You’ve got to give it to Detroit Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus. Landed a pretty sweet gig for his first managerial job. Star hitters, star starting pitchers; you’d think he had it made. Little did he know about the unfortunate provision that comes with the Tigers’ managerial position. A manager is judged more on his bullpen usage than anything else. And from his 2014 rookie season in Detroit, the front office has consistently provided him with some of the least competitive bullpens in all of baseball. So far in 2017, the typical issues are on display, but none worse than a closer who is coming unglued.
Friday night in Cleveland was a microcosm of the nonsense Ausmus has been saddled with by two consecutive Tigers’ GMs. With the Tigers up 6-0 heading into the seventh inning, the game should have been over. Instead, a cascading series of bad performances from the bullpen ended with closer Francisco Rodriguez giving up a grand slam to Lonnie Chisenhall in the ninth inning after coming in to rescue long man William Cuevas. Rodriguez managed to escape by the skin of his teeth to preserve a 7-6 victory.
If your first thought is, “Hey the Tigers won. It’s early in the season.” Trust me, I’m always the first to resist the natural reactionary tendencies of all sports fans. The issue is that this isn’t a problem this season. It’s an ongoing problem going back years now. We’re talking about an essential constant of any Detroit Tigers’ pitching staff. Despite the excellent rotations and superb lineups gifted to first Jim Leyland, and now Ausmus, the organization has failed time and again to complete a key portion of the roster.
Right now, Ausmus has one high quality reliever in his bullpen in the form of Justin Wilson. Alex Wilson has been his usual solid self. Beyond that it’s the usual mystery bag of mediocre stuff and inability to throw strikes under pressure. Shane Greene has thrown two months’ worth of quality baseball since 2014. Kyle Ryan, or Blaine Hardy if you prefer, are decent back-end relievers. Bruce Rondon couldn’t throw strikes. And save three starts in late spring, Anibal Sanchez has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball for over two years now.
What is a manager supposed to do with this mess? Plenty of clubs have managed to thrive with a decent rotation, a good closer and a pair of quality set-up men. That’s a bare minimum operation, but with the Tigers’ rotation off to the excellent start many looked for, it could be enough. Protect leads and you can make the rest work out. The looming issue though, is that closer Francisco Rodriguez is showing every sign of a final implosion that could end his brilliant career.
On Friday night, Rodriguez shouldn’t have even been on duty. Journeyman reliever William Cuevas, recalled from Toledo in place of Joe Jimenez to give the Tigers an arm capable of handling multiple innings, earned himself a ticket right back down I-90 instead. Cuevas loaded the bases—kudos for not walking anyone—forcing Ausmus to go to his closer to shut it down. Rodriguez had one job. Get outs without allowing a home run. He couldn’t get it done.
In seven and 1⁄3 innings of competitive baseball—as opposed to spring training games—dating back to his work for Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, Rodriguez has already allowed three home runs this year. He’s only struck out five batters in that span. His WHIP stands at a grisly 1.62 in the early going. Concerns are backed by some declining peripheral numbers in the second half of the 2016 season. All small sample caveats apply, because they apply with any reliever. More telling, are concerns that Rodriguez’ stuff may have finally dropped off a cliff.
The real kicker is a striking decline in fastball velocity from a reliever who was already on the fringes of usable major league velocity. Last year, Rodriguez averaged 89.68 miles per hour on his fourseam fastball. So far in 2017 he’s at 87.43. A decline of two ticks is a red flag for any pitcher, but particularly for one who had no gas to begin with, it may prove the end of the road.
That is not what you’d call a positive trend. While it’s true that Rodriguez’ velocity built throughout the 2016 season, he started out with more to begin with. At age 35, the wheels may finally be coming off one of the all-time great closers. Rodriguez has managed to reinvent himself several times in his career, but if he can’t find a little more on his fastball as the weather warms, the odds are that he’ll find he’s out of cards to play.
Since 2014, Rodriguez has depended heavily on his set of changeups to maintain his effectiveness. He’s thrown over 40 percent of them each of the last three seasons. However, it’s no longer really a changeup when your fastball velocity has so little separation. Despite his ability to spin the pitch in multiple ways, or make it fall off the table, you have to have something to set it up with. Regularly throwing changeups in the zone is a recipe for disaster, even for a reliever with Rodriguez’ demonstrated command. Pablo Sandoval and Lonnie Chisenhall have illustrated that fact already this season. The Tigers can’t afford to see it happen many more times.
General Manager Al Avila has a few options remaining. Joe Jimenez will potentially need to be relied upon sooner than anyone would like. Bruce Rondon is in Toledo to get more conditioning work in and to tune his mechanics. You can expect to see him back in Detroit if he gets on a little roll for the Mud Hens. In the meantime, the Tigers can hope that Shane Greene, who has been usable, if unimpressive, can get on a roll like he did last summer. But until one of them starts carrying part of the load, Ausmus will once again be asked to make Easter supper with nothing but canned goods.
Perhaps Rodriguez can still find a little a zip and pull himself together. The season is only two weeks old, and for the moment the Tigers have to see how things play out. But either way, the relief corps is going to need help along the way. With luck, their internal options can provide some of it. But if they can’t, the howls of a fanbase that has seen this story unfold time and time again are going to cascade down on the Tigers’ front office. And rightly so. One more time, the Tigers have a squad that could win, and a bullpen primed to hold them back. Enough is enough.