERA and a 13.92 K/9 in a little over 43 IP.  It wasn’t all luck as he also had a 2.08 FIP and a 2.78 xFIP.  Even though he had some control issues (6.02 BB/9), Alburquerque looked like someone who could potentially be a future closer.

They key to Alburquerque’s success is his devastating slider.  He loved that pitch so much, that he threw it over 50% of the time!  There has been speculation that throwing too many sliders could lead to injuries in the future.  So when it was discovered that Alburquerque needed a screw inserted in his elbow due to a non-displaced stress fracture, one could argue that this surgery was directly related to the overuse of his slider. 

Now Alburquerque is rehabbing in AAA and it looks like a mid-August return is likely.  The thing is, the bullpen has been performing so well, that there isn’t an obvious move on who will get sent down.

Jose Valverde – 3.71 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 4.97 xFIP
Joaquin Benoit – 2.81 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 3.21 xFIP
Octavio Dotel – 3.34 ERA, 1.80 FIP, 2.40 xFIP
Phil Coke – 3.56 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 3.77 xFIP
Duane Below – 3.40 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 3.89 xFIP
Brayan Villarreal – 1.32 ERA, 2.35 FIP, 3.32 xFIP
Darin Downs – 1.86 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 2.40 xFIP

Valverde, Benoit, Dotel and Coke aren’t going anywhere. Villarreal is doing what Alburquerque did last year, coming out of nowhere to post a great ERA and strikeout rate (11.91 K/9) in 34 innings.  It could be argued that he has been the Tigers best bullpen arm this year, so it would be a shame to send him down.  Downs has put up his numbers in only 9 2/3 innings, so his inexperience could lead to his demotion, despite pitching well enough to stay. Below is the wild card; he’s been able to hold onto a ML job all year, but lately hasn’t been performing all that well (8 ER in his last 11 2/3 IP).  His overall numbers are very solid, though.  

Drew Smyly adds another variable.  If the Tigers want him on the post-season roster, he’ll have to be added to the 25-man roster before September 1st, which means someone else has to be sent down.  Smyly lost his starting rotation spot when the Tigers acquired Anibal Sanchez.  Instead of getting sent to the bullpen, the Tigers optioned him to AAA when he got healthy despite having solid overall numbers (4.42 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 3.88 xFIP) including 10 strikeouts in 6 IP in his last ML start. 

It appears that 1 or 2 pitchers might get left off the post-season roster (if the Tigers even make the playoffs) despite pitching well enough to earn a spot.  It’s a nice problem to have as they say, "you can't have enough pitching."  At least if Alburquerque can get back to what he was able to do last year and remain healthy, then losing of Valverde to free agency won’t be a huge loss.

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