If you were to ask the common Detroit Tigers fan to name 3 active members of the bullpen, do you think they could do it? I don’t. They’d probably say Phil Coke, maybe Joaquin Benoit, and if they’re really locked in, perhaps Drew Smyly.
What a difference a few months can make. The Tigers broke camp with what was supposed to be a veteran staff of relievers with some young arms that they were hoping would play up to the level of competition.
The Tigers left Lakeland, Florida with this bunch:
- Joaquin Benoit
- Phil Coke
- Octavio Dotel
- Al Alburquerque
- Brayan Villarreal
- Darin Downs
- Drew Smyly
If you look at it now it’s not all that different as only Dotel and Villarreal aren’t on the roster at the moment. However, the Tigers went through the Jose Valverde saga. Alburquerque has been sent down and called back up already. Currently filling the spots of Dotel and Villarreal are Evan Reed and Luke Putknonen.
No source of contention has kept Tigers fans more engaged and enraged than the bullpen issues of 2013.
Can this new version of the 7-man pen get the job done? Let’s put it this way: if it wasn’t for Benoit and Smyly, the Tigers might just be a sub .500 team. Instead they are 10 games over .500 and in 1st place. Benoit and Smyly have literally carried this bullpen.
Benoit, the latest in a growing line of anointed closers, is putting up an All-Star caliber season. He has a 2.01 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and a 37:9 K to walk ratio in 31.1 innings. He has logged 4 saves with presumably many more to come.
Smyly has been a sensation. For a guy who probably deserves to be in a starting rotation somewhere, he has taken his relief role and owned it. His 1.75 ERA and 0.99 WHIP are off the charts. Throw in a 46:12 K to walk ratio and the fact that he’s only allowed 1 home run and he is easily one of the Tigers’ most valuable players so far in 2013. He has given up just 1 run in his last 10 appearances covering 17.1 innings of work.
As for the rest of the crew, it’s not so simple. Reed has been with the Tigers for over 5 weeks and has pitched in 5 games. I mean, what’s the point? Leyland doesn’t really know what he has here and seems uneasy about finding out.
Downs started the season brilliantly but has slumped lately, giving up runs in 7 of his last 9 appearances. He’s good enough to stick around but not solid enough to be trusted in crucial moments.
The same goes for Putkonen. He has been really good, but Leyland hesitates to use him in critical spots. His 2.19 ERA suggests that he might be asked to graduate to a true major leaguer, and soon.
Alburquerque is back despite his command issues persisting in AAA. He walked 13 batters in 14.1 innings during his ‘you better go down there and fix it’ stint. The Tigers suggest that he was throwing the ball better of late. The numbers do not back that up. The truth is Detroit couldn’t stomach Valverde for another day so they called on Senor Slider to see if he could recapture his magic of the past 2 years. If he still can’t throw strikes it will be a failed experiment.
And then there’s Phil Coke and his 6.14 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. Somehow Leyland still trusts this guy, even running him out against a band of Red Sox right-handed hitters that showed him no mercy early in the Boston series. He has done better against righties this year but clearly not good enough.
Thankfully for Jim Leyland, the Tigers have one of the best starting rotations in baseball, which naturally nullifies the need for a deep bullpen. But the time to rely on the pen will certainly arise at some point and the Tigers will have to be able to call upon someone to help out.
Sadly, Jose Valverde may never go away. He will most likely clear waivers and report to AAA Toledo in yet another attempt to ‘get straightened out’. Imagine the public fallout when they call him back up. Ugly…
Oddly enough, the answer to all of this bullpen drama might be the guy who started it in the first place – Bruce Rondon. The big righty’s inability to look comfortable in spring and in a brief call-up early in the year set the Valverde domino in motion. Villarreal and Alburquerque’s utter lack of command only intensified matters.
Rondon’s AAA numbers read like this: 1-1 record, 14 saves, 1.57 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and a 38:13 K to walk ratio in 28.2 innings. He has walked 2 hitters in his last 8 appearances. The man literally has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues yet Detroit was so wounded by his spring training performances that he remains in Toledo, for now.
A strike-throwing, confidence-exuding Rondon could ignite the Tigers’ bullpen in a way that no other pitcher in the system may have the ability to do. The recent selection of Alburquerque over Rondon is a bit perplexing, especially given their respective minor league game logs. Slap a name other than “Rondon” next to his stat line and he’d already be in Detroit.
If the guy isn’t ready now, will he ever be? Let’s get this party started.
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