This won’t quite be the same sort of recap. More an editorial recap, really. The Tigers lost game one this afternoon 6-2 and game two 5-2. Drew VerHagen was decent in the first game, and Max Scherzer struggled through six innings in the second, but both gave the team a chance to win. The offense was poor – the Tigers’ biggest hitters were silent in both games – but they were both were winnable until the bullpen came in.
In game one, it was Blaine Hardy, Phil Coke, and Corey Knebel – the mopup guys – who turned a 3-1 game into a clear loss. In game two, it was Joe Nathan – the $20 million investment who was meant to solidify the back end of the bullpen this season – who came into a tie game in the ninth and turned it into a three run loss.
The Tigers have a bullpen problem. This is a World Series caliber roster that is suddenly hanging on for dear life whenever every reliever not named Joba Chamberlain comes in from the ‘pen. Nathan’s renaissance was short-lived and he’s back to looking like a 39-year-old who cannot get it done anymore. Al Alburquerque can get big outs when he’s right, but he’s wildly inconsistent (see his performance last night) and is in danger of being overused. Ian Krol and Phil Coke both cannot be trusted to face right hand batters. Everyone else with the exception of Chamberlain should see nothing but mopup duty. Joba is the only really reliable reliever the Tigers have right now, and he, too, is in danger of falling into overuse.
I wrote plenty about the bullpen during the offseason as it was always bound to be an issue this year, though as that piece illustrates, I expected Nathan to be okay and Chamberlain to struggle (I’ll gladly admit to being completely wrong about the Joba signing, and Dave Dombrowski, his front office staff, and his scouts deserve credit for nailing that one). I do not post this as an exercise in “I told you so!” but rather to affirm that most observers harbored concerns about the bullpen even before Bruce Rondon went down with Tommy John surgery in spring. Dombrowski was unquestionably counting on having a healthy Rondon when constructing this year’s bullpen, which, as I said in December, was a huge risk – even if you don’t factor in the elbow problems that vitally ruled him out of the postseason last year, he’s a 23 year old with great stuff who’s still more of a thrower and is still learning how to harness what he has. When he needed Tommy John, the Tigers didn’t really have adequate cover. Just imagine how bad things could be if the Chamberlain signing hadn’t proven to be a stroke of genius.
Dombrowski has always preferred big-money back-end signings when he puts together the group of guys that are going to get him the last six to nine outs. Guys like Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, and Octavio Dotel all came in as free agents. The Tigers haven’t really produced any of their own relievers – despite drafting a ton of them – and they haven’t really had any failed starters stick as relievers, either, as most of them either get traded or never make it to the majors a la Casey Crosby. So it was no surprise to see Dombrowski go for the “proven commodity” in Nathan and hope for the best in the 6th and the 7th
In fairness to Dombrowski, he made an effort to work on the bullpen this year – Nathan, Chamberlain, and Krol were all newcomers who were expected to make big contributions. The problem is these three weren’t upgrades – they were simply replacements, and only Chamberlain has outpitched the guy he replaced (Jose Veras, essentially). Krol hasn’t been as good as Drew Smyly was last year (and the original hope that Krol could also get righties out appears to have burned out, as they’ve consistently obliterated him), and Nathan hasn’t even held a candle to Benoit’s contributions. These all looked like lateral moves at best. The 2013 bullpen got plenty of skepticism and questions, and Dombrowski responded by essentially taping over the leaks and hoping the ship held up.
The ship hasn’t held up and – with the caveat that Rondon was expected to be involved – Dombrowski’s failure to make any meaningful bullpen upgrades in the winter has left the Tigers in a very bad spot in the here and now. The easy solution is to remove Nathan from the closer’s role. It’s been over three months now and every good stretch is followed by an even longer bad stretch. He simply cannot be relied upon to close out games. The narrative about how he’s a proven closer making $20 million is irrelevant. It’s a sunk cost at this point. Nathan was one of the best closers in baseball for a very long time, but him being really good eight years ago doesn’t help the Tigers right now, and they should stop stroking egos and assigning roles based on reputation and salary and start considering what actually helps the team win.
Problem is, this is easier said than done. The obvious answer is to let Chamberlain handle the ninth inning, and I suspect he’d do fine with it. But this move leaves you with a big, gaping hole in the eighth. Brad Ausmus himself said tonight that he’s not sure how he’d get the ball to the ninth if Chamberlain started closing, and he honestly has a point. You could put Nathan there, but there’s no reason to believe he’d be any better in a setup role. You could go with Alburquerque, but he’ll still be prone to bouts of wildness and/or hanging sliders. Chamberlain may solidify the ninth, but that would expose the bigger problem: the Tigers lack bullpen depth. They simply do not have enough trustworthy relief options right now.
It thus appears likely that, for the second consecutive season, the Tigers are going to have to make a rather avoidable midseason trade for a reliever. Last year they gave up teenaged outfield prospect Danry Vasquez to get Jose Veras. They’ll almost certainly have to give up more this season. Reports say the Tigers don’t actually want one of those Proven Closers via trade – which would seem to rule out the likes of Jonathan Papelbon – because they remain committed to Nathan, which is a mistake. The Tigers don’t need a Proven Closer, but they do need someone who can pick up Nathan’s high leverage innings (reported targets Joakim Soria and Benoit would both fit the bill). Even if they don’t trade for a Proven Closer, though, the price tag will be steep. Last night, the Angels parted with three of their top prospects for a season and a half of Huston Street, another one of those veteran Proven Closers who is highly valued because he’s collected plenty of saves. It’s hard to imagine, say, Texas’s Jon Daniels trying to capitalize on Detroit’s interest in Soria – and the dearth of top relievers available in a trade – by trying to pry away Devon Travis and Jake Thompson, at the very least. The Padres might want even more for Benoit now that they’ve moved Street. And the advent of the second wildcard means that fewer teams are selling and more teams are buying – and teams are always looking for relief help. If the Tigers want someone like Soria, they’re probably not going to be alone, and they’re going to have to pay up if they want to entice the Rangers. Hindsight is 20/20, but you have to wonder if Dombrowski wishes he could go back and just pay Benoit to stick around last winter – it would certainly make things easier right now.
The Tigers are far from a lost cause. Smyly will probably be back in the bullpen come October (assuming, of course, the Tigers get there) and one would also think that Brad Ausmus will lean more heavily on his best relievers, as most managers do in the playoffs. A new arm could join Chamberlain, Smyly, and perhaps Alburquerque and effectively combine to get the last six to nine outs of a playoff game (and let’s be honest, if Tigers starters aren’t getting into the seventh in the postseason, they’re going to have some issues no matter what). You’ll also probably see a few more four and five out saves. If the Tigers could get a back-end quality guy like Soria and another depth guy like Jason Frasor, who was just dealt to Kansas City, they might be able to scrape by in the postseason. (There’s also Joel Hanrahan, but I have less hope of him contributing with every passing day.) That said, as the Street trade illustrates, these relievers aren’t going to come cheap. Dombrowski can have nobody to blame but himself – he’s excellent at so many things when it comes to putting a roster together, but he’s always had a hard time finding reliable relief help. Relievers are fickle, but he hasn’t hit on many reclamation projects and he hasn’t really prepared for the eventuality that someone will get hurt or struggle. Though few expected things to get quite this messy, many could tell the Tigers’ bullpen was shaky – and now Dombrowski will have to part with some pretty solid prospects to improve it, or risk another bitter postseason exit and another lost year of contributions from his talented core of players.