Henning: Tigers need to fix bullpen or miss playoffs

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Joakim Soria

Lakeland, Fla. – It's time for anyone pretending there isn't an issue to accept an obvious, and uncomfortable, truth about the Tigers.

If they don't come away with some bullpen answers – immediately – this team has little chance to win the American League Central or to steal a wildcard playoff spot. If they don't stabilize their relief pitching, it's possible the Tigers will have a mess of an April and become buried because of an overload of divisional games early in their schedule.

Manager Brad Ausmus and his boss, Dave Dombrowski, can't say the situation is critical because there's no upside to acknowledging something abundantly, if not shockingly, clear to those who follow this team.

This team is ready to explode at just about any stage of the latter innings.

Remedies are not simple. They're not bulletproof. But because bullpens can change complexion in a blur, the Tigers potentially can escape their toughest hours, the early days and weeks of April, if certain personnel can tackle specific jobs and have reasonable success.

That's a big "if," but it's at least possible.

A makeover begins with naming Joakim Soria the Tigers' new closer. No longer can there be any pretense that Joe Nathan is Detroit's ninth-inning agent. No longer can there be wishing, hoping, and praying that a 40-year-old man will somehow get younger and regain pitches and command his body won't allow.

So long, Joe

A next step in retooling Detroit's back-end is to make Bruce Rondon the Tigers' new set-up man. He has had a neck problem the past few days, which hasn't helped a guy on a tight timeline in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. But if Rondon at the end of this week is healthy enough to pitch with any degree of command, he bails out Ausmus and options a manager will require on Opening Day and beyond.

Joe Nathan

This is not a situation the Tigers anticipated, even when their bullpen has been a sore spot since late in 2012. A slightly different approach, built on volume arms, was supposed to have guarded against the very mess in which Detroit finds itself this week.

But then realities crashed down.

Joel Hanrahan, who might have been a steal, departed for his second Tommy John surgery in two years. Nathan's age has all but canceled thoughts he can be effective. Joba Chamberlain, who should be throwing better than he has been dealing during a shoddy spring camp (8.22 ERA), looks like the Chamberlain from last October's playoffs.

Angel Nesbitt has immense talent but reveals risks in trusting a pitcher who never has worked above Double A. Tom Gorzelanny, a left-hander with a name and a track record, has pitched poorly. Buck Farmer, Jose Valdez, Josh Zeid, Rafael Dolis, Alberto Cabrera, Alex Wilson – one of two of these gents might help later this season. But none is yet ready.

That leaves a core group with few trustworthy options.

Soria, Rondon, Al Alburquerque, Nesbitt, and – because choices are so few – Chamberlain – probably will go north next week. The Tigers then can go with two left-handers, Ian Krol and Kyle Ryan, for a seven-man bullpen crew that can, conceivably, survive.

A third left-hander, Gorzelanny, could replace Nesbitt or Chamberlain – or Rondon -- depending on how 11th-hour appearances and health statuses shake out this week. Blaine Hardy is another candidate there, particularly if Gorzelanny doesn't shake whatever has socked him with a 9.00 ERA.

It means, either way, the Tigers must say goodbye to Nathan. There is no shame in facing facts. The Tigers knew when he signed in 2013 that getting a second season from a man near 40 could be a whitewater raft ride as they approached 2015.

Nathan's resolve this spring has been admirable. Dealing with a career's close is not easy, especially when you want to fulfill a contract, earn your pay, and add luster to one of the modern day's blue-ribbon bullpen careers.

But if the Tigers bring Nathan into a game beginning next week, against good late-inning hitters, evidence is thin he can get away with the brand of pitches he today wields.

How they got here

Asking how this happened – again – to a team otherwise well-built is a fair question.

The Tigers have had their moments, none better than when Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit were shutting down inning after inning in 2011 and 2012. But when Valverde began losing it in late 2012, the Tigers nearly were evicted from the playoffs long before they made it to that year's World Series.

A year later, the bullpen blew up in Boston and cost the Tigers their single best chance at winning a championship. Last year, after the Tigers grabbed another division flag despite some back-end ills, their relief corps disintegrated in the playoffs' first round.

Trades and signings designed to avoid these conflagrations have been expensive and by no means failsafe. Soria cost the Tigers two big prospect arms last July. Nathan's contract, plus an option, will minimally have set back a team $21 million.

Bruce Rondon is experiencing shoulder pain.

Flip through the years: Jose Veras, Benoit, Alburquerque, Chamberlain, Phil Coke. The Tigers have had one major failing during these years of bullpen strife. Few arms have been developed from within. The Tigers by no means are alone here.

Most teams have bullpens that look like shopping carts from Home Depot. Some big stuff, some small. Some expensive goods, some cheapies. It's the nature of relief pitching, and the Tigers not only have been hit by some mixed decisions, they have been sacked with more than their share of bad luck.

But the anatomy of 2015's bullpen crisis – and it is just that – hardly matters today. All that counts is welding together a relief brigade that can protect leads the Tigers otherwise have the capacity to build beginning next week.

It won't be easy, not with a group that today has so few reassuring arms. But it has a chance, with Soria moving to closer, and, if his health allows it, Rondon becoming the eighth-inning man upon whom, in one person's view, this bullpen hinges.