Niyo: Avila deserves share of blame for bullpen woes

John Niyo
The Detroit News

It’s not entirely the manager’s fault. It’s not simply his general manager’s fault, either.

But it’s Brad Ausmus’ problem right now. And it’s Al Avila’s job to fix it, if he can. Or if he’s allowed.

There is no easy solution for the Tigers’ never-ending, late-inning issues. But blaming the manager for running Francisco Rodriguez out there for the ninth inning again Sunday in Oakland, precipitating another calamitous loss for a .500 team that can’t afford many of those, does seem like the easy way out.

Mostly because it ignores the offseason intransigence from the front office, and the dearth of reliable options available to Ausmus with the game on the line and his starting pitcher in the dugout.

Avila admitted as much during spring training, and then again a couple of weeks ago, noting the Tigers’ up-and-down start to the season was not unexpected for one reason in particular.

“We knew we were going to have good starting pitching, be pretty good offensively and struggle a little bit with the bullpen,” he said.

A “little bit” of a struggle hardly matches April’s league-worst numbers from the relief corps, of course. But it’s a lot more than the GM had admitted by his actions last winter, when talk of a fire sale quickly cooled and the Tigers decided to make one more run at a pennant with a $200 million payroll. Avila knew the Tigers had bullpen issues in 2016, yet he added not one big-league arm to address that need, despite available options. (Greg Holland, for one.)

And now here we are in the second week in May with the Tigers’ ’pen already staining half the team’s losses and carrying a league-worst ERA (5.93) after 30 games. Things had gotten a bit better in the first week of May, sure, as the bullpen pitched 14 consecutive scoreless innings before K-Rod’s Saturday night meltdown.

Still, Ausmus’ frustration with the situation has been apparent going back to Opening Day. He doesn’t often lose his cool, but the manager — working on the final year of his contract — has had sharp words for his relievers’ struggles as they consistently fall behind hitters, unable to throw strikes. And some of his decisions have felt more like demands, at times, most notably involving Anibal Sanchez. Heck, even Sunday’s much-maligned move sent a message, of sorts, though the fans certainly didn’t understand it.

It’s not easy demoting a respected veteran who ranks fourth on the all-time saves list. But there can’t be any arguments inside the clubhouse after Sunday’s invalidation, which left K-Rod with back-to-back blown saves in a 24-hour span and four in 11 opportunities this season. His fastball command has left him, and his velocity is down even more, to the point where it doesn’t sound much different than his trusted change-up, whether it’s hitting the catcher’s glove or the outfield seats.

Creativity needed

What this latest implosion does do is offer an opportunity for the Tigers to prove they’re serious about emphasizing analytics. The best solution for replacing Rodriguez as the closer might be to replace him with math, if you will. By handing Justin Wilson, the team’s best reliever, the highest-leverage situations, no matter the inning. And then dealing with the rest as it goes.

Henning: 9 options for Tigers' closer woes

We saw it work in the postseason last fall, albeit from teams blessed with championship-caliber bullpens. And maybe it’d work for a while here, biding time until some of the younger arms — Bruce Rondon, Joe Jimenez — are ready to try, try again, or until Avila gets the green light to make a trade for a proven reliever. (Don’t hold your breath.)

For now, though, assuming Ausmus is sticking to traditional setup-closer roles, he’ll probably opt to slide Justin Wilson into that ninth-inning role. Mostly because he earned it, allowing just four hits and four walks in 15 outings this season. That’d leave Alex Wilson for the eighth, with help from Shane Greene — still the wild card in this equation, if you ask me — and give Rodriguez a chance to regain his command in lower-leverage situations in the sixth and seventh inning.

There are a few other options in Toledo, but Rondon, though he has pitched better of late, hasn’t proven he can be trusted, and Jimenez, who didn’t look quite ready in his first major-league stint, is working through a minor back issue. Arcenio Leon impressed in spring training and has been effective as the Mud Hens’ closer this spring, but he has never pitched in the majors.

Free agents fizzle

This is where the subject turns to Avila, however. Because if K-Rod has earned a “degree of respect for what he did last year” in Detroit, along with the successful career that preceded it, as Ausmus explained Sunday, it’s difficult to say the same for Avila.

Wojo: Tigers have to make change at closer now

He probably deserves more credit than he gets for his work at the 2015 deadline alongside Dave Dombrowski, and the deals Avila made later that fall after Dombrowski was fired — acquiring Rodriguez, Justin Wilson and Cameron Maybin for mostly spare parts.

But Avila’s free-agent signings, with the exception of Justin Upton, perhaps, have largely gone bust in his first 19 months on the job. Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t been the bulldog fans were promised, and Avila had no choice but to ask ownership to eat the remaining $13.5 million on contracts for Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe. The Tigers’ reluctance to part company with Sanchez and his hefty salary further limits his manager’s day-to-day options.

Ausmus began the season without a center fielder and now he can’t trust 30 percent of his bullpen. And given all the go-for-broke deals Dombrowski made chasing a World Series ring over the years, there just isn’t the kind of developing talent in the pipeline to help put out this latest fire. That might not be anyone’s fault directly, but more than just the manager should have to answer for it.