First off, it is not panic time for the Detroit Tigers. They are 5-2 atop the AL Central and have three winnable games against the Padres this weekend. The pretty record however, does mask some cause for concern.
And to absolutely nobody’s surprise, chief among them is the bullpen. What has been a shocker is closer Joe Nathan’s horrible start to the season. He is 1 for 3 in save opportunities and hasn’t been fooling anybody while allowing six hits and four walks in just 3.2 innings of ‘work’.
For now, the Nathan-related complications can be compartmentalized as an aberration. His track record is sterling and the smart money is on him figuring out, and soon. I still project Nathan to lock down 35-40 saves with solid peripheral numbers. If this persists for another week or two though, then we’ll have to revisit sounding the alarm on the annual 9th inning panic at the CoPa.
What causes me the most stress when analyzing the pen are the following:
- Brad Ausmus, like Jim Leyland before him, has trusted Phil Coke to actually take the ball when major league hitters are in the batter’s box. This shouldn’t happen, but it has. And for his loyalty he was given a meltdown on Saturday afternoon against Baltimore and a game-winning hit allowed against the Dodgers on Tuesday night. He has pitched 0.2 innings and has a 40.50 ERA and 6.00 WHIP. Who knew it could get worse!
- Likewise, following the roadmap left behind by Leyland, Ausmus clearly doesn’t trust Luke Putkonen, he of the mid-90’s fastball and solid breaking ball. Putkonen hasn’t thrown a pitch through the team’s first seven games, and it’s not as if there hasn’t been opportunity. Putkonen’s arsenal is similar to Evan Reed’s and both could be key ingredients in a bullpen that needs help.
- Joba Chamberlain has already looked really good and also very shaky. And I expect that to be the way he rolls through the season. Moments of brilliance followed by perplexing bouts of inconsistency.
What I do like is that Al Alburquerque hasn’t allowed a walk yet. That’s a great sign from an area that has long troubled him. His hit rate will drop and if he can own the strike zone he’ll be more trustworthy than ever before. Evan Reed and Ian Krol have looked very good in five combined appearances as well.
And, oh yeah, Drew Smyly looks like a world-beater in the bullpen. He has pitched six scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and a walk, while striking out six. In other words, it’s been more of the same for a lefty who was absolutely dominant throughout all of 2013 as a late-inning bullpen arm.
Of course, for Smyly, the plan is that he is a starter this year only now working out of the bullpen due to early season off days. With another off day on the schedule this coming Monday it looks like Smyly’s first start won’t be until Saturday the 19th against the Angels at Comerica Park.
We all want to see Smyly as a starter. He has kept his mouth shut, has done what the team has asked of him, and has earned this opportunity. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that he won’t excel in the role of this team’s 5th starter. The dude can pitch.
But should he pitch out of the pen? I know…I cringe as I type this as it would be completely unfair to him and his career path. But is it best for the team? It might be.
Starting pitching options in the Tigers’ feeble minor league system are far from aplenty. The most likely arms to get a look if needed this season are Robbie Ray, Drew VerHagen, and Kyle Lobstein. Of those three, I suspect that Ray might be the most major league ready.
The 22-year old lefty has made just one start above AA in his minor league career. That came earlier this week when he threw five impressive innings (one unearned run) for the Mud Hens, giving up just 3 hits and a walk while punching out three hitters.
Ray, of course, was the prized prospect that arrived in the offseason trade of fan-favorite Doug Fister. Ray had a fairly dominant 2013 in the Nationals’ system across high-A and AA ball. His arsenal is of the power variety and he likely profiles as a respectable #5 starter as soon as…right now.
You know that GM Dave Dombrowski wants to see him succeed at the major league level given the heat he took in dealing Fister away, which means he will probably hang out at Toledo for a while to ensure his readiness. But if Ray starts to compile a string of lights-out starts for the Mud Hens, and the bullpen deterioration in Detroit continues, this has the makings of becoming backup plan A1 for the Tigers.
One thing we do know is that Smyly is a terrific reliever and keeping him in that role and parting ways with Coke would instantly solve many of the problems that ail Ausmus’ relief crew.
Best for the team? Very possible.
[Follow me on Twitter @isportsJoe]