DETROIT (AP) — It would be an understatement to say Joe Nathan’s first season with the Detroit Tigers was a rocky one.
Nathan blew seven saves, allowed his most walks in over a decade and tested the patience of fans at Comerica Park throughout 2014.
"It was a roller coaster," Nathan said. "I think my downs were early, my ups were later, which, if I was going to choose a way to have it, that would be the better way to do it."
The 40-year-old Nathan remains at the forefront of Detroit’s bullpen after posting a 4.81 ERA last year. In fact, the Tigers still have several of the same pitchers who were part of the team’s beleaguered relief corps in 2014. Instead of throwing significant money at the problem, Detroit is simply hoping for better health and better performances from its relievers when the coming season starts.
The Tigers’ bullpen had been a trouble spot at times in 2013, so they signed Nathan to a $10 million, two-year contract before last season. Although he saved 35 games, his numbers were mediocre. In 58 innings, he walked 29 hitters, his most since 2003, before he became a full-time closer.
Nathan occasionally showed signs of finding a groove, but even after the All-Star break, his ERA was 3.70 — not exactly dominant. Manager Brad Ausmus stuck with him, even as fans grew increasingly frustrated. After one game, Nathan flicked his chin at the Comerica Park crowd, a gesture he later apologized profusely for.
There were some positive moments amid all of his struggles — an occasional "Let’s Go Joe!" chant from the home crowd, for example. In the division-clinching victory over Minnesota on the final day of the regular season, Nathan earned his 376th career save. The Tigers won their fourth straight AL Central title, although they were swept in the AL Division Series by Baltimore.
Now Nathan returns, and it’s obvious that he could use a good start to this season.
"I learned a ton about myself as a human being. I think I’ll be better for that, I’ll be stronger for that," he said. "I’ll be able to deal with tougher situations."
Nathan wasn’t the only shaky Detroit reliever in 2014. Joakim Soria, acquired by trade in the middle of the season, missed time with an injury almost immediately after the Tigers acquired him, and he took the loss in Game 2 of that playoff series. Joba Chamberlain struggled in the playoffs too, and he is a free agent now. So is left-hander Phil Coke.
Soria struck out 48 with only six walks for Detroit and Texas last year, so the Tigers have reason to believe he can become the steady right-hander they thought they were acquiring.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the bullpen is right-hander Bruce Rondon, who missed all of last season with a torn ligament in his right elbow. At age 24, the hard-throwing Rondon could be just what the Tigers need.
"I think Rondon’s the biggest factor," Nathan said. "They didn’t really need to panic and go out and do a whole lot, because you’re going to have an arm like that in the pen."
Ausmus, who seemed to resist any major shakeups in bullpen roles last season, said he may need to bring Rondon along slowly at first.
"I do think you have to be a little bit cautious," he said. "What is he, 10-and-a-half months from Tommy John surgery?"
Detroit also would love to see Joel Hanrahan re-emerge as a top late-inning option. The Tigers signed him to a minor league deal, but he had Tommy John surgery in May 2013 and hasn’t pitched in the majors since.
Detroit acquired right-hander Josh Zeid off waivers, and right-hander Alex Wilson came over in a trade from Boston, but those moves didn’t turn too many heads around Motown. What the Tigers are really hoping for this year are different results from the some of the same relievers.
A new-look bullpen in terms of performance, at least.
"They didn’t make a whole lot of moves, but the whole pen is going to look pretty different," Nathan said. "It’s going to have a different look, so they didn’t really have to go out on the market and do too much to switch this pen up."