April 8, 2014 at 1:39 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers off to a good start, but they certainly have issues

Victor Martinez slides into second with a ninth-inning double last weekend, but that's where he remained. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Detroit — Their 4-0 start was so important it might not be fully appreciated until September, when playoff contenders value every game as if it were a bottle of battlefield plasma.

And when the Tigers streak ceased with a 3-1 loss to the Orioles and a cunningly sharp pitcher in Chris Tillman, it was natural and necessary to look at an .800 winning percentage as having been a very good first week of baseball in Detroit.

What happens the next 157 games, which begin tonight at Los Angeles when the Tigers meet the Dodgers for a pair of games ahead of a weekend series at San Diego, is all that matters.

But this particular West Coast trip against National League teams will offer its own five-game clue on whether a team can trust its radiant starting pitching or be sabotaged by a scary bullpen and by flux at a place no team wants issues: shortstop.

Tigers starters are fourth among 30 teams, with a 3.44 ERA and a playoff-worthy WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 1.21. Their bullpen’s misbehavior puts Detroit’s relievers on a southern pole: The Tigers are 24th, with a 4.01 ERA and 1.34 WHIP.

Offensively, they have just enough hitters (Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Nick Castellanos, Austin Jackson) stinging the ball at convenient times to have won, fairly narrowly, those first four games. Their baserunning has been a mixed blessing, which is the forecast for the remainder of this season as manager Brad Ausmus’ troops work to mix good judgment and fewer put-outs with aggression that showed its pluses during last week’s games.

As for their defenders, a couple are offering apologies: Hunter for his early and uncharacteristic gaffes; and Alex Gonzalez for his ongoing reminder that a 37-year-old shortstop isn’t the player his original Marlins front-office boss, Dave Dombrowski, remembers now that Gonzalez and Dombrowski are both with the Tigers.

What it implies is a team generally picked to win the AL Central is perhaps on track to do so — if the Tigers can make some difficult but achievable fixes to a team banking on a flawed division buying them time to heal their bullpen and shortstop bruises.

Bullpen matters

Begin with the relievers, although Ausmus, like Dombrowski, is already a master at hiding any deeper anxiety about pitchers who, in some cases, simply cannot be trusted.

“I’m not overly concerned about that,” he said after the Tigers had nearly blown a 7-1 lead and Game 2 of their series to the Orioles.

Ausmus added a deft line about hair-color and that his mostly black locks hadn’t turned ice-white just yet, but knows what fans know.

And it is this: Phil Coke probably is in his last throes as a Tigers reliever. Coke got a reprieve during spring camp when he pitched well in a string of late-March appearances and won life on the 25-man roster. But his fastball is not there and even as a situational left-handed reliever, the most welcoming of all roster hideouts, he looks like a pitcher who is not long for Detroit.

Joba Chamberlain is in a precarious place, as well. His fastball was hammered repeatedly by Orioles hitters the first game of the series. The Tigers have been careful with his workload two years after Tommy John surgery. They have stuck by their conviction that those two years of healing and a new culture would restore the spark to Chamberlain’s once-sizzling fastball and hard slider.

But not much of either has been on display, in Florida, or in Detroit. And when bullpens carry seven pitchers for a reason — they are needed, all of them — the Chamberlain experiment looks as if it could have been a mistake during a rare, critically panned offseason for Dombrowski.

Bullpen concerns do not end there. What, after all, is with Joe Nathan’s 91-mph fastball? Yes, it is early. Yes, it is cold. And, no, not in anyone’s memory was he throwing fastballs at such a comparatively moderate speed during his glory days with the Twins, nor with the Rangers.

One thought, difficult to dismiss, is that a man who turns 40 in November might be showing his years, particularly when most pitchers crowding 40 long ago returned to their man caves for years of intimacy with their flat-screens.

Nathan is not conventional. It’s particularly important — and for the Tigers, reassuring — to note what he did last season for the Rangers: 43 saves, 1.39 ERA, .167 opposing batting average.

If Nathan has lost anything, it was lost in a hurry, which is not a great percentage bet. Except, of course, when you factor in age and wonder just how long a man can beat baseball and life’s general realities.

Searching for answers

The Tigers are not looking at great options as they hunt for help, either in the bullpen, or at shortstop, where Gonzalez’s fielding issues, and Andrew Romine’s weak bat, make a team wince doubly over what it had in the injured Jose Iglesias.

Dombrowski understands finding help early in the season is nearly impossible. Teams are set. They have gotten rid of their discards, almost always because they weren’t the kind of players who would help them, or the Tigers.

It means happy trade opportunities can probably be forgotten until, at the earliest, June.

That leaves the minor leagues — and, yes, free agency, given that Stephen Drew still is unsigned and would be a handy answer at shortstop, if signing him to an expensive contract did not also require forfeiting a first-round pick.

The Tigers might decide by June 8 that they need Drew — if he is still on the market. The date is significant. This year’s draft is June 5-7 and not until the draft is finished can free agents, who otherwise demand loss of a first-round pick, be signed with no draft-pick compensation.

Or, the Tigers might discover within the next eight weeks that their shortstop prospects, Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez, have grown up on offense and can be moved to Detroit. Perez hit a home run off the scoreboard at Fifth Third Field last weekend and was hitting .250 through his early days at Triple A Toledo. Suarez, hitting .273 at Double A Erie, blasted two home runs Saturday.

Bullpen help, possibly, could also arrive in the persons of right-handers Melvin Mercedes (213 innings at Toledo, three hits, no runs, one walk, four strikeouts) and Corey Knebel (113 innings at Erie, two hits, no runs, no walks, two strikeouts), each of whom left spring camp with a shot at shifting to Detroit at some point this season.

But they are young and hitters in the big leagues are seasoned. And counting on a bail-out from below is nothing to bank on, not in early April.

Weak links are always the focus when weak links can undo what your ironclad elements otherwise have covered. The Tigers, from Dombrowski, to Ausmus, to players who understand the erratic paths of a 162-game season, know it’s best to not fixate on problems that can, in a flash, no longer be seen as issues.

And if that doesn’t work, they can always take a glimpse at that win-loss record. When you’re 4-1, you’re doing some things right. And that reality of performance and personnel could just as easily become this Tigers team’s ultimate story line.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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