June 22, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Tigers bullpen issues called into sharp focus by Jose Valverde move

Detroit— Here they are, almost halfway home, and yet the Tigers still don’t know whom to trust with the keys.

Friday’s announcement that they’re pulling the plug on the ill-fated Jose Valverde experiment was hardly a surprise. Not after the erstwhile closer allowed six home runs his last 713 innings of so-called relief.

That the team decided to designate Valverde for assignment rather than giving him his outright release — even suggesting a trip to Triple A Toledo might be all it’ll take to “get him fixed” — really wasn’t, either.

As general manager Dave Dombrowski explained prior to Friday night’s 10-6 loss the Red Sox before a sellout crowd of 41,126 at Comerica Park, “We figure we have nothing to lose to try.”

Try, try again. That’s been the theme all spring for the Tigers and their relief corps. Dombrowski helped create this mess, first by balking at the high-priced help in free agency while hyping his flame-throwing rookie in Bruce Rondon, and then by inviting Valverde back to start another dumpster fire in late April.

If nothing else, that has given us all something to talk about. But to hear Dombrowski talk Friday, there’s, um, nothing to talk about, really.

“Our bullpen is really middle-of-the-road in baseball,” he insisted. “It’s not last in baseball. It’s middle-of-the-road. It’s just that at inopportune times we’ve lost some tough ballgames — and at the end.”

Staying put, maybe

As opposed to all those opportune times to blow late-inning leads, I guess. But even with a starting rotation that’s “second to none,” as Dombrowski called it — right before Doug Fister allowed six runs and 11 hits in 313 innings Friday — the fans shouldn’t accept the notion that a “middle-of-the-road” bullpen without a proven closer is acceptable. Because it’s simply not for a team with a $150 million payroll that’s otherwise built to win a World Series.

Tigers relievers rank 22nd in the majors with a 3.99 ERA, while the bullpen’s 5-13 record ranks dead last.. They own the fourth-worst seventh-inning ERA in the majors and the fourth-worst in the ninth inning and beyond. And just for good measure Friday, they gave up a run in the sixth and two in the eighth.

Al Alburquerque’s back and that should help — Leyland was desperate for another right-hander — but Rondon’s staying put in Toledo for now. (“It wouldn’t surprise me at some point this year if he’s ready to help us,” Dombrowski said.) Octavio Dotel remains in injury limbo, and the GM says now it’d be a “bonus” if he returned at all this season.

So that leaves Leyland with only two veteran arms in the bullpen, and one of them belongs to Phil Coke, the lefty with the 6.14 ERA.

Still, Dombrowski says, “We’re comfortable with this group right now.”

And later?

“I can’t speak for August,” he replied. “I’m not a fortune teller.”

Neither am I, but I’d be shocked if the Tigers’ GM didn’t make a move prior to the July 31 trade deadline to make everyone — especially Jim Leyland — a little more comfortable with the relief staff.

Benoit, for now

Right now, it does Dombrowski no good to publicly fret about it. That only hurts his leverage as he searches for the right deal in what is shaping up to be a seller’s market.

Jonathan Papelbon’s name is out there — he’s still owed upwards of $35 million the next 2½ years — but the Phillies say he’s not on the block. The Mets are saying the same about Bobby Parnell. Other closers that teams like Detroit — and Boston, which has a similar problem — figure to be inquiring about include Toronto’s Casey Janssen, Miami’s Steve Cishek and San Diego’s Huston Street.

Among setup men, Jesse Crain has been dominant this season, posting a 0.55 ERA with 43 strikeouts in 3223 innings, but the White Sox already are 10½ games out in the AL Central. Seattle’s Tom Wilhelmsen or Washington’s Drew Storen could be available as well.

But those are just names on a list right now, and as Dombrowski notes, the list of teams that have the eighth and ninth innings on lockdown is shorter than the drive down I-75 to Toledo. (“A lot of people have struggled with the back end of their bullpens,” he said.)

Asked if that made it harder to figure out the marketplace, Dombrowski shook his head.

“I can’t answer that,” he said, “because we’re not close enough to (the deadline).”

They’re not close to finding any stability in the bullpen, either. And Leyland, who has to share in the blame for some of his late-inning decisions, is understandably tired of answering questions on that topic. He grew agitated again before Friday’s game, when asked to clarify just what the plan is now when protecting a lead.

“For the 50,000th time, (Joaquin) Benoit, when available — healthy and ready to go and rested — will get most of the closing opportunities,” Leyland said. “And anything else, we’ll mix and match. And if I have to use somebody else, I will do that.”

He will, undoubtedly, until his boss can come up with a better answer.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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The Tigers designating out-of-favor relief pitcher Jose Valverde for assignment speaks to a larger issue when it comes to the team's unsettled bullpen situation. / Elizabeth Conley/The Detroit News