April 10, 2014 at 11:16 am

Tony Paul

With bullpen in shambles, Tigers should consider keeping Drew Smyly in relief

Detroit – A few weeks back, in a quiet corner of the Tigers home clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Drew Smyly sat at his locker, his left arm and shoulder wrapped tight with ice.

He had just made his latest start, ahead of a return to a Detroit rotation he missed dearly in 2013.

So I asked him what was different this year, knowing he would be a starter rather a reliever. And Smyly, at first, gave the stock answer. Nothing has changed. It's all about getting outs. Blah, blah, blah.

Then Smyly said something revealing – something he'd never dare say a year ago.

"I'm looking forwarding to making starts every five days," Smyly said that day in early March. "Pitching in relief is awesome, but after a while when you're used to starting so much, it kind of gets under your skin when you're facing one lefty and you're out of the game.

"That's hard to do."

But here's something else that's hard to do, at least for the Tigers bullpen these days: close out a game.

Already this year, just seven games into the season, the Tigers have blown a one-run lead in the ninth inning, a three-run lead in the ninth inning and almost all of a six-run lead in the ninth inning.

The bullpen is in absolute shambles right now, for a variety of reasons. But there's one man who has been nearly flawless – and that, interestingly, is Smyly, who has begun this season in the bullpen because the off-days made it unnecessary for the Tigers to carry a fifth starter until next week.

With three more scoreless innings in Wednesday night's win, Smyly, the left-hander, hasn't allowed a run in six relief innings this year, picking right up where he left off in 2013 – as the Tigers most trustworthy bullpen arm.

Which begs the question: Might the Tigers actually decide Smyly stay put?

Starter's pedigree

The vast majority of pitchers want to be starting pitchers. It's the more sexy job – and, if you make it as far as Smyly and Co., the most lucrative.

Take Nathan. He was a starter with the Giants. Take Mariano Rivera. He once started for the Yankees. And the list goes on and on.

And Smyly, the 24-year-old from Arkansas, came up through the Tigers organization with his sights set on starting. Twenty-eight of his 29 minor-league appearances were as a starter, as were 18 of his 23 outings during his rookie season in the major leagues, 2012.

Last year, he came to spring training looking to win a full-time spot in the rotation – and competed heartily against his good friend, Rick Porcello, to do just that. In the end, Porcello won out – in part because of his experience, and in part because the Tigers never received a satisfactory trade offer.

And they're glad they didn't. Porcello made great strides in 2013, so much so that Dave Dombrowski decided to part ways this offseason with Doug Fister, not Porcello, to clear a spot for Smyly.

The Tigers were excited about Smyly joining the rotation. They hadn't had a regular left-handed starter since the days of Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson, and given the Tigers top of the rotation features similar-style pitchers, showing foes a different look – from a different hand – was an exciting proposition.

Plus, while Smyly has the cool to handle late-inning pressure in relief, his pedigree is as a starter. He has more than two pitches – a good cut fastball, a good breaking ball, and a change-up that surprisingly was among his best off-speed offerings this spring.

Problem is, right now, this Tigers team needs relief help – and bad.

Joe "Dead Arm" Nathan is a major concern. He has two blown saves, and isn't fooling anybody. Time's clearly running out on Phil Coke. Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol have looked good recently, but remain question marks. Same goes for Al Alburquerque, whose experimentation with throwing more fastballs is a work in progress. Evan Reed, while not charged with anything, hasn't pitched since the sexual-assault claims became public. And Luke Putkonen apparently is so untrustworthy, he has yet to throw a single pitch in any of the 15.2 relief innings Detroit has racked up this year.

Throw it all together and the Tigers bullpen has a 5.74 ERA, opponents batting .299 against.

Now, just imagine how ugly those numbers would be if Smyly hadn't been moonlighting.

No time for seasoning?

If there's good news about the Tigers bullpen, it's that it hasn't had an opportunity to get into a rhythm of stinking. With three scheduled days off – including today – and one rainout, the Tigers have played just seven games in 11 days.

After the Padres series this weekend, the Tigers have another day off Monday – before they open a 10-game home stand, without a day off.

That's when the Tigers, finally, will need a fifth starter.

But should it be Smyly? He'll say yes, of course. Then again, he's not unreasonable. He's about winning, like everybody else in that clubhouse. He'll want to do what he can to help the team do well.

Now, the sky isn't completely falling. The Tigers have some pitching depth in the minor leagues – far more depth there than they have on the position-player side of things.

There are four names to watch the closest – two relievers, Melvin Mercedes and Corey Knebel, and two starters, Robbie Ray and Drew VerHagen.

Mercedes, a spitting image of Bruce Rondon, is at Triple A and Knebel is at Double A and, ideally, need some more seasoning. Ray, the signature piece in the Fister trade, and VerHagen both are at Triple A and in the perfect world could use more time in Toledo. But they both are considered a shade more prepared for the major leagues. Kyle Lobstein also is an option to start.

So if the starters in the minors are more ready than the bullpen reinforcements, perhaps Smyly's role could be changing – for at least the time being, until the relief corps gets settled, or until Mercedes and/or Knebel are ready for The Show. Frankly, that shouldn't be long.

"I feel," Smyly told me last month, "that the coaches know what I'm capable of."

They do. They know he should start, and they know he might have to relieve.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

Due to off-days and a rainout, Drew Smyly has yet to make a start this season; he has two relief appearances. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News