Tigers' bullpen in flux after injuries, ineffectivness

Valverde fires a fastball home during the Tigers' 4-3 loss to the Indians. - Duane Burleson

The Tigers’ bullpen has been the team’s biggest question mark the entire season, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Bullpens are volatile by nature. If these pitchers were perfect, they'd be starters. But year after year, it seems like Jim Leyland gets more than his fair share of headaches from these seven. Recently, Leyland has been faced with problems such as injuries to Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel, undefined roles for Al Alburquerque and Drew Smyly, and the always-controversial Jose Valverde.

On his first appearance since his DL-stint, Phil Coke retired both batters he faced. His ERA remains ugly at 7.45, but his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) at 3.82 shows that he has been unlucky.

Octavio Dotel, placed on the DL retroactively to April 20, remains out. Dotel flew down to have Dr. James Andrews look at his right elbow, and Andrews didn't see a cause for concern. "Everything looks OK," Leyland told MLive. "Everything is exactly the same as the first opinion." Dotel is expected to begin throwing late this week, but there is no official timetable for return.

Jose Ortega, Dotel's current replacement, has preformed admirably. Ortega is yet to allow an earned run in 16 1/3 innings between Toledo and Detroit this year, and has improved on his impressive 1.99 FIP in the minors with a 0.92 FIP in a short four innings in Detroit. Ortega has been a classic Dombrowski power-arm, albeit in a surprisingly small body, striking out over 12 per nine innings at both levels.

Despite having an ERA below 2 and striking out more than a batter per inning, Drew Smyly still doesn't have a defined role. "We really have to get a situation ironed out as far as Smyly is concerned," Leyland told MLB.com. "He’s doing a fantastic job, obviously. If you can have two of those lefties available each night, it’s a good thing, but I also want him to pitch. So it’s a little tricky." Smyly is more than capable of filling the long-relief role, having shut down the Angels for 5 2/3 innings after Rick Porcello got shelled. But, if Smyly is one of the better relievers, (and many people would argue that he's the fifth best pitcher, starter or reliever) you don't want to waste him on a game that is already lost. Since that game against the Angels, Smyly has pitched on average 1 1/3 innings per appearance.

Al Alburquerque started the season often pitching more than one inning, but ineffectiveness has limited Leyland's ability to send Alburquerque back out for a second inning. In all but one of his last five outings, Alburquerque has given two free passes. The strikeouts are still there, but he is giving up 1.79 walks plus hits per innings pitched -- much too high. Perhaps the best way to utilize Alburquerque is to save him for high-leverage situations where a strikeout is needed, for example, if a man is on third with only one out.

Despite the blown save, Valverde may be one of the better-known commodities in the bullpen. Leyland is loyal to Valverde, and the Big Potato will be given ample opportunity to prove his manager right. Right after Sunday's game, Leyland told MLive, "My personal opinion is, he's done a pretty good job since he's been back. He got two outs, with a chance to close it out, and the guy put a pretty good swing on a ball." Much has been made about Valverde's split-finger fastball, or lack thereof, and that will be something to keep an eye on as the weather gets warmer. Every time Valverde steps on the mound he is under the microscope. Before Sunday, he had given up one walk and no hits in five innings. Even after Sunday, he had only one hit and three walks in six innings.

The bullpen will remain a story all season long. With the middle infield hitting and Ryan Raburn, Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, and Brandon Inge all playing elsewhere, the bullpen is the only thing to worry about. And if the only problem is what's a problem for almost every club, then the team is probably in pretty good shape -- good enough shape for another playoff run.

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