Mensching: Tigers’ bullpen woes start with front office

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

Oops. He did it again.

The Tigers were in a position to pick up a series victory against the Oakland Athletics on Saturday night when their closer could not close out the game.

The Tigers were in a position to pick up a series victory against Oakland Athletics on Sunday afternoon when their closer could not close out the game.

Feels like I’m repeating myself a bit lately.

Two games. Two excruciating ninth-inning defeats. For some reason I suspect manager Brad Ausmus’ slow decision to change closers will come up in conversation again in September.

It’s a good thing Francisco Rodriguez is a Proven Closer (™).

We know Rodriguez is a Proven Closer because he has successfully closed baseball games. You can look it up. The stat don’t lie.

Clearly we do not need any other numbers to know what makes a closer, because a league-leading four blown saves in 2017 have no point in this discussion. Nor do the blown saves last September, including the season backbreaker in which Rodriguez gave up five runs to the Royals.

Nor does the 8.49 ERA in 2017. Nor does a strikeout to walk ratio that was 5.64 two seasons ago falling to 2.60. Nor does an FIP in 2017 of 6.55.

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Nor does the fact his fastball has fallen to an average velocity of 88.3 mph, per PitchF/X data at Fangraphs. Nor does the fact his changeup has inched up to 83.6 mph at the same time.

No. None of this matters. Because Francisco Rodriguez is a Proven Closer (™), and what a team needs is someone who knows how to get the job done in the ninth inning.

The counter-argument goes like this: What do you expect the Tigers to do? Installing Justin Wilson as closer might solve the ninth inning — if only the Tigers can get a lead to him.

That’s fair, but not entirely. On one hand, it’s going to be hard to find a reliever as bad as K-Rod at this point. Just about anything earlier in the game should be better. On the other hand, the Tigers’ bullpen has a 5.87 combined ERA, the worst in baseball.

And every time you want to give the benefit of the doubt to just about any player sitting out there, they’ll find a way to throw egg on your face.

Without a doubt, Ausmus is not in a good position today. Those have been words we’ve written and said for a few years now.

You can’t judge Ausmus, the theme goes, because he does not have a good bullpen to work with.

And guess what? They’re right. There’s certainly no denying that. Ausmus’ bosses — both departed GM Dave Dombrowski and current GM Al Avila — seem to struggle when it comes to putting together an organization that can get outs consistently after the starter leaves the game. Or, to execute the fundamentals elsewhere in the game, for that matter.

Sometimes you like to think of successful bullpens as happy luck. Some combination of savvy moves and failed starters get together and magic happens.

What the Tigers seem to have goes beyond merely a lack of luck. Year after year they fail to generate organizational help, while being forced to roll the dice on the free-agent or trade markets.

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Look where the Tigers’ bullpen arms have come from.

• Rodriguez: Trade with the Brewers

• Justin Wilson: Trade with the Yankees

•  Shane Greene: Trade with the Yankees

•  Alex Wilson: Trade with the Red Sox

•  Blaine Hardy: Signed after being released by the Royals

•  Anibal Sanchez: First a trade with the Marlins, then a demotion from the rotation

That leaves us with Kyle Ryan (oops), Bruce Rondon (no) and Joe Jimenez (he’s young) as the three homegrown players with the most bullpen appearances, and none of them have helped matters much.

You can point your finger at Ausmus and say the manager must go — and he seemingly opens the door to it every time he calls on the wrong reliever when there is no right answer.

But at what point do we call it like it is: an organization that fails to draft or develop much talent on its own?

That’s not just a bullpen problem. Look at the roster and find a player drafted after Nicholas Castellanos (2010) or one signed as an international free agent that even begins to resemble a difference maker. Truly, it’s hard to even find players the team has traded away that have been all that great either — although that Eugenio Suarez trade stings.

Look, the Tigers should move Rodriguez out of the closer’s role. If Ausmus doesn’t do that, it’s his fault. That’s obvious and too easy to say.

If he does do it and it doesn’t matter, that’s not Ausmus’ fault. That’s the front office’s.

This organization needs to be a lot better — bottom to top — to have a positive future, and the failure we see in the bullpen is just another crack in a flawed foundation.

It’s only a matter of time before the whole house collapses.

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