Detroit Tigers: Dombrowski is playing bullpen roulette

Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has been tremendous in his time at the helm of this storied franchise. He’s pulled countless trades to help shape a perennial playoff contender all the while dumping ‘can’t miss’ prospects that have by and large…well, missed.

Sometimes the world of sports has a cruel way of preventing teams that seemed to have it all from winning the ultimate prize. Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills could tell you all about that sad story. Are the Tigers really that different? They lost in the World Series in both 2006 and 2012 under Dombrowski’s watch. They’ve been bounced from the playoffs in 2011 and ’13 and lost a 1-game playoff to the Twins in ’09.

They haven’t been tapping on the door, they’ve been pounding on it with a battering ram. But that damn door just won’t open!

If it doesn’t again here in 2014 then fans may have the luxury of once again pointing toward a late-season injury to Miguel Cabrera. Maybe it’s the decline of Justin Verlander that’s the problem or yet another injury to Anibal Sanchez that is causing all of this trouble. All of these factors are in play and could be the reason the Tigers miss the party boat once again, but would anyone argue that another shaky bullpen is Dombrowski’s fatal flaw?


Joakim Soria

In the preseason I used the term ‘fast and loose’ when describing how he was handling the bullpen makeover. Joba Chamberlain was great and now he stinks and was never a sure bet in the remodel anyhow. The key was Joe Nathan and he’s been obviously horrible. But with or without Nathan the respected Dombrowski failed to add the necessary depth to ensure that the revolving door that has transpired this year wouldn’t have. In other words, he blew it and now he’s grasping at straws.

2014 bullpen failures: Joe Nathan, Pat McCoy, Evan Reed, Ian Krol, Chad Smith, Justin Miller, Corey Knebel

How can it be then that a guy who has only pitched 4.1 innings for the Tigers this year is the answer? Joakim Soria, this is your burden. Please don’t let us down like all of those that have gone before you.

2013: Bruce Rondon, Jose Ortega, Darin Downs, Phil Coke, Jose Valverde, Jose Alvarez, Jeremy Bonderman, Octavio Dotel, Brayan Villarreal

Soria bailed out after just 4.1 innings with the Tigers back on August 10th with the dreaded strained oblique. This injury can take 3-6 weeks to come back from. The Tigers need it to be on the shorter end of that timeframe. The best-case scenario here seems to be that Soria would return next week, and the Tigers would certainly take that.

2012: Collin Balester, Thad Weber, Adam Wilk, Casey Crosby, Daniel Schlereth

The struggles of Joe Nathan (5.36 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, six blown saves) are what pushed the Tigers to get Soria at the trade deadline. Since then they’ve acquired former O’s and A’s closer Jim Johnson, hoping his sinker finds its old groove after a disastrous run in Oakland. And today the Tigers put a claim on Astros closer Chad Qualls. They have 24 hours to work out a trade that would bring a stable arm to their pen.

Does anyone else see the common thread here? Nathan, Soria, Johnson, and Qualls are all guys who have closed as recently as this year. That should tell you everything you need to know about management’s confidence in this unit.

2011: Chance Ruffin, Ryan Perry, Lester Oliveros, David Pauley, David Purcey, Brad Thomas, Enrique Gonzalez

Prior to coming to Detroit and scuffling a bit before the oblique injury, Soria was as good as it gets in the American League. He had a 2.70 ERA, 0.87 WHIP with 17 saves and 42 K’s in just 33.1 innings of work. It’s that kind of dominance, when combined with the Tigers’ elite starting pitching, that just might be enough to push the Tigers back into October and possibly on an unexpected run to the trophy.

2010: Eddie Bonine, Robbie Weinhardt, Fu-Te Ni, Alfredo Figaro

Consider that either Rick Porcello or a hopefully healthy Sanchez will be moved to the bullpen for the playoffs (I know, you think it should be Verlander but it won’t be, I promise) and suddenly Brad Ausmus has an extra – and more importantly, reliable – late game, multi-innings weapon.

Dombrowski’s clear strategy now is to stockpile as many arms as he can in advance of what he hopes is a 4th consecutive playoff appearance and then kneel and pray that at least a few of them can get big outs to back up his rotation that should pitch at least 7 innings each time out.

It’s not an unreasonable theory, it’s just a shame that it’s come to this yet again.

2009: Bobby Seay, Zach Miner, Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, Nate Robertson, Chris Lambert….ok, you get the point

For any of this plan to come to fruition however, one guy will have to step to the forefront and pitch like the shutdown reliever the Tigers haven’t seen all year. The most likely candidate, for better or worse, is Joakim Soria.

His General Manager’s credibility sways in the balance.

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  • Vince in MN

    DD has been great at signing/trading for expensive elite players and generally very successful with building a starting rotation, but with dependable bullpen arms and bench players he has been dreadful his whole tenure. I’m not convinced the drafts have worked out too well either. The farm system is depleted and of all those high upside players he has traded for the likes of Cabrera and Sheffield, etc., how many have amounted to more than replacement level.

    Kudos are in order for Dombrowski’s ability to creatively get the Tigers out of the early 2000s doldrums with his gutsy and creative signings (esp. IRod, Maggs), but as for building a winning TEAM, not so much. Despite the Tigers competitiveness, they generally still come up short, and this IMO is due to the poor quality of the supporting players. You can’t go all the way with a roster of a handful of superstars and the rest a bunch of “whatever”. The season is too long to expect a few guys to carry the load’ especially into the playoffs when the deficiencies are really exposed.

    DD’s response to these shortcomings has been a tendency to then add another elite (e.g. Fielder 3 years ago, Price and Soria this year) rather than attend to the mundane task of getting someone who can hit better than Don Kelly or pitch better than ____ (pick a name off your above lists). The formula doesn’t work.

    • Joe White

      Well said on all of the above Vince. Couldn’t agree more.