Tigers’ bullpen blues: Bad choices, bad timing, bad luck

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Some have taken to calling it a curse, the Detroit Tigers’ amazingly consistent annual bullpen travails.

And we get it.

Former Tigers closer Joe Nathan has an ERA of 4.78 in 63 games with the Tigers, after six All-Star Game appearances with the Twins and Rangers.

When you’re leading the mighty Boston Red Sox, 5-1, with two out in the bottom of the eighth inning, and you have your best reliever in the game, Joaquin Benoit, staring at a 2-0 series lead in the 2013 American League Championship Series before you’ve even played a home game, and then David Ortiz hits a grand slam that a younger Torii Hunter would’ve caught in his sleep, and you lose the game the next inning, and then you lose the series six days later, thus watching your best chance at a World Series title this generation go poof, well, yeah, you feel a tad snake-bitten.

When one of the best closers of the last two decades converts all 36 save opportunities against you, and so then you sign Joe Nathan to a $20 million deal, and then he blows the very first save chance for you, you’re forgiven for believing, even for a second, that the universe is conspiring against you protecting seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning leads.

When Francisco Rodriguez enters the Baseball Hall of Fame one day, it’ll be rightly considered overkill if his plaque includes more than one sentence about his time as a Detroit Tiger.

Tigers bullpen through the years

The Tigers bullpen, while significantly improved over the last month, is statistically below average for the 10th consecutive season, which defies just about all the laws of logic. As finicky as a bullpen can be, a team should probably luck into a good cast of characters every few years or so, but not here, not in Detroit. Not since 2006, when a moribund franchise rose from the dead and marched all the way to the World Series, have the Tigers fielded what could, with a straight face, be considered a quality bullpen.

Ever year since, it’s been mostly brutal, and often worse than that. Consider: Eight times in the past 10 seasons, including this season, the Tigers’ bullpen has had a collective ERA over 4.00. Even more telling, five times in the past 10 seasons, including this season, the Tigers’ bullpen has had a collective WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of less than one, according to FanGraphs. Twice, including this season, they’ve had a negative WAR, and twice they’ve had a WAR of exactly 0.0. That means, theoretically, in exactly half of the last 10 seasons, the Tigers’ front office could’ve replaced its major-league bullpen with its minor-league bullpen, and the standings wouldn’t have budged one bit.

In this era of dominant, dynamite bullpens, one of the era’s best ballclubs — only the Cardinals, Dodgers and Yankees have made the playoffs more since the start of 2006 than the Tigers (seven, to five) — has never joined the party, certainly not in results, and not much in the way of philosophy, either.

So, how on Earth could this happen?

The answer to that question — a question asked over and over and over by an increasingly irritated that fan base — is multi-layered, and it has nothing to do with any so-called curse. That’s the easy way out, to raise your fist toward the sky and curse The Ghosts of Tim Byrdak, Yorman Bazardo, Robbie Weinhardt, Alfredo Figaro and Aquilino Lopez.

The truth, though, is so much deeper than that, the blame gets spread around and — gasp! — it rarely includes the manager, not Jim Leyland and not Brad Ausmus. Sure, you can quibble about lefty-righty matchups, but you try maneuvering your way around a chess boards with no queen, no knights, no rooks, and just a bunch of pawns.

Without the pieces, it won’t be long till it’s checkmate.

Former Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit replaced Jose Valverde as the team’s closer in 2013, but gave up a grand slam to David Ortiz in Game 2 of the ALCS.

Peanuts for the ’pen

If you’re going to start at the root of the Tigers’ bullpen blasphemy, there is but one A block —and while it may seem unfair, harsh even, the blame lies mