December 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Bolstering bullpen should remain atop Tigers' to-do list

The Tigers need more than just a closer to bolster their bullpen, and a reliever like Chad Qualls could give them a lift. (Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)

Who fills the Tigers’ biggest need? Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo or Curtis Granderson? No, no and no — how soon we all forget.

While many people are focusing on how to create the strongest lineup, we all seem to be a bit distracted from the Tigers’ greatest need: relief pitching.

Bullpen help was the team’s biggest need entering 2013. The Tigers became so desperate as to give Jose Valverde a shot to close again. After that failed and Joaquin Benoit moved into the closer’s role, the Tigers sent a couple of prospects to Houston for Jose Veras.

Today, Veras and Benoit are both free agents, and Drew Smyly may or may not move into the rotation, depending on what offers for his starting pitchers Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski hears at the winter meetings a week from now. That leaves left-hander Phil Coke and a pair of young right-handers, Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque, as the Tigers’ featured players.

Does that sound ideal to anyone at all? Didn’t think so.

So what the Tigers need is a bit like that infamous video of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer repeating the word “developers” over and over and over.

Relief pitchers, relief pitchers, relief pitchers, relief pitchers, relief pitchers … well, you get the point.

The biggest mistake Dombrowski made heading into 2013 was the belief Rondon would be ready to make the jump straight from minor-league fireballer to big league closer. Undoubtedly that mistake will not be repeated.

Brian Wilson, Grant Balfour, Joe Nathan and former Tigers Fernando Rodney and Joaquin Benoit are all still available, as the market for closers seems to be waiting for the first domino to fall.

Any of those pitchers can probably pitch fine in the ninth inning, with Nathan being the one who most fans clamor for, while Wilson, Balfour and Rodney likely coming as lesser expensive but still effective options.

Getting a good closer is important, of course. The ninth inning has to be a place of strength for a championship-caliber team.

But don’t forget what led to the Tigers’ downfall in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series: four relief pitchers each were tagged with a run when David Ortiz hit his grand slam into the right-field stands and half of them are gone. Even before that, the bullpen issue snuck up on no one.

Beyond that, you have to remember the injury risks both Alburquerque and Rondon carry.

Alburquerque is coming off a fracture in his elbow in 2011, and Rondon missed the end of the 2013 season with an injury to his throwing elbow. Coke, too, missed a portion of 2013 with problems in his throwing elbow.

None of that is to say injuries will occur for sure in 2014, nor that a player previously injury free couldn’t have one of his own.

But a team with World Series dreams, an already weak bullpen and injury issues with most of the remaining pitchers can’t just skate by on good wishes alone.

Maybe the right-handed answer will involve Chad Qualls, Pat Neshek or even Joba Chamberlain, though the latter on that list will need to get his walks back under control. Scott Downs, Boone Logan, J.P. Howell and others may offer left-handed help. Maybe the Tigers can find a way to keep Benoit while also signing a closer.

There are many paths to finding a right answer. You can never have enough arms in the bullpen.

The only wrong answer would be paying too little attention to the biggest need and finding it again the Achilles heel in 2014.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

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