April 11, 2014 at 2:37 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers develop starting arms on the farm, but relievers another matter

Joe Nathan has struggled at times in the early going with the Tigers. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Note the following names and what they have in common beyond their past and present job stations in the Tigers bullpen:

Todd Jones, Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Joe Nathan, Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel.

All were leading names brought to Detroit to help fix the Tigersí relief pitching. All came by way of trades or free-agent signings. None were products of the Tigers draft.

This, in part, is why a team finds itself with issues, maybe season-killing issues. Relief pitching threatens to ruin what great starting pitching and a talented batting order have combined to craft through the early and mid-innings of a big-league game.

The Tigers have a 39-year-old closer, Nathan, who will be paid $20 million during the next two seasons and who might well smooth into the fabulous reliever he has been for the past 15 years. Or, during these rocky April appearances, he might be displaying signs of age that typically send big-league pitchers into retirement.

Added to the departure of Bruce Rondon, potentially the bullpenís Most Valuable Pitcher before he needed Tommy John surgery, the bullpen has been a crisis center. And no one knows how soon, or how effectively, replacement parts might be in stock.

Finding balance

It is easy to say a team with holes has done a shoddy job of drafting. That isnít necessarily the case in all situations in big-league baseball. And it isnít the whole story in Detroit. Every team has holes. There are too many roster spots, and too little chance of prospects making it to the big leagues, for any team to survive solely on the draft.

You must also balance a bad bullpen with the Tigersí rank as owning perhaps the best starting pitching in all of baseball. Most of those pitchers have arrived via Detroitís draft: Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly.

It is also worth considering that farm-grown starters ó Drew VerHagen, Jonathon Crawford, etc. ó are within a year or two of Comerica Park, as is the best reliever in the system, Corey Knebel, who was drafted last June and who might be in Detroit in a matter of weeks.

But a team that typically loads up on arms and makes pitching its calling card has had little good fortune in sending relievers to Detroit.

Trades and injuries

In fairness to David Chadd, the Tigersí director of amateur scouting, the Tigers have traded relief pitchers other clubs saw as pluses. Charlie Furbush and Chance Ruffin went to the Mariners for Doug Fister, while trade packages the Tigers sent to the Marlins and Yankees for Miguel Cabrera and Gary Sheffield were laden with relievers.

Some of the Tigersí prized picks were also lost to injuries that either ruined, or slowed, what should have been big-league careers: Cody Satterwhite, Scott Green, etc. But overall, the returns have not been great, which is why Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers general manager, has been forced almost every year to shop for expensive help in the bullpen.

Again, to put this into fairer context, virtually all contending clubs have the same annual hangups with their bullpen. Itís baseballís experience in supply and demand. There are not enough quality relievers in the game to stock a bullpen with farm-raised arms. And even when a team crafts a reasonable relief corps by way of drafts and player-shopping, rarely is it a sure thing.

This is why the Tigers are staring at a problem far more serious than they can afford to publicly acknowledge. They now march into the latter innings of a game in which no lead is truly safe.

They fought mightily Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium and had a three-run lead in the ninth inning of a game put into Nathanís custody. A half-inning later, it was tied.

The Tigers had a 7-1 lead against the Orioles in the ninth inning of last Saturdayís game against the Orioles at Comerica Park. They were lucky to survive, 7-6.

The Tigersí win-loss column is in better shape than their confidence level entering those perilous late innings. If a team begins to approach those innings, defensively, or with a sense of impending doom, a dangerous level of futility begins to creep into a teamís psyche.

It isnít that serious of a situation yet. But itís an inevitable condition if the Tigers cannot defeat big-league hitters in those waning innings.

For that to happen, some existing personnel ó Nathan, primarily ó must pitch to presumed capabilities. And even if some current stalwarts pitch according to script, the Tigers will still need help, soon, from a farm system that hasnít to date produced enough arms to make a bullpen fully functional.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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