Obviously there has been a lot of buzz lately surrounding the Detroit Tigers closer situation and the likelihood that the Tigers will make a deal soon for a top-tier closer to help propel the team deep into the playoffs. I will argue that this is not quite the Tigers real bullpen issue and not the best strategy for the team to follow.
If you can remember all the way back to the beginning of April, we were a bit concerned about the Tigers closer situation but not at all concerned with the depth and quality of the bullpen as a whole. Despite watching 3 closers flop, I think that this has reversed: we should now be more concerned about the Tigers bullpen depth and less concerned about who will close and whether they can do so effectively. The new closer, most days, will be Joaquin Benoit – the Tigers most effective reliever to this point – unless the Tigers find a preferable option on the open market. Non-Benoits are 12-9 for the Tigers in save situations. Benoit is 4-0 so far. He’ll do fine.
But… Since the beginning of the season we have seen Bruce Rondon be sent down to Toledo, with apparently no chance of a recall unless the Tigers are ready to hand him the 9th. We have seen Al Alburquerque lose the ability to throw strikes completely – or if not “completely” then potentially past the tipping point where a major league pitcher can no longer be “effectively wild”. Brayan Villarreal was quickly sent down to Toledo, and while there has shown nothing like the kind of command and consistency that would be required to get him called back up. Phil Coke has been knocked around consistently, en route to a 6.04 ERA. While his peripherals are far better than his ERA, you’ve probably noticed that this has been a recurring theme for Phil Coke over his major league career. Maybe, just maybe, the guy is just unusually “hittable”. Octavio Dotel is hurt and things don’t seem to be progressing well, there’s a significant chance that his season is over and maybe his career as well. Rondon, Villarreal and Dotel don’t look like good bets to see significant action for the Tigers this year. Alburquerque and Coke are both on the 25, and getting put in games, but the way they have pitched has had us wincing. That’s most of that “depth” we were so confident in.
Now, the Tigers have two solid relievers that we trust in close games: Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit. Though Darin Downs hasn’t looked great lately, he has certainly looked like a better lefty than Phil Coke. For the rest, we have a rotating cast of guys from Toledo that might actually have what it takes to be important bullpen pieces in the future: what we would have said about Downs last year. There’s definitely something to be said for putting guys like Luke Putkonen, Evan Reed, Jose Ortega and others out there just to see what they can do – the Tigers might need them in 2014 and 2015. But… that’s dangerous for a team in a pennant race to try. In my opinion, the Tigers need to replace what they have lost in Octavio Dotel and Brayan Villarreal (at least for 2013) and maybe Phil Coke as well. Make no mistake, the Tigers bullpen is a liability and it has been costing the Tigers games. It might not be enough to cost the Tigers the division as things stand now, but it’ll be enough to make it close and enough to make the Tigers a distinct underdog in the playoffs unless some things break strongly Detroit’s way. The Tigers, at 41-32, are 9 games over .500. Their bullpen, at 5-13, is 8 games under .500. While it could be true, at least in theory, that it’s easier for a reliever to get credit for a loss than a win, across the major leagues bullpens have more wins than losses this year. The Tigers ‘pen is the outlier and as a result the team is 2-7 in extra innings and 8-11 in 1-run games and as a result of that the Tigers have underperformed their “pythagorean record” by a full four wins.
What I suggest is that the Tigers follow the deadline strategy that the Texas Rangers did, en route to the World Series, in 2011. Despite a decent bullpen, the Rangers dealt for Koji Uehara and Mike Adams at the non-waiver deadline and for Mike Gonzalez at the waiver deadline to fill out a postseason bullpen that was hard to top. The Rangers didn’t need a new relief ace, not really. Their 2 most-used relievers (Darren Oliver and Neftali Feliz) had ERAs under 3. What they needed were replacements for their rotating cast of ineffective middle inning options, like Dave Bush, Michael Kirkman, Darren O’Day and Arthur Rhodes. This, I would argue, is pretty similar to the situation that the Tigers find themselves in today. Acquiring one elite or near elite reliever, so that Benoit can pitch the 8th instead of closing, etc… is probably going to be more expensive (in terms of prospects and dollars) than acquiring the equivalent of Adams, Uehara and Gonzalez to help be the bridge to Benoit.
I gave a list last week of potential trade targets on teams out of contention, including “near elite” guys like Bobby Parnell or Jose Veras that likely would take more in terms of prospects than the Tigers and their fans would be comfortable sacrificing. Castellanos for Veras? I’d be surprised if he could be had for less, and I’m certain Parnell couldn’t. Salary commitments for 2014 and beyond are going to be an issue (if you’re thinking of somebody like Papelbon), so getting top-tier talent without giving up top-tier talent solely by taking on an overly generous salary is not a reasonable plan. That list also mentions a number of less-than-elite relievers that could still make important contributions for the Tigers, guys with better track records than Luke Putkonen. Take your pick of any three of those, and I think good things will happen.