What you’re likely to read or hear right now is that the Tigers bullpen last year was the team’s Achilles heel, that it was bad from start to finish and that we all knew it was going to be bad from the very beginning but Dave Dombrowski didn’t do anything about it.
That isn’t exactly accurate… If you go way, way back – I mean almost 9 months back to the last Spring Training – the big question was whether or not Bruce Rondon would make the team (and whether he would close if he did). The depth and quality of the ‘pen wasn’t really in question – the concern was that the Tigers lacked a clear relief ace to close games. In the end, Rondon’s control looked too iffy and he lost the closer job to Phil Coke (who we figured probably wouldn’t close every day) and the roster spot to Darin Downs. The bullpen on opening day was as follows:
Knowing what we know now, that bullpen looks baaaad. Knowing what we knew then, it really didn’t look bad at all. Smyly was too talented to be in the bullpen and didn’t really have a defined role of any kind at that point, so we’ll focus on the rest. Benoit and Dotel were reliable 7th and 8th inning cogs in 2012. Villarreal was spectacular in 2012 – with a 2.63 ERA and almost 11 strikeouts per inning. Some of us were considering whether he and not Rondon should be the one for the closer role. Al Al was a definite wild card – but due to health rather than effectiveness. He spent significant time on the DL in 2012 but had an 0.68 ERA when healthy after a 1.87 ERA in 2011. Darin Downs was also a very effective LOOGY in half a season or so in 2012 with a 3.48 ERA – though in the end he won the job because Rondon coughed it up had he started the season in Toledo we would have lamented how unfair it was. Coke did well in the 2012 postseason and looked like he’d thrive in pressure situations hence, in a bullpen that deep, HE was the one called upon to close.
So how did it go so wrong so fast, so that our only memories of the Tigers 2013 bullpen are of leads blown? We all know that Coke did not thrive in that closer role (and didn’t thrive in any role last year). But within a couple of weeks Villarreal was sent to Toledo to rehab a severe case of Blass disease. AND Octavio Dotel started having some discomfort in his elbow and hit the actual DL – the injury didn’t sound that serious and for most of the season we were left wondering if and/or when Dotel would make it back to Detroit. Now it looks like he’s probably out of baseball. Everybody is, to one extent or another, an injury risk or an effectiveness risk – and by mid-April the Tigers had lost Villarreal to effectiveness and Dotel to injury. Coke was still there – though ineffective (just like he could be there, but pitching with pain) and the same went for Alburquerque and Downs later in the season. In April at any rate, Alburquerque was one of the few Tiger relievers getting it done with a 1.50 ERA and 21 Ks in 12 April innings. Downs was effective early on, though mostly when the team was behind as he didn’t really seem to have Jim Leyland‘s confidence (Leyland’s insistence on using him against righties would doom him by midsummer).
Coke lost his closing gig on April 3 and left Jim Leyland apparently puzzled as to who to use – not that the bullpen wasn’t already in disarray. Over the next 3 weeks there weren’t all that many save situations – and Joaquin Benoit recorded all TWO of those conventional saves – before Jose Valverde was brought back to “stabilize the bullpen”. Rondon was called up at about the same time, had three bad games and was sent back to Toledo. He would have a couple of good months in the bigs, but not until his second callup midseason. After Valverde’s ultimate flame-out, the closer role was handed back to Benoit (and why was it ever taken away?) who did very well. The bullpen was less bad (3.81 ERA rather than 4.15) in the 2nd half, but below average in both halves. Advanced metrics suggest that the ‘pen was more unlucky than bad – but that counts for little in our collective memories. What is burned in forever are the two big home runs (and the collective failures to get outs that led up to them) in the ALCS.
The point is that going into the 2013 season we had excellent reasons to think that the Tigers bullpen was going to be good, not bad, with particularly enviable depth. We second guess, knowing what we know now, and figure that Dave Dombrowski should have pursued an established closer and planned to hold Rondon in Toledo as the first man called up. OR he could simply have handed Benoit the job in March – but that would only really have prevented two weeks of alarmingly hittable Valverde from blowing all of TWO saves over that span (since one of his two-homer outings was a win anyway and in his final debacle all he did was turn a 3-9 loss into a 3-13 loss).
Knowing what we know now, that bullpen was not very good – despite excellent years from Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit, some good performances from young guys that didn’t begin the season on the 25. Knowing that, it’s more than a little concerning for me that the 2014 Tigers bullpen doesn’t look very strong on paper either.
If what happened in 2013 happens again in 2014, virtually letter for letter, that would mean that:
1. Joe Nathan is every bit as good as we expect him to be (like Joaquin Benoit)
2. Ian Krol looks fantastic (like Drew Smyly) and we start raving about that Fister trade
3. Some youngsters – let’s say Casey Crosby and Justin Miller – get called up in the middle of the season and look impressive
4. The bullpen still stinks.
Why would it still stink…?
5. Phil Coke just can’t get his act together (but pitches in way too many important situations)
6. Al Alburquerque struggles mightily with his control by midseason and winds up getting remedial education in Toledo (like last year’s Alburquerque)
7. Joba Chamberlain blows his arm out (like Octavio Dotel)
8. Bruce Rondon doesn’t look anything like 2013 and gets sent to Toledo then dealt out of the organization (like Villarreal)
9. xFIP likes Luke Putkonen‘s performance, but ERA, fans and Brad Ausmus do not. He’s not on the playoff roster and gone after the season (like Darin Downs)
10. A bunch of the guys brought in to fill these holes – both from inside and outside the organization – just look bad
Think of all the various permutations that could give the same results… Maybe Chamberlain doesn’t blow out his arm, but Joe Nathan does – or Bruce Rondon does – or Al Alburquerque does. Maybe Phil Coke does get his act together, but Ian Krol stinks. Maybe it’s Chamberlain and not Rondon that can’t throw a strike and doesn’t last past mid-April. The gist is that relievers are particularly risky even when you think your bullpen is deep and talented (and that 2013 bullpen could have been the equal of the Royals ‘pen if things had taken a better turn). Only Dotel actually got hurt, but injuries are far from the only important source of risk. Rather than being a bunch of blue chippers, this year’s Tigers ‘pen is going to be a collection of youngsters with talent but histories of arm trouble and/or inconsistent command (and this is true even if we dig deeper on the 40) a couple of mediocre veterans (one of whom has a history of arm trouble) hoping for rebound years and a 39-year-old closer (with a history of arm trouble). I’m not saying that they don’t have good stuff, or that the unit doesn’t have the potential to be strong, but it’s hard to imagine a better recipe for risk as far as the relief corps is concerned. We really should expect that 2 of our 7 guys are going to simply flame out one way or another in 2014 and that one or two others is going to be ineffective. If that happens, this bullpen is going to have the 24th best ERA in the majors again – if not worse. Also bear in mind that all of that “bad luck” and worse happened to the Boston Red Sox in 2013 (Hanrahan, Bailey, etc…) – but they had the depth to succeed in spite of it. Do our Tigers? Absolutely not.