Paul: Minors provide glimmer of hope for Tigers 'pen

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Last fall, a week or so after the Tigers season came crashing down in a three-game sweep by the Orioles in the first round of the playoffs, I asked Dave Dombrowski why his bullpens have been consistently among the worst in the American League since 2007.

His response: Sometimes the numbers don't tell the whole story.

My response: I'm sorry, what?

Here's the reality of the situation: The Tigers bullpen was surprisingly good in 2006, and it's been pretty darn awful ever since. I like to call it the Curse of Jose Mesa.

It's not necessarily been for a lack of trying. Tigers draft chief David Chadd has focused heavily on hard-throwing relievers for years, and Dombrowski has signed dozens and dozens, many of whom came with decent resumes and hefty price tags.

But if we're being honest here, the talent evaluators clearly have let down the organization in terms of building a bullpen. For instance, there's no other way to explain letting an in-the-prime-of-his-career Joaquin Benoit walk, and signing 39-year-old Joe Nathan instead — unless Mike Ilitch ordered Benoit gone, for that one awful pitch in Boston.

Sure, fans wanted Nathan, the big name. The Tigers and their scouts should've known better.

But they didn't. Really, they rarely have when it's come to relievers.

And fans aren't overly optimistic that string of dreadfulness is going to change a lick this season, which starts today against the Twins at Comerica Park.

Odds are, they're probably correct.

However, it's not a done deal just yet.

Reasons for optimism

One look at the Tigers' Opening Day roster, and it jumps right out at you — the bullpen looks almost exactly like the bullpen that was dreadful and perhaps responsible for the ALDS loss to the Orioles.

Nathan is back, for the second year of a two-year, $20 million deal.

Soria is back, his $7 million option picked up.

Chamberlain is back, for $1 million plus incentives.

And Al Alburquerque is back, joined by Ian Krol, Tom Gorzelanny and Angel Nesbitt.

Is this the much-improved bullpen fans expected from the Tigers, after the bullpen was to blame for early exits in each of the last two postseasons?

Hardly.

But there actually are reasons for optimism, provided Tigers brass shows some, well, brass.

Last year, the Tigers had to roll with Nathan and Chamberlain, despite their struggles — Nathan throughout, Chamberlain late — because they simply didn't have any reinforcements.

That's just not the case this year.

The Tigers had no closing options last year until Soria arrived in late July, but he got hurt a short while later and was never overly effective.

That's why the Tigers had to stick with Nathan, and I understand why they're doing it again — for now. He makes a lot of money, and the Tigers want to see if his new change-up can help make him a good closer again. By my count, he's probably got two weeks, or two blown saves, whichever comes first.

If it's not working, Nathan has to be out — and Soria, whose late 2014 struggles can probably be chalked up to a tough transition (new home, new role) should get his job. Soria is throwing phenomenally.

In that case, Nathan must be gone. If he can't close, he's of no use to this team.

And Bruce Rondon, once his bout of shoulder tendinitis clears up, should slide into the setup role.

As for Chamberlain, I was OK with the Tigers bringing him back. He was pretty good much of last year, and it's worth finding out if he can get that slider down and biting again. So far, he hasn't.

And the leash for Chamberlain must be short, too. The Tigers can't afford to have him plodding along with, say, a 4.50 ERA in June.

And for Gorzelanny, who looked terrible this spring.

In past years, including 2014, the Tigers simply had to roll with the relievers they had, because there wasn't much help in the minor leagues.

That's why Dombrowski often is mocked by fans and media for that infamous line several years ago, when he said he had 10 major league-ready arms in the minor leagues.

That, of course, turned out to be hogwash.

But if he said the same thing today, while many would chuckle, he'd probably be right.

Promise in minors

The Tigers have decent options this year. Lots of them. Not to mention, the AL Central is expected to be super tight, and a throwaway game in May could cost you the division in the end. So Brad Ausmus' tolerance for awful outings should be low. And that goes for just about everyone, with the exception of Soria. If he scuffles early, he gets a pass — because he's got, by far, the best stuff down there. He's the least of the Tigers' worries.

Everyone else should be on notice.

Rondon should be back soon enough, which will help. Alex Wilson, acquired from the Red Sox, and Josh Zeid, from the Astros, have good stuff. Wilson needs more seasoning, and Zeid more control, but they're close, and they're good.

Lefties Kyle Ryan, Blaine Hardy, Joe Mantiply and Omar Duran all are promising, as are right-handers Rafael Dolis, Buck Farmer and Drew VerHagen. Kyle Lobstein is another option. He pitched so well down the stretch in 2014 as a starter, and the Tigers see him as a starter -- and a good reinforcement option should Justin Verlander's triceps not heal quickly, or should Alfredo Simon look better as a reliever.

And that's to say nothing of the college-tested arms that are working their way up the Tigers' system, like Kevin Ziomek and Austin Kubitza.

Not all of the youngsters will pan out, but the ceiling on them collectively is, indeed, high -- higher than it's been for quite some time, all due respect to Yorman Bazardo, Macay McBride and Aquilino Lopez.

The Tigers blew a save on Opening Day in 2012, and in the second game of the season in 2013 and 2014. It would surprise nobody if it happened again today, or Wednesday.

The last three years, it proved a sign of things to come -- a season full of bullpen disasters, from April to October.

This year might turn out to be the same old song, but it doesn't have to be that way.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984