April 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Tigers Mailbag: Weird beginning to season; Robbie Ray a candidate for a spot start

The popular thought is with Anibal Sanchez on the disabled list with that 'gross' blister, Robbie Ray, above, will be the pick when the Tigers finally need that fifth starter, on May 6. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

This has been one of the most bizarre starts to a Tigers season in recent memory, not with just the weather, which always is an issue this year, but also in the scheduling.

Twice already, they’ve had two off days sandwiched around a two-game series, once out in Los Angeles and this week in Chicago.

Combined with three rainouts — and perhaps more on the way, given this week’s forecast in Chicago — it’s been put the Tigers well behind the rest of the league in the games-played department.

Entering Tuesday, the Tigers had played just 21 games in 28 days. No other team had played fewer than 23. Most had played at least 25, 26 or 27. The Diamondbacks, because they stated early in Australia, had played 29.

This is going to make life rather difficult for the Tigers as they try to play catchup later in the season.

They’ve already lost one precious off-day, June 19, when they make up a game against the Royals. That’s during a stretch in which they’ll now play 20 games with no time off. They then have a doubleheader on the docket, against the Indians on July 19. Plus, the Twins and Tigers have a mutual off-day Aug. 25, so they’ll probably use that to make up Sunday’s washout, tacking on a fourth game to their series at Target Field — which would have the Tigers playing 23 days in a row.

Whew! They’ll be taking the dog days of summer — when the weather gets warmer, the legs get heavier and the mental freshness gets put to the test — to a whole new extreme.

The Tigers can only hope their bullpen woes are taken care of by then.

Now, onto this week’s Tigers Mailbag, which, one again, is chock full of questions about the Tigers ongoing search for a coherent bullpen.

Question: If Robbie Ray does end up filling in for Anibal Sanchez and pitches well, could they leave him here to pitch in the bullpen? — Chris Griffin

Answer: This is a popular question these days.

The popular thought is with Sanchez on the disabled list with that “gross” blister, Ray will be the pick to make the start when the Tigers finally need that fifth starter, on May 6.

And it could be a correct thought too. The Tigers don’t have an obvious candidate to join the rotation. Their buffer, Jose Alvarez, was traded in the spring to acquire shortstop Andrew Romine. He was their choice when they needed a sixth starter in 2013, and oddly, the Tigers never did need a seventh starter.

There are other options, though none perfect. Duane Below has major-league experience, but he’s really struggled to throw strikes at Triple A. Kyle Lobstein is another choice, but he’s had his struggles, too.

That leaves all signs pointing to Ray, the 22-year-old left-hander who was the centerpiece of the Tigers’ haul for Doug Fister in the offseason trade with the Nationals.

The Tigers originally looked at Ray as much more an option for 2015, or maybe a September 2014 callup. But now, interestingly, Ray could make his 2014 debut with the Tigers before Fister even throws a pitch for the Nationals.

Ray is off to a nice start at Toledo, particularly when it comes to pounding the strike zone. Still, it’s risky to bring him up — particularly in regard to general manager Dave Dombrowski’s reputation. He’s already looked bad with the Alex Gonzalez trade. The the last thing he needs is for Ray to come up and bomb in one start, thus lending credence — however unfair — to the perception the Tigers got ripped off by the Nationals.

Truth is, Ray simply isn’t ready. He’s made just 16 starts above Single-A ball, including just five at Triple-A Toledo. But he’s also the only logical choice to fill in for Sanchez.

But fill in for Sanchez is all he’ll do, at least for now. It’ll be good experience for Ray, who very well could be needed later in the year as the Tigers deal with their hellishly overbooked scheduled. But you can absolutely scrap any thoughts of moving Ray to the Tigers bullpen for the remainder of the season. (Only slightly more realistic is the idea of Ray joining the rotation, and Drew Smyly heading back to the bullpen.) The Tigers are focused on growth here, and cutting Ray’s innings by making him a reliever would only stunt that growth. And frankly, that’s not a risk the Tigers can afford, not when they’ll need another starter next spring, after Max Scherzer has departed via free agency.

Sure, the bullpen needs help, but there are other options, particularly on the left-handed side. There’s Below, Lobstein, Casey Crosby, Blaine Hardy and old friend Nate Robertson. Not all of them will stick, but odds are one certainly could, at least for a while.

In the meantime, Ray will be where he belongs — starting, and at Triple A.

Question: Is Nate Robertson a real possibility? — Mark.

Answer: Honestly, many fans don’t want to hear this, but you certainly can’t rule it out.

If there’s one thing you need to know about the Tigers, it’s that they’re an extremely loyal organization. They’re willing to give guys multiple shots, particularly if they’ve been around and helped out during some glory days.

For evidence, you need look no further back than last summer and fall, when they signed Jeremy Bonderman, sent him off to Toledo — and brought him up, smack dab in the middle of a playoff race.

