In signing Joe Nathan to a two-year, $20MM deal this week, the Tigers secured the best reliever on the free agent market at only 77% of the amount I projected in mid-October. There's a significant age difference between the two relievers, but I'd rather have Nathan at two years and $20MM than Joe Smith at three years and $15.75MM. The way Nathan spoke about focusing on the Tigers from the outset of free agency, it's possible they were able to leverage his enthusiasm to get him on a relatively reasonable deal given the typical save-related inflation.
In 2013 the Tigers' bullpen ranked 12th in the AL with a 4.01 ERA. That figure counts guys like Jose Valverde and Jeremy Bonderman, however, and the situation wasn't as dire by season's end as the ERA suggests. In the postseason, the Tigers' key guys were Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, Jose Veras, Al Alburquerque, and Jose Alvarez. They lacked a good second lefty, but the core group of Benoit, Smyly, and Veras was strong in the regular season, as seen here.
The Tigers decided to move starter Doug Fister at what ESPN's Keith Law termed as "about 30 cents on the dollar" to presumably clear payroll space for Nathan (MLBTR's Jeff Todd looked at the Fister trade in depth here). That deal may have weakened the Tigers' rotation and bullpen, as the pen will lose Smyly but he probably won't be as good as Fister was in the rotation. The Tigers added a southpaw in the deal in 22-year-old Ian Krol, who has 31 innings of experience beyond the Double-A level. Lefty Phil Coke will also return to the team's bullpen after an underwhelming year.
In early November the Tigers declined Veras' $4MM club option in favor a $150K buyout, suggesting they did not value him at $3.85MM on a one-year deal. Benoit would be pricey to retain, with an outlay potentially topping Nathan's if he finds a three-year deal again.
It has been very surprising to see the Tigers take multiple cost-cutting measures. Were they not faced with this apparent restriction, they could have picked up Veras' option for the depth he provides, retained Fister, allowing Smyly to remain in the bullpen, and signed Nathan. Nathan would be replacing Benoit, a reasonable measure, and then GM Dave Dombrowski could have gone bullpen bargain shopping in January.
Keep in mind that the Tigers also saved $76MM in the Prince Fielder trade. Though we haven't seen this in recent years from the Tigers, it seems clear that most of this offseason's moves were driven by financial constraints. As surprising as that is, I can accept that no team has an unlimited amount of money to spend. But if you decide Fister is the piece you're going to move, and your bullpen needs tons of work, how do you trade him and not get back even one established, controllable reliever? As it stands, the Tigers do not have anyone reliable to slot in after Nathan, so Dombrowski will likely continue tinkering with his bullpen.