For any team in need of a setup reliever or closer, Joel Hanrahan was pretty much the only option left available. (Especially in early May, when the trade market hasn’t yet developed.)
Not surprisingly, nearly 20 teams sent scouts to watch Hanrahan throw a couple of weeks ago in Tampa, gauging whether or not the former All-Star closer could provide some late-inning bullpen help one year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Hanrahan hit 93 mph with his fastball, which meant he would be in demand among playoff contenders. Sure enough, five teams — the Red Sox, Rangers, Tigers, Yankees and Rockies — emerged as potential suitors.
The suspense didn’t last very long, as the Tigers won the Hanrahan sweepstakes, inking the 32-year-old right-hander to a $1 million contract, with incentives that could push its value up to $3 million. Naturally, Hanrahan stands to earn an even more lucrative deal as a free agent after the season if he pitches well for Detroit.
Perhaps no team — especially among those with postseason ambitions — needed Hanrahan’s help more than the Tigers. As of May 3, Detroit’s 5.23 bullpen ERA ranks 29th out of 30 MLB clubs. Only the Astros have a worse collective mark. Opposing batters are hitting .260 against Tigers relievers with a .766 OPS, both among the bottom five in baseball.
The easy thing to say would be that Hanrahan could improve those numbers even with a recovering arm. Detroit could use Hanrahan right now, but the reliever hasn’t even had a spring training. Figure in the standard six weeks that major league pitchers typically need to prepare for a season, along with whatever additional time Hanrahan might need to rehab, and the Tigers might not have their new bullpen weapon until June.
How much help can Hanrahan really offer the Tigers bullpen when he’s available to pitch? If healthy and effective, he figures to become Detroit’s top setup reliever behind Joe Nathan. For all the attention the Tigers’ shortstop situation has received in light of Jose Iglesias’ stress fractures in both shins, the most devastating injury Detroit sustained during spring training was losing reliever Bruce Rondon to Tommy John surgery.
There’s no guarantee that Rondon would’ve been any more or less successful than anyone in Detroit’s current relief corps. But with a fastball that averaged 99 mph and occasionally reached 102 mph, along with a hard slider and change-up, the Tigers certainly liked his chances of pitching well in the eighth or ninth inning.
In Rondon’s absence, Joba Chamberlain has been the primary setup man in Detroit. Yet while he’s been relatively effective in that role, Chamberlain has been more hittable than the Tigers would like. The former Yankee is averaging 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings, racking up 14 Ks in 10.1 innings. More importantly, he’s issued only three walks. However, Chamberlain has also allowed 12 hits, averaging out to 10.5 per nine frames. Maybe that’s a consequence of trying to throw more strikes, in addition to slightly lessened velocity.
Someone else the Tigers would’ve loved to see fill a setup role is Al Alburquerque, who’s averaged nearly 13 strikeouts per nine innings during his four seasons in Detroit. But Alburquerque’s heavy reliance on his slider can make him a liability in terms of control. While he can strike out the side in a particular inning, he could also walk the bases loaded and pour gasoline on an already incendiary situation. That’s not really what any team prefers when trying to protect a late-inning lead. Curiously, Alburquerque has thrown that slider almost exclusively this season, seemingly reluctant to throw a fastball.
Now, Hanrahan will likely be expected to fill that eighth-inning setup role for the Tigers. That allows Chamberlain to be pushed back to the seventh inning, and gives manager Brad Ausmus more options to choose from in the middle innings based on matchups. The question is whether or not he can regain his pre-Tommy John surgery form, but throwing 93 mph in his showcase for scouts is certainly encouraging.
At his best, Hanrahan averaged 95 to 97 mph while working with a fastball-slider combination. The hope would seem to be that he throws harder than Chamberlain, who features a similar arsenal. One concern in his final year with the Pirates, before he was traded to the Red Sox, is that his walks per nine innings had increased, but perhaps that was a consequence of the elbow problems that eventually led to reconstructive surgery.
Another area that Hanrahan could really help with is his effectiveness against left-handed hitting. The Tigers almost certainly didn’t sign Hanrahan to be any kind of lefty specialist, but if he gets left-handers out in later innings, that might compel Ausmus to use him in situations other than strictly the eighth inning. Ian Krol will likely fill that specialist role, considering that lefties are batting .111 against him while righties are hitting .294 with a 1.000 OPS.
But no one else in the Tigers bullpen is terribly effective against left-handed hitting. Lefties have a .718 OPS versus both Chamberlain and Evan Reed. They’re batting .274 with a .746 OPS against Alburquerque. Joe Nathan allows a .300 average and .848 OPS facing lefties. And against left-handed Phil Coke, lefty batters have a .794 OPS. (Coke is even worse versus right-handers, allowing a .462 average and 1.303 OPS, which makes him the top candidate to be removed from the roster when Hanrahan is ready.)
During his career, lefties are batting .220 versus Hanrahan with a .688 OPS. In 2012, he held left-handers to a .135 average and .525 OPS. Even last year, when Hanrahan was getting knocked around before going out for the season, lefties batted .235 against him — though he did allow a .762 OPS.
Hanrahan is simply a better pitcher than anyone else the Tigers have in their bullpen right now. (That might include Nathan.) So it stands to reason that he’d be an improvement versus lefties as well. This is a signing that should benefit both sides equally. Detroit gets the late-inning reliever it so desperately needs, while Hanrahan gets the chance to pitch for a contender and improve his value before entering free agency this winter. The Tigers could turn out to be extremely lucky that Hanrahan was available for them.