No sooner had the bad news been announced, that Tigers' designated set up man Bruce Rondon would be lost for the season to Tommy John surgery, than Dave Dombrowski had issued the most unreassuring words, "solved internally". Fact of the matter is that the Tiger bullpen was on thin ice before losing Rondon, and now they are in desperate need of help. Outside help.
Sure, they can move Al Alburquerque into an eighth inning role, and maybe Joba Chamberlain can slot into the seventh inning. That would be the two pitchers who had higher walk rates than any other relievers in the league last year (Min 40 innings). Chamberlain gave out 5.57 free passes per nine innings, while Alburquerque walked a whopping 6.24 per nine. Not only that, but the two combined for a negative WAR of - 0.3 with lofty ERA's. Generally unreliable for late inning duty.
One could see Alburquerque getting by with the inevitable walks if he can keep the ball in the park. He does also have one of the highest K/9 ratios in the game. But Chamberlain has done nothing this spring to lead anyone to believe that he can be the pitcher that dominated in a seventh inning role for the Yankees a few years ago.
The Tigers do have some good live arms in the organization. Cory Knebel, the supplemental first round pick out of the University of Texas, drafted last June, is moving rapidly though the organization, but he finishes last year at low-A West Michigan. Melvin Mercedes could be ready by mid season at the earliest. Even in the best case scenario, the Tigers simply don't have anyone that can be relied upon to pitch the eighth inning, or the seventh inning for that matter, in the major leagues this season.
Rondon's injury makes it two seasons in a row that Dave Dombrowski has rolled the dice, counting on the young flame thrower for a major role in the bullpen, and he has twice crapped out. Such is life when you're putting together a bullpen. There is nothing so certain as uncertainty when it comes to relief pitching. Rondon was no guarantee, but he did show promise in the second half last season. Dombrowski did go out and get the most reliable relief pitcher on the free agent market, at a cost of $ 10 million per year, in Joe Nathan. After that, the bullpen was a crap shoot anyway.
With the loss of Rondon, the Tigers are now without their four most productive relievers from 2013, according to WAR, or FIP, or WHIP. Next in line are Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen, with Phil Coke and Evan Reed on deck. Slot Ian Krol in there somewhere, but not in the seventh or eighth innings.
The Tiger bullpen in recent seasons has typically been below league average overall, but fairly steady in the late innings. 2013 was no exception. In fact, 2006 was the last season when the Tiger bullpen posted an ERA that was better than the league average. The problem now is that the holes are in the late innings, where weakness can cause the greatest damage.
There is nothing more frustrating to a manager, or baseball fan, or a team in general, than letting a lead slip away in the late innings. It's always possible that Alburquerque could step up his game, and maybe Putkonen will surprise everyone. But that's not probable. What is reassuring as a Tiger fan is that Dombrowski usually gets the team what it needs, eventually. Talking about "internal options" is not reassuring.