Bonderman, despite some early returns, didn’t work out.

Odds are, Robertson won’t either. But he’s got one thing going for him — he’s left-handed, and the Tigers’ biggest deficiency in the bullpen is Phil Coke, a left-hander. It’s believed Coke is on borrowed time, and if time soon runs out, it wouldn’t surprise me one lick if Robertson gets the first phone call.

First, you must know: This isn’t the Robertson that left Detroit years back, after several seasons struggling to find his 2006 form. For starters, he’s not a starter anymore. He’s a reliever, and one with a new delivery. A couple years back, Robertson got a tip that dropping down to a more three-quarters arm slot could help prolong his career, and so far that’s proven to be true. The deception has worked.

He spent all of 2013 with the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate, and produced some impressive numbers. More eye-opening: He didn’t allow a single home run in 50.1 innings.

Robertson, 36, has kept that no-homer streak alive at Toledo, where opponents are batting just .226 against him, even if he has trouble finding the strike zone.

Translation: “Gum Time” could soon be coming back to a ballpark near you, at least for a limited time.

Question: The shortstop play by Romine has been good so far, but what do you put the chances of Stephen Drew being here in June after the draft? — HomeOfficeITM

Answer: Ah, behind the bullpen, the Tigers shortstop situation seems to be the most popular topic of conversation and debate. In fact, I had multiple questions on this during Tuesday’s Tigers Twitter chat.

Here’s how I would assess the Tigers shortstop situation: It could be worse.

Sure, the trade for Gonzalez was an absolutely debacle, especially after the Tigers sold their fans on the greatness that is Steven Lombardozzi. That never made sense, not with Don Kelly, another utility guy who doesn’t play shortstop, already in the fold.

But as bad as that trade was, the Tigers might’ve pulled one over on the Angels in acquiring Romine for Alvarez, a left-hander who couldn’t even stick on that awful pitching staff.

Romine, 28, comes better than advertised — his defense is super slick. He also runs the bases well, and looks like he can bunt and leg out some infield hits. For a team that was to set to start a player with a similar skill set in Iglesias, what more could you ask for?

That said, I still can’t see the Tigers completely ruling out Drew. (For the record, they haven’t.) That’s because their offense isn’t as potent as it was a year ago, and he’s a guy with good extra-base pop, particularly from the left side of the plate, where the Tigers are zeroes, outside Victor Martinez.

A four-month commitment — he can be signed after the June 5-7 draft without the Tigers forfeiting a draft pick or, more importantly, the bonus pool assigned to that draft pick — to Drew, 31, wouldn’t cost more than $8 million. And how much can that possibly be a concern, when this year the Tigers are spending nearly half that on Gonzalez and Coke?

Question: What is your opinion on Scherzer’s rejection of $144 million? — Bob Bickmeyer, via e-mail

Answer: I’m in the minority on this Bob, but it didn’t surprise me at all that he turned it down.

Sure, $144 million is unfathomable to me and — I assume — you, but the market trend in baseball suggest he’ll be worth more than that next offseason, especially if he comes anywhere close to putting up the kind of numbers he did in 2013.

Yes, it’s a gamble. But Scherzer, 29, knows his body, and expects to stay healthy, so it’s a low-risk gamble, to me.

Here’s another thing folks don’t consider: Scherzer is a big proponent of baseball’s players union, and there’s always a lot of pressure from the union for players to maximize their earnings. The theory is the more one player makes, the more the next guy up for a similar contract will get. In other words, Scherzer’s not just looking out for himself, but for those who come after him, too.

That’s certainly within his right. Some, myself included, might even call it admirable, not to mention all the good he figures to do in the world, a la Clayton Kershaw, with all those extra dollars.

Question: Are all these off days early in the season going to help the Tigers or hurt them. Hard to get consistency right now not playing. — Justin Aiken

Answer: It’s not the ideal situation for the Tigers, no question.

Baseball is the one sport meant to be played every day, or least 13 of every 14. And the Tigers aren’t doing that. In fact, between Saturday afternoon and Friday night, they’ll have played just two games — and that’s assuming no rainouts this week in Chicago.

It’s awfully difficult for a player — pitcher or hitter — to get into any type of rhythm that way. The starting pitchers really hate this, being such creatures of habit.

If there is a positive, it’s keeping hitters from needing a day off, and it’s keeping the overworked relievers fresh.

But the tradeoff — multiple three-week stretches with no off days later in the season — isn’t worth that.

Bottom line: It’s not good. At all. Chances are, this summer Tigers fans will realize that.

Have a question about the Tigers? E-mail Tony Paul at tpaul@detroitnews.com or ask him on Twitter at tonypaul1984, and your question might just end up in Tuesday’s Tigers Mailbag.