Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain has a 3.86 spring-training ERA, but more worrisome is his 1.86 WHIP. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Clearwater, Fla. — This was a script for this season, Wednesday’s game at Bright House Field, which saw the Tigers clip the Phillies, 1-0.
Those traits Dave Dombrowski has tried either to introduce or refine in his roster came together on an afternoon spiced by sun, blue sky, and a crisp Gulf breeze.
Most important for Dombrowski, who for 13 years has been captaining the Tigers front office, he got help from the one roster segment that most threatens to ruin his and his team’s 2014 playoff plans:
Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque, and Blaine Hardy finished Justin Verlander’s ongoing Grapefruit League artistry (61⁄3 innings, one hit, seven strikeouts, one walk) with 22⁄3 innings of one-hit relief.
The scary question as Dombrowski and his new manager, Brad Ausmus, lock up their roster ahead of Monday and Opening Day is how long the bullpen can be trusted in the aftermath of Bruce Rondon’s devastating departure.
Along with new closer Joe Nathan, Rondon ranked as the most important pitcher in Detroit’s restored and refurbished bullpen. Rondon had matured into a pitcher who was now doing what all along had been envisioned.
In seven Florida games, he had a 1.29 ERA and an even more telling WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 0.71. His numbers were a match for his growing poise. It was all a matter of experience Rondon finally had absorbed and could be expected to deliver during eighth innings that were almost certainly going to be his to handle.
But with Rondon gone, the Tigers relievers are thin and unsettled. And if they can’t be trusted to put away games, a team built on sterling starting pitching, and buoyed by a new emphasis on defense and lineup speed, could find itself destroying in one or two innings what it has spent six or seven innings carefully crafting.
“The bullpen is evolving,” Ausmus said after Wednesday’s game. “I’d love to say we’ve got an eighth-inning guy, and a seventh-inning guy, and a long guy. But that’s not how it’s worked out.”
Steady as he goes
It’s enough to unnerve a rookie manager who didn’t need bullpen issues ahead of managing his first official big-league game. Ausmus, though, has shown during his first seven weeks as manager that he has the diplomatic game nailed.
You see from him, just as you would have seen from his predecessor, Jim Leyland, or any smart manager, a kind of cool in handling potential problems. Ausmus neither sidesteps a legitimate question nor broods about players — in this case relievers — who aren’t coalescing quite as he and his boss had expected.
“I guess we’ll find out,” Ausmus said, almost casually, as he sat in the visiting manager’s office afterward and talked about bullpen roles. “This is kind of a work in progress with the injury to Rondon.”
Here are the cold, hard facts ahead of Monday’s opener against the Royals at Comerica Park:
■Nathan, of course, owns the ninth inning. Ignore his 5.68 ERA — he has been fine apart from one lousy inning. He might be 39, but Nathan will tidily close dozens of games in 2016.
■Alburquerque (1.13 ERA) has been brilliant and right now looks as if he will handle his share of set-up situations in the eighth. But this is where life for Ausmus gets sticky. Alburquerque is more ideally a seventh-inning option. His innings must be watched and the seventh has been a comfortable matchup frame for him.
■Alburquerque is monumentally important to the Tigers because of a second crisis: Joba Chamberlain. Do not be fooled by the 3.86 ERA. Pay attention instead to that hideous WHIP of 1.86, which is the product of having allowed 10 hits and three walks in seven innings. Chamberlain is, apparently, still in the latter stages of recovery from his 2012 Tommy John surgery. No matter what’s at work here, Chamberlain has not shown during his Florida stints that he can secure an inning.
■It brings us to Coke, who looked a couple of weeks ago as if he might not make the team but who has indeed made the club and has pitched well during the past 13 days. Ausmus sees a better breaking ball as the difference. It’s a difference that must hold up, because the primary left-handed option, Ian Krol, a quality pitcher who has had a couple of tough-luck outings, can’t do it alone, and no one’s yet sure a newcomer such as Hardy is ready for prime time.
■Evan Reed could become the most important man among Ausmus’ auditioning cast. He looks like a new man compared with 2013 and has sharpened all of his pitches. You must be careful counting on relievers, who are notoriously volatile, but Reed could help patch the county-sized hole that opened when Rondon was lost to Tommy John surgery.
■That leaves Luke Putkonen as the long man — and not a lot else. Dombrowski is doubtless shopping for help or a trade that might become more feasible in the next day or two as rosters are finalized and teams break camp.
He also is counting on one of his farm-system bright lights, notably Corey Knebel, an early draft pick in 2013, to pitch his way into the passing lane and arrive in Detroit sooner than later.
Heat is out
But it is not a group with which you can dust off your hands and relax as those winnable games are placed in the paws of Detroit’s relievers. They no longer bring the collective fire they offered when Rondon was on hand and ready for a breakout season.
It’s ironic, in a way that will make the Tigers wince. Their fans are mostly focused on shortstop and the merry-go-round that has been spinning there since Jose Iglesias was lost to fractured legs.
But shortstop will, at the very least, be handled. It’s the bullpen that will bear responsibility for winning games the Tigers on many days and nights will have controlled and cannot afford to lose because of a relief pitcher’s meltdown.