Henning: Don’t give up on Tigers pitching just yet
Lakeland, Fla. – In one week the Tigers will be in Miami, having enjoyed a couple of off-nights in South Beach, as they brace for a new season.
Fans wonder if the Tigers will have remembered to bring a bullpen when they meet the Marlins on Opening Day, April 5. It’s a scary thought that approached panic Sunday (Tigers Nation social media chatter) when things didn’t go well in an 8-3 loss to the Astros at Marchant Stadium.
Bruce Rondon had another bad day when a break from his exasperating ways would have benefited everyone. He got tattooed for four runs and a couple of homers in a sorrowful two-thirds of an inning that left him with an ERA of 9.00.
Lendy Castillo, a young right-hander signed by the Tigers during the offseason, had been pitching well and looked as if he might be the answer when a handful of relievers are hurting and in doubt of being ready for Miami. He instead walked three batters, also in two-thirds of an inning, before he was humanely pulled.
On an afternoon when starter Mike Pelfrey had his first bad start (seven hits, four runs, two walks, five innings), it was easy to wonder, particularly when so many relievers are hurting or struggling, if a pitching staff is in any kind of shape for April.
And the answer is: Probably not. Or, rather, not yet.
Last year’s best reliever, Alex Wilson, looks as if he’s shelved until sometime in April as he heals slowly from a sore shoulder. Blaine Hardy, a left-hander who was pretty much fail-safe last season, is a couple of weeks, at least, from being ship-shape because of an “impingement” in his throwing shoulder.
Elsewhere, these are your statistical updates on Tigers relievers as the team begins to pack ahead of Saturday’s trip to Miami:
■ Mark Lowe: 9.82 ERA.
■ Justin Wilson: 9.00 ERA.
■ Bobby Parnell: 8.68 ERA.
■ Drew VerHagen: 6.23 ERA.
Between reliable relievers ailing, and newcomers struggling, you wonder if Tigers fans might find themselves yearning for the good old days when their anxiety was pretty much confined to Jose Valverde or Joe Nathan.
Until, that is, a dose of perspective forces its way into Detroit’s bullpen debate. The Tigers pitching staff, relievers included, should be at least competent for these reasons:
Wilson and Hardy are expected back at some point in April.
Lowe and Wilson are quality pitchers whose spring ERAs are subject to the usual Grapefruit League distortions and aren’t to be taken seriously.
Apart from one bad outing, VerHagen has pitched well and looks as if he could become a back-end handyman.
Parnell? He is on a post-Tommy John surgery timeline and has been getting sturdier by the outing. Sunday, he was nicked for a double, then struck out two batters, the last on a called 96-mph fastball, in a scoreless inning. This is closer to the pitcher, a one-time 100-mph fireballer for the Mets, Detroit’s front office thought it might be getting when he was signed last month.
The question for Ausmus and his boss, general manager Al Avila, is one of time. How soon will ailing pitchers heal? Can a comeback reliever like Parnell rekindle his power pitches? And how quickly can some important younger talent (Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer) help, either on Opening Day or after the season has gotten rolling?
It is why Tigers Nation would be wise to jot down the Opening Day roster in pencil — accompanied by a sturdy eraser. This staff will be fluid, particularly early in 2016, as injured or ineffective pitchers are replaced by options Avila spent much of the offseason collecting.
Depth is the answer
He was asked after Sunday’s tumult if some sudden bullpen agony was threatening to undo a GM’s 2016 plans.
“You can’t get overly excited by a string of good performances, and you can’t be overly worried when those same people aren’t performing well,” Avila said. “Injuries, the kind we’re having, are one thing you feel you can overcome in very short period of time.
“As far as poor performance during spring training? You’ve got to go by your history a bit. For me, guys like Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson — I don’t worry too much about those guys. Eventually they’ll find their groove.
“Some of the others,” he said, speaking mostly of Rondon, “well, they’re younger guys who are going to have ups and downs. But that’s why you want depth. And we feel we have it, right down to some people in minor league camp who aren’t now in major league camp but who could help in short time.”
This is supposed to calm the Comerica Park crowd, which about 4 p.m. Sunday was headed for the Ambassador Bridge for some depressed, disconsolate dives into the Detroit River?
“I can understand fans on days like today — and we’ve had three or four of them — being upset,” Avila said. “But, really, we’re not different at this stage from a lot of clubs. When you only focus on one team, you think the world’s coming to an end.
“But it’s not that way at all.”
Avila is right — or so it would seem.
But if things don’t go well in Miami, or, more critically, in the days and weeks after that opening series, prepare for amended words by the GM, and by a newspaper guy who, like everyone else, knows your baseball team is as good as its pitching.