Mensching: Tigers bullpen can prove Dombrowski right

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski had a pretty simple explanation for why he hasn't spent nearly as much time this offseason worrying about the bullpen as the team's fans have.

It's already stocked with good arms. And he's right.

That statement sounds ridiculous on the surface. Heading into the stretch runs and playoffs last year, everyone knew that about the only thing that could unravel the Tigers' World Series hopes would be a thin bullpen.

When the team couldn't hold onto leads in the postseason yet again — blowing a three-run lead in the second game of the ALDS all but assured Detroit's series fate — there was at least an honesty in the way the season ended. The Achilles' heel felled them, just as we knew it would.

The head-scratcher came later when little was done in the offseason to fix that need. How do you not go after every live arm you can find, beginning with former Tiger Andrew Miller, who sliced through the team in the ALDS? Dombrowski, however, sat in his office, already content with what he'd built.

Unpredictability in the 'pen

Bullpens are an interesting thing. It sounds like it should be easy to build one. Get a couple of good relief pitchers with track records and your late innings are locked down.

Pitchers like Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria, right? Well, that's how it's supposed to work, anyway.

What happened to Detroit's bullpen last year is not an altogether uncommon story, though.

"I talked to MLB.com's Peter Gammons and he made a great point," Dombrowski said Saturday during TigerFest. "A few years ago Cleveland was No. 1 in bullpen ERA. They brought the same guys back and finished last the next year. They brought them all back again the next year and finished ninth. I feel good about our club in the bullpen."

The truth of the matter is, you never truly know what's going to happen with relievers, and it's quite possible some of the bigger names on the market will fizzle and sputter just as Nathan did in the first half. The Oracle of Delphi would have a hard time telling you whose bullpen is going to be a good surprise and whose will be a bad one.

The good with the bad

Faced with this, Dombrowski built his bullpen from the back end forward. The eighth and ninth innings have been handed to a pair of proven closers, Soria and Nathan. Both stumbled at times last year but rather than give up on them the Tigers are giving them a shot to prove that aberration truly was one.

Nathan came off a 1.39 ERA in 2013 only to watch the figure balloon to 7.04 in early June. In the final three months of the season he saved 18-of-20 chances and had a 3.18 ERA. You know, that's not bad.

Soria quickly fell to the disabled list after being acquired in July, but allowed just one earned run in seven appearances in September. You know, that's not bad, either.

Al Alburquerque finished the season with a 2.51 ERA, improving to a 1.93 ERA figure after the All-Star Break. That's not bad, either.

The hope that Bruce Rondon will be a full contributor early in the season seems unlikely, but by the end of the year the fireballing closer-in-waiting may be a force.

Then you start to add in any number of names, from veterans Tom Gorzelanny or Joel Hanrahan, to offseason acquisition Alex Wilson, to minor league starters like Kyle Ryan or Buck Farmer, to relievers from last season like Ian Krol or Blaine Hardy, and you don't have to squint too hard to see what Dombrowski sees: potential to turn things around.

The bullpen is an uncertainty — it was going to be one no matter what — and declaring anything else would be a mistake.

But Dombrowski's right to think there are good arms in this 'pen. Now it's on them to prove him right.

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