These pitchers could be targeted by Tigers in free agent market

Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour, and Fernando Rodney are free agents this off-season.

Relievers Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour, and Fernando Rodney are free agents this off-season, and could draw offers from Detroit.

With rumors swirling that the Detroit Tigers might trade Max Scherzer this off-season, rather than lose him for nothing next off-season via free agency, the focus has been shifted away from what most consider the most glaring weakness of the team: the bullpen.

Last we saw them, the Detroit bullpen was allowing a grand slam off the right arm of Jose Veras in Game Six of the American League Championship Series, on their way to a frustrating loss to the Boston Red Sox and a premature end to a season that held promise of a title and a parade in October. Considering the Tigers had their claws on the Sox necks late in Game Two, poised to take a 2-0 lead in the series, the loss in six games was both disappointing and infuriating. As exiting manager Jim Leyland said in his retirement press conference, the best team in the American League did not go to the Fall Classic.

But if the Tigers were the best team in the league in 2013 with that relieving corps, what will they be like in 2014 when they have new faces in the bullpen? Rookie manager Brad Ausmus will need to learn how to handle a pitching staff from his perch in the dugout, and just who will he rely on late in games?

Fortunately, there are many free agent options for the Tigers, if they choose to go that route. If Scherzer is jettisoned preemptively, he might be packaged for relievers, but considering the depth of the relievers on the market, it might be best to keep Mad Max for another season, or if he is traded, deal him for a second baseman, corner outfielder, or pitching prospects.

Here are the top relievers available via free agency this winter, and their chances of ending up in Detroit.

Joe Smith
The Tigs really need a guy who can get them to their closer, a role Joaquin Benoit filled nicely until he was asked to be the closer in ’13. Smith is one of the best at getting three outs to bridge to the 8th or 9th innings. While many relievers are up and down, Smith has been as steady as granddad driving the turnpike – 55 MPH exit after exit after exit. Smith has a 2.42 ERA in his last three seasons with the Indians. This is a no-brainer move for the Tigers, and it not only strengthens their team, but weakens their closest rival in the AL Central.

Chances at being a Tiger: 90%

Joe Nathan
It could be two new Joe’s in the Detroit pen in 2014. Tiger fans know Nathan well – he terrorized Detroit as the closer for the Minnesota Twins for years. The veteran, who is now fully healthy after having Tommy John surgery, has one of the best sinkers in the game. He had a great year in 2013 for the Texas Rangers. He could fill in as the closer until young Bruce Rondon is ready to take over in that role. Detroit will have to outbid a few other suitors for Nathan, but in the end, it’s likely that Mike Ilitch will pony up for his services.

Chances at being a Tiger: 75%

J.P. Howell
There aren’t a lot of quality lefties available out there, but Howell is one of the few. The southpaw posted a 2.03 ERA in 67 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. Phil Coke has probably ran his course as option #1 in Detroit, so Howell would fit nicely in Ausmus’s pen. If Detroit could get him and Smith, they would immediately make the backend of their pen dominant. It’s possible the Tigers could sign Smith, Howell, and Nathan, but unlikely. They might get 2 of the 3, then use Rondon to close, or get Nathan and one of the setup guys, rely on Rondon to set up in the interim, and move Drew Smyly back to the rotation (if Scherzer of Porcello are dealt).

Chances at being a Tiger: 85%

Fernando Rodney
Could we see our old friend Mr. Rodney back in the Old English D? It’s possible. The right-handed closer who loves archery, is a free agent after a few good seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. But, Rodney struggled during stretches in 2013, and I don’t think it’s likely the Tigers will gove him the money he will want to come back to Motown. Don’t plan on seeing his crooked cap any time soon in Detroit.

Chances at being a Tiger: 15%

Grant Balfour
Public enemy #1 for the Tigers during the 2013 ALDS, Balfour is on the market. Could he and nemesis Victor Martinez be teammates? Not likely, but if the other top relievers sign elsewhere, Detroit could look at him. The Aussie with an attitude has good stuff and a proven track record as a closer.

