The Detroit Tigers seem to have finally exhausted all patience with the struggling members of their starting rotation. If anyone had any illusions left about Anibal Sanchez as a starting pitcher, Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Angels has to be the final straw. The bad news? Mike Pelfrey may be worse yet. For weeks now, the only real question remaining was how long the Tigers would let this go on.
It's hard to know what to do with Pelfrey. In some ways he has been worse than Sanchez, but of late he has been functional. He also doesn't have the attributes you look for in a guy who might thrive in a relief role. On the other hand, it's a cold dose of reality when you realize that Sanchez hasn't been usable in a starting role since August 2014. There was a stretch of outings last summer that briefly resembled the good old days, but it didn't last long and ended in another trip to the disabled list for shoulder issues. Otherwise, Sanchez has been terrible since the days when Austin Jackson roamed centerfield in a Tigers uniform. That's a long time in baseball.
BYB editor Kurt Mensching tackled this in his column for the Detroit News on Monday, suggesting that the time is overdue to move both Sanchez and Pelfrey to the bullpen.
You can understand why GM Al Avila and manager Brad Ausmus have not made any rash decisions about the team’s pitching. But that first two-month period is just about over, and the Tigers are now at the place they have to do something about Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey.
If this goes on much longer, they’re going to destroy the Tigers’ chance of contending for the playoffs, too.
Sanchez is turning every player he faces the third time through the order into Cabrera in his prime. Pelfrey is worse.
The alternative is just to admit it’s not working and to replace one or both pitchers in the rotation. They’re being paid a lot of money as starters, but you can’t let that destroy a $200 million investment in the roster this season by owner Mike Ilitch, either.
There are reasons why the Tigers have let Pelfrey and Sanchez go on so long. Both are signed to major league contracts and have accumulated too much service time to be involuntarily optioned to the minors. Cutting one or both completely burns the bridge, leaving the Tigers with no recourse but to rely on a trio of starters who have yet to pitch a full season in the major leagues. Even moving Sanchez to the bullpen is a hard move to reverse, as stretching him out to start games again would be difficult mid-season. Yet, as risky as it sounds, both Sanchez and Pelfrey have made it painfully clear that the riskiest move imaginable is to stay the course.
Kurt does a good job detailing Mitchel Lichtman's "third times through the order" penalty, and how badly both men have fared in those situations. Neither Pelfrey nor Sanchez has survived a third trip through an opponent's batting order this season without getting lit up. This puts manager Brad Ausmus in an impossible situation. Fans' constant calls to automatically pull both pitchers after the fifth inning isn't a realistic solution, yet everyone knows what is coming once hitters have seen them a second time.
Meanwhile, the bullpen needs help, and it's possible one of Sanchez or Pelfrey is capable of providing it. Sure, the drain on the Tigers' relief corps is partly their own fault, but when Kyle Ryan looks like your third best guy, your bullpen could use a serious re-imagining. The plan has failed. Time for a new plan.
The money shouldn't matter either. Owner Mike Ilitch has $210 million invested in this team. Letting the team fail because of the $48 million Pelfrey and Sanchez are owed by the end of 2017 would be penny wise and pound foolish by the standards of major league payrolls. Every move made this offseason said that Ilitch and the Tigers would do anything to win. That willpower is facing a profound test just two months into the season.
Between Shane Greene, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, there's a clear argument that all four rank among the Tigers' top 10 arms. Greene is the eldest, and has the most experience, while Fulmer and Norris are former top prospects who have each had stretches of success in a Tigers uniform. Boyd is less heralded, but has been brilliant in the minors thus far and made a decent first start of his own with the Tigers last week.
Certainly, putting so much on the younger members of the pitching staff is not ideal, but this was always the backup plan. The Tigers acquired major-league ready arms in their trade deadline deals last season, and those are the guys who are going to get them back to the trade deadline in competitive form. They don't all have to be good. Even mediocre performance would be a tangible improvement in the pitching staff overall. Right now, the focus needs to be on getting this team to the trade deadline within striking distance of the postseason. At that point, they can make a move to bolster their pitching staff for the stretch run.
The Tigers' offense is good, if not consistently great. The defense is good enough. You have two of the best front-line starters in the division. But the pitching staff needs help ASAP. It just so happens that pitching depth is the one card the Tigers have left up their sleeve. The pill may be bitter, but Avila and the Tigers better force it down now, or the season could be lost by the All-Star break. I expect they will.