The Detroit Tigers began their Independence Weekend by freeing themselves of some bullpen dead weight while simultaneously promoting two fresh arms from their minor league system. Veteran relievers Joba Chamberlain and Tom Gorzelanny were designated for assignment before the start of the Tigers’ three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Promoted to take the newly opened bullpen slots were Jeff Ferrell from the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens and Drew VerHagen from the Double-A Erie SeaWolves.
The question following these moves is, are they a sign of general manager Dave Dombrowski’s intentions to be a seller as the July 31 trade deadline approaches? Dombrowski has insisted over the past month that the Tigers still consider themselves a contender in the A.L. Central and nothing about this bullpen shake-up should indicate that he’s suddenly changed his mind. Rather, it means the Tigers are in the playoff race for the long haul.
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Chamberlain and Gorzelanny were signed to one-year deals for the season with the idea that their veteran experience out of the bullpen would be an asset in a run for a fifth consecutive A.L. Central Division title. Both have been a dismal failures, especially throughout the month of June.
Over the past month Chamberlain gave up 14 hits and nine runs over 7.2 innings. Opposing hitters were teeing off against him for a .436 on-base and .833 slugging percentage. Gorzelanny was even worse. He’s been pounded for 13 hits and eight runs in eight innings with a .500 on-base and .486 slugging percentage against him.
Ferrell and VerHagen were both drafted by the Tigers and converted from starting to relief for 2015. Each has been effective in that role so far this season. Neither are going to be the first choice out of the bullpen in relief situations, nor the second nor even the third, but when the staff is stretched the way it was against the Pittsburgh Pirates last week, there is at least early indications that they can be effective.
At first glance Ferrell seems to be farther along in his development for a bullpen roll. In 17 games for Double-A Erie this season he finished 15 games and recorded 12 saves. He pitched 27 innings and only surrendered 21 hits while striking out 35. The one negative to his time in Erie was that of the five runs he gave up, four were from home runs. After a promotion to Triple-A Toledo he appeared in one game, retiring the side in order with one strikeout to earn the save.
After starting the season on the disabled list, Verhagen began his season in Toledo where he pitched three games before being sent back to Double-A. For the SeaWolves he pitched in five games, finishing three and saving two. In 6.2 innings he allowed six hits and two runs while striking out five.
While the Tigers have slipped to six games behind the Kansas City Royals in the division they are still only one-and-one-half games behind in a crowded race for a Wild Card spot and other than the Los Angeles Angels, none of the teams they’re chasing are setting baseball on fire right now.
Even with the lineup problems they’ve struggled with all year the Tigers still possess a potent offense. They’re only seventh in the American League in runs scored but lead in batting average and on-base percentage. Of note, Victor Martinez has slashed .321/.367..482 since his return to the lineup after knee rehab. J. D. Martinez has been on fire this past month, slashing .314/.339/.369 with 12 home runs and 31 RBI’s.
The team also leads the league with a .331 BABIP, 26 points better than the second place Baltimore Orioles. What that indicates is not only is there room for the Tigers to improve on offense in the second half of the season, that improvement should be expected (even with the, as of this writing, expected disabled list stint by Miguel Cabrera).
There are still holes on this 2015 Detroit Tigers team but pitching has been the glaring weakness. So far this season they’ve given up 358 runs, third most in American League. This team still needs to add another starting pitcher and reliever to the staff but they’ve begun the process of improvement with the addition by subtraction.
The arrival of Ferrell and VerHagen to Detroit doesn’t mean the Tigers have started the rebuilding process by initiating a youth movement. It means Dombrowski is ready to be a trade deadline buyer and ready to continue the playoff fight to the end of the 2015 season.