Chances at being a Tiger: 10%

Javier Lopez
If this lefty is signed, you can say goodbye to Coke. Unlike Howell, Lopez is a LOOGY (Lefty Only One Guy) who will come in to get you one out. He’s very good at it, having posted an ERA below 2.10 against left-handed hitters over the last six seasons. He’s already been connected to the Tigers by many sources this off-season, and it seems it’s inevitable that Detroit will get him in the free agent season.

Chances at being a Tiger: 96%

Brian Wilson
He’s a few years removed from his dominant seasons as the closer for the San Francisco Giants, but the Bearded One might still be an option. Closers can ebb and flow, rise and fall. The Tigers could sign him on the cheap, and look at him as a placeholder until Rondon is ready, or even utilize him as a setup man. I think he would be a very affordable option who could be handy in the postseason, but put it at 50/50 that Dave Dombrowski would pursue him.

Chances at being a Tiger: 50%

Chris Perez
Wouldn’t Miguel Cabrera love to have this guy as a teammate just to hit off him in batting practice? The Tigers favorite bullpen whipping boy (they beat him in dramatic walkoff fashion on the same date two years in a row while he was with Cleveland), Perez has too much baggage (bad attitude and marijuana charges) to be welcomed into the buttoned down environment of their Detroit clubhouse.

Chances at being a Tiger: 1%

Jose Valverde
Could Papa Grande return? We’ve learned to never say never when it comes to this hot dog. It’s not likely, but given that he will probably get very little attention on the open market, it’s possible the Tigers could offer him another minor league deal as an insurance policy. Don’t bank on it, though.

Chances at being a Tiger: 5%

Bruce Chen
He’s a starting pitcher, but in 2013 he pitched half of the season out of the bullpen for the Royals. Chen, who’s 30 but has already pitched for 10 teams, is a southpaw who might make better sense out of the bullpen than in the rotation. The Tigers could sign him and use him either way, depending on what they plan to do with Drew Smyly, who could give Detroit a solid lefty arm in the rotation too. I don’t think Dombrowski would be this unconventional, but Chen would be an interesting signing.

Chances at being a Tiger: 5%

Edward Mujica
Had Mujica done his job better down the stretch for the St. Louis Cardinals, we never would have heard of Trevor Rosenthal in the postseason. Mujica saved 37 games for the Redbirds this past season, but in September he had an 11.05 ERA and allowed 18 hits in less than 8 innings and lost his closer job. But for much of the season, the right-hander from Venezuala had an ERA under 2.00 for the Cardinals. He walked only 5 batters in 64 2/3 innings, but it’s possible this was a fluke season – he’s been with four teams in 8 years and had only record four saves prior to 2013. Still, he has closer experience and will be pretty cheap. If the Tigers are outbid for Nathan, they might turn to Mujica.

Chances at being a Tiger: 45%

LaTroy Hawkins
This veteran started pitching in the big leagues during Bill Clinton’s first administration. The tall righty has mostly been a setup man in his 19-year career, which has seen him wear the caps of 10 teams. He throws strikes, keeps the ball in the park, and he stays healthy. The 40-year old could get an offer from the Tigers.

Chances at being a Tiger: 20%

Octavio Dotel
A cheaper, more familiar option for Dombrowski and the Tigers would be to resign Dotel, who missed almost all of 2013 with shoulder problems. Dotel is a dependable workhorse when healthy, but no one is sure if he has anything left in his 40-year old tank.

Chances at being a Tiger: 9%

Joaquin Benoit
The Tigers got their money’s worth from Benoit over the course of his three-year deal, but now the veteran righty will probably garner a bigger paycheck from some other team. He handled the closer role pretty well when asked to take over in 2013, but unfortunately for him (and Tiger fans), the grand slam to Big Papi will be what he’s most most remembered for in Motown. It’s very unlikely the Tigers will pay Benoit what he’ll demand on the open market, and they seem to want to move on.

Chances at being a Tiger: 10%

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.