In the end, bullpen could decide Tigers’ fate

Brad Ausmus relieves relief pitcher Evan Reed in the seventh inning of Detroit's 6-4 loss to the White Sox on April 23.

Rick Osentoski

The Tigers can beat opposing teams in a lot of ways, considering they have one of baseball’s best starting rotations and an offense that now features speed and power.

All of that, however, could come crashing down if they don’t fix the bullpen.

When the Tigers do get a chance to play — which doesn’t happen very often due to bad weather and an odd number of early-season off days — they’ve struggled to protect late-inning leads and seen small deficits turn into large ones as soon as Brad Ausmus has gone to the pen.

Through 21 games, Detroit’s starters have posted a 3.07 ERA, but the relievers have put up a frightful 5.65. The rotation is holding opposing hitters to a lower batting average (.242 to .272) and a much lower slugging percentage (.391 to .467), despite working the lion’s share of the innings.

If one or two relievers were struggling, it would be a simple issue for Dave Dombrowski to fix. Decent middle relievers aren’t the toughest thing to find in baseball. Unfortunately for Detroit’s front office, the problem goes much deeper.

It’s only April 28 and the Tigers have already used 10 relief pitchers. Drew Smyly was the only one who looked reliable but he’s back in the rotation. Closer Joe Nathan, who never blew a save in 36 tries against the Tigers, allowed runs in three of his first four outings for the team, including two blown saves. He’s settled down since, but still posts a 5.59 ERA and has allowed at least one baserunner in eight of his last nine outings.

Tigers' Sanchez goes on DL with blister problem

Joba Chamberlain, the top early contender to be Detroit’s setup man, has an ERA of 5.40 and hasn’t posted one under 4.00 since 2011. The other choice, Al Alburquerque, has cut down his walks but lost some of the nastiness on his slider in the process. He’s striking out only 10 batters per nine innings — he had been above 12 in each of his first three seasons — and opponents are hitting .316 against him with power.

Things are a little better in middle relief, where Evan Reed and Ian Krol have put up decent numbers. But Reed has struggled in the last few days, and Krol has allowed three homers in just eight innings.

Phil Coke has been vaguely successful against lefthanded hitters, but not enough to help the team when righties are hitting .462 against him. Luke Putkonen and Jose Ortega have been lit up in short stints.

Justin Miller has been surprisingly effective as a right-handed long man and rejoined the team after Anibal Sanchez’s injury forced Smyly to move up in the rotation and unavailable at all in the bullpen.  

The obvious solution would be to look for relievers in Toledo, but that’s not exactly a deep source of material. Miller and Ortega are already in Detroit, and the Mud Hens are using 30-year-old Kevin Whelen as a closer. His entire major-league career consists of two games for the Yankees in 2011.

Other options in Toledo include three lefties who have already failed at the major-league level — Nate Robertson, Duane Below and Casey Crosby — and several pitchers with high ERAs. Robbie Ray, the centerpiece of the Doug Fister trade, has gotten off to a very good start with the Mud Hens, but his major-league future is more likely to be as a replacement for Sanchez when the Tigers need a fifth starter in early May.

The best candidate available is probably last season’s first-round draft choice, Corey Knebel. Knebel dominated last season in West Michigan, and has been almost as good this year in Double-A Erie. However, he won’t turn 23 until November, and the Tigers would have to think hard about throwing their future closer into the majors after just 39 professional innings, just eight of which have come above Low-A ball.

At the moment, the best move is probably for Dombrowski to hold tight and see which of the current relievers can pitch themselves out of early slumps. If Nathan, Chamberlain and Alburquerque are able to take care of the last three innings on a consistent basis and one or two others step up to provide competent middle relief, the problem might end up being easy to fix. 

If those top three don’t step up, Dombrowski might have to start working the phones to try to bring in some help, which will probably cost the team another valuable prospect.