Long-time MCB readers will have read us railing against the Tigers offseason bullpen strategy for a while now. They might even know that I personally didn’t pick the Detroit Tigers to win the AL Central in 2014 (spoiler: the reason is the ‘pen). The central problem is and was a lack of depth.
It’s only 7 games in, it’s too early to say that so-and-so is a bust or even that the team ought to be seeking help, but the bullpen has clearly not been good. The team is still 5-2, but that’s because the bullpen is 4-1 despite a bad ERA. Joe Nathan has two wins on blown saves. That doesn’t happen much and you shouldn’t expect that kind of luck to continue. The biggest bright spot for the Tigers ‘pen has been non-reliever Drew Smyly (the only one of the Tigers top relievers from last season who has thrown a pitch for them so far in 2014). It’s no great stretch to imagine that the Tigers would be a 3-4 team right now had the Tigers been forced to turn to guys like Coke after Sanchez’ two short starts.
The Tigers offseason was built around financial goals rather than doubling down to chase another pennant and the result is that the Tigers bullpen (though they signed the best closer out there) looked and continues to look much riskier than it did in March of 2013. We look back and think the 2013 was clearly bad, but going into the season it looked like it would be extraordinarily deep. Very early on the Tigers lost two supposed studs in Brayan Villarreal and Octavio Dotel, Rondon (and Coke, one must never forget Phil Coke) struggled out of the gate and suddenly “Oh My God! The bullpen is terrible!”. Though the Jose Valverde experiment was ill-advised, the Tigers did stabilize things in the end thanks to the fact that A: the remaining guys were still good (Al Alburquerque, Drew Smyly, Joaquin Benoit) and the organizational depth waiting in Toledo (Evan Reed, Luke Putkonen) was loads better than replacement level. The willingness to make deadline deals and Rondon’s turnaround meant that by season’s end the bullpen was a slight plus rather than a significant minus.
I would posit that the scenario that the Tigers saw in 2013 that made a deep and talented bullpen inconsistent and average is more common than not and that it is already happening again. Last year the Tigers lost Dotel early. This year they’ve lost Rondon. Last year they suffered through an alarmingly hittable Coke, they are still suffering from the same affliction. It’s entirely possible that one of the other two guys that is causing despair (Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan) at the moment will soon go the way of Brayan Villarreal if not Octavio Dotel: to the DL, to Toledo or to the waiver wire thanks to the poor stuff and the inability to locate (that may or may not have a physical ailment at the root). Al Alburquerque is always a bad bet to finish a season without a lengthy DL stint. Evan Reed’s medium-term status could be in doubt as well.
I question whether the Tigers of 2014 can endure the kind of maladies that afflicted the bullpen of 2013… Again, it is too early to say that anything or anyone has or has not “worked out” this season (aside from Bruce Rondon, sadly) but the scenario that we are forced to imagine already this season is what the Tigers would look like without Joe Nathan. The Tigers entered 2013 with 5 or 6 closers to choose from, as it is often called “a good kind of problem”. This season they entered Spring Training with 2, and now that’s down to one – one with a “dead arm”, a 2 MPH velocity dip and an ERA over 12.00. With the struggles we’re seeing from guys like Phil Coke and Joba Chamberlain, it’s already an adventure to get to the 9th but if the Tigers are forced to go without Joe Nathan they’d have to turn it over to one of them or someone like Evan Reed that was anything but a lock to make the team in the first place. In a perfect world, Brad Ausmus would temporarily remove Nathan from the role immediately until Nathan felt sharper. He hasn’t been “unlucky”, he just has not been throwing the ball well enough to record outs and he knows it. As it is, there isn’t really another option. Drew Smyly has been the bullpen savior so far, but that can’t continue: the Tigers lack a replacement 5th starter (which, in 2013, was Drew Smyly) like they lack a backup closer. In a month, Nathan might look great. Or he might not.
The lesson that the Tigers brass appear to have taken from the team’s struggles in 2013 is that spending hard-won cash on a deep bullpen just isn’t worth it. I’d draw exactly the opposite conclusion: thanks to the depth, the Tigers still won the division despite some stiff headwinds. The team needs some luck with question mark guys like Chamberlain and Krol to overcome the loss of Bruce Rondon – which right now they don’t seem to be having. They really do not have a backup plan to deal with losing Joe Nathan to either injury or ineffectiveness. The one saving grace is that – unlike elsewhere in the organization – the Tigers have a fair pool of relief prospects (that only make it onto “top prospect lists” if they have Rondon’s stuff) to draw upon to fill the role that Luke Putkonen and Evan Reed did last season. They aren’t going to struggle to find 7 guys with decent stuff – but they may struggle mightily to figure out who they can count on hold a 1-run lead.
I picked the Tigers to finish 2nd in the Central due to that lack of depth, especially in the bullpen. They’re still at the top right now, despite some tough opponents in the season’s first weeks, but my level of concern has only grown. Like Cabrera, Sanchez, Scherzer or Verlander – if Nathan goes down the Tigers are not, on paper, the class of the division any more.