Mensching: Despite defeat, Tigers bullpen headed in right direction

By Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

A series of mishaps Sunday might lead you to believe the Tigers’ bullpen still has a long way to go. You can be forgiven for doubting. After all, it seems as if most of the team’s ills for the past decade land firmly on a bullpen unable to do its job.

This time, it might actually be headed for something good.

It began with an admission. The team hadn’t planned to start Buck Farmer against the Twins. Jacob Turner had been slated to get the call, brought back from Toledo nine days after being designated for assignment in order to sign Zach McAllister.

Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez earned his first All-Star Game berth at age 23.

Three appearances, 10 hits and eight runs later, McAllister himself was handed walking papers to make room for Turner. There was just one problem. Unless there’s an injury requiring the disabled list, teams have to leave a player sent to the minors there for at least 10 days. That prevents a season-long roster dance to get around the 25-man limit.

So, Farmer, Zac Reininger, Daniel Stumpf (the player actually recalled Sunday) and Alex Wilson wound their way through seven innings in Minnesota, taking a 4-4 tie into the eighth.

That’s when catcher James McCann asked Wilson to go high in the strike zone to Eddie Rosario, and the ball landed in the Target Field stands for the go-ahead run a moment later.

Manager Ron Gardenhire didn’t like the decision, but you get what you get with McCann calling a game.

Louis Coleman finished the day for the Tigers’ bullpen, getting the final two outs on two pitches.

So just how do you get anything remotely positive out of that series of unfortunate events?

The big picture: The Tigers have a chance to head into 2019 and beyond with a bullpen actually capable of getting outs and shortening games.

The 23-year-old Joe Jimenez, the Tigers’ lone All-Star this year, is the most obvious reason for excitement. Even with his innings load being kept in check as the final meaningless month and a half plays out, Jimenez made all the necessary strides this season to give you confidence he’ll actually be the rare can’t-miss reliever in the organization who didn’t miss.

While his strikeout rate (26.7 percent) isn’t quite as high as he carried during his minor league career, he made strides over his initial foray into the big leagues while more importantly cutting back his rate of walks issued (7.7 percent). Jimenez also brought his home run problem under control, giving up less than one per nine innings pitched, more than cutting his HR/9 in half.

And then there’s Shane Greene. By the end of June, the 29-year-old was struggling after being the only possible choice for the team’s closer. Greene had already racked up five losses to go with three blown saves, and an ERA of 4.14 did not exactly scream “shutdown closer” at the top of its lungs. After one appearance in July, he landed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain.

The rest helped. He has allowed runs in four of his 13 appearances since then for a 3.38 ERA, while striking out 10 while walking three.

However, Victor Alcantara is the truly intriguing figure in the bullpen, and he could help Detroit effectively shorten games to six innings more often than not.

Alcantara came from the Angels after the 2016 season in exchange for Cameron Maybin. He didn’t look like much of a get then, and in fact didn’t look like much of a get when he made his MLB debut in 2017, either.

Before this year, Alcantara simply had no control at all. He walked 14.4 percent of batters faced with Double-A Erie last year, 12.5 percent with Triple-A Toledo, and 10.3 percent with the Tigers. In six appearances with Detroit he posted an 8.59 ERA.

This year, he’s an entirely new pitcher. He cut his walk rate to an astounding 3.4 percent with the Mud Hens this year, while increasing his rate of strikeouts. The control resulted in much better results, and he had a 2.81 ERA to show for it.

Since getting the call to Detroit in July, he’s been nothing short of remarkable. He didn’t give up his first run until his sixth appearance, and he hasn’t given up a second one in the eight appearances since. His 0.51 ERA is bolstered by a K rate of 19.1 percent and walk rate of 4.4 percent.

And he’s just 25 years old.

Baseball’s a funny, sometimes sad game. Gains made one year can be lost the next. Everything that makes the future of the late-inning bullpen look good now could blow up by spring training 2019.

But if it doesn’t? The Tigers have something positive to build on for not just next season, but years in the future when they hope to be contending again.

Now, if they can only find solutions to the other problems.

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.