When Joaquin Benoit surrendered a game-tying grand slam to Boston’s David Ortiz in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park last October, Tigers fans knew at once that the accident that had been waiting to happen.... had just happened.
Benoit was the fourth pitcher of the inning, and the fourth member of the Tigers bullpen to give up an earned run in that inning. Had they not blown a four-run lead in that game, they would have been heading back to Detroit, up two games to none, with Verlander on tap. Instead, it was the beginning of the end of the Tigers’ championship hopes in 2013.
The loss could not be pinned on any one member of the bullpen, but the Tigers bullpen, as a whole, was clearly the weakest link on a team that was built to win it all.
For the Tigers, having a questionable bullpen heading into the postseason was nothing new. They finished the 2012 season without a closer, and entered the 2013 season without a closer, after Dave Dombrowski decided to stay in-house, giving first crack at the job to Bruce Rondon, who had yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues. That plan failed before the season started, and they would go back to Valverde just to confirm that he truly was washed up also.
As it turned out, the back end of the Tigers bullpen was fairly effective once they settled down. As a group, they managed a 71% save conversion rate, tied for third in the American League. Joaquin Benoit converted 24 of 26 saves, posting an ERA of 2.01 and a WHIP of 1.03. Drew Smyly helped give the Tigers a formidable one-two punch, perhaps as good as any in the league in the eighth and ninth innings. After that, things got a bit dicey.
At the trade deadline, Dombrowski added former Astros’ closer Jose Veras, who contributed in the late innings to stabilize the bullpen. For three seasons previous, until late in the 2012 season, Jose Valverde and Benoit had done a solid job at the back end of a mediocre bullpen, blowing relatively few leads.
But while the back end of the bullpen has been steady, the Tigers have not had a league-average bullpen overall since the 2006 season, when Todd Jones was closing, with Joel Zumaya setting him up. Since then, the Tigers have been in the bottom half of the league in bullpen ERA every season, seven years in a row. The 2013 bullpen ranked 12th in ERA despite the solid one-two punch of Benoit and Smyly, who are now gone.
Jason Beck of MLB.com asked Dombrowski about his bullpen for 2014, and the Tigers president gave a very detailed answer:
MLB.com: How do you feel about the state of the bullpen at this point?
Dombrowski: Great. Nobody's scored a run against us so far, so it's been great. But, no, I'm happy with what we have. It's interesting because I read a lot of things. When you have a good club, you always have a part that can be improved. So if we improved X, I talked about this before, then the next question is, "What about Y?" That's just how it works. But I read recently that people had this misperception. The Tigers bullpen was 15th in Major League Baseball in earned run average last year and efficiency. At certain times it didn't respond. At postseason time we gave up some big hits and I understand. But I think in this situation we have a premium closer in Joe Nathan. Bruce Rondon's a very important part of our team.
I like what I see from Bruce Rondon as far as his attitude, his conditioning, his health. It all looks good if you can put him in a spot where he can pitch the eighth inning. It's hard for me to analyze Joba Chamberlain because he's just come on board, but he's in good shape, his arm is healthy. We know he has a good arm. [Phil] Coke's in good shape, he's throwing well, and [Ian] Krol. But we're a couple days into Spring Training. But we also have a lot of good arms out there.
We were just talking about it, the number of guys -- when you start talking about having a Krol, having a [Justin] Miller, having a [Luke] Putkonen, having a [Jose] Ortega, and if you have Nathan and you have Rondon and you have Chamberlain and [Al] Alburquerque responds as we think he will, and Coke and Krol, you're not looking at a lot of guys to respond. Now, they have to do their jobs, but I look at it that we have a chance to have a good bullpen.
To say that Dombrowski is taking a risk with the bullpen once again would be an understatement. Benoit is gone to San Diego. Smyly is gone to the rotation. The Tigers declined a club option on Veras, making it a clean sweep for the back end of last year’s bullpen. From the league’s 12th ranked bullpen, and one whose saving grace was that they had a couple of solid pitchers at the back end, it looks on paper as though the Tigers bullpen has gone from bad to worse.
Nathan replaces Benoit in the closer's role, and Krol comes over from Washington while Smyly goes to the rotation. Otherwise, the Tigers have basically the same pitchers vying for bullpen jobs that they had a year ago in spring training, minus Valverde and Dotel, who are long gone at this point.
Does Dombrowski believe that the current alignment gives them a chance to improve the Achilles heel that failed them during the last two post seasons? Jason Beck continued:
MLB.com: Is there an added importance with guys like Chamberlain and Coke, with the other guys being young?
Dombrowski: Well, it's nice to have a stabilizer out there, but it doesn't mean that it can't be done the other way, either, where it's just a bunch of young guys. I think the most important [thing is], if you can fill the ninth and you can fill the eighth, then I think you can mix and match a lot before that.
So if Rondon -- and I'm not saying that he's anointed as the eighth-inning guy because that has to be earned and Brad [Ausmus, manager] has to make that decision -- but if we can find a guy to pitch the eighth and it is Rondon, and you have a guy to pitch the ninth, then you can kind of mix and match a lot of other different situations. I do like having a veteran bullpen guy out there. It would be nice. Hopefully they'll do the job for us and we think they will.
The way that I read this is that the eighth-inning set-up job is Rondon's to lose. One pitcher who was not one of the four that gave up runs in the follies at Fenway, was Rondon, who missed the playoffs due to arm trouble. He was just beginning to establish himself at the back end of the Tigers bullpen when he hit the disabled list in September.
The rest, as they say, is a crap shoot. Lots of live arms. Lots of upside. Lots of risk. Lots of reward for each one that can put it together. Basically, Dombrowski has been collecting pitchers who throw hard, but have struggled thus far with their control.
Amid all the changes that the Tigers have made this offseason, their biggest question remains. The more things change, the more they remain the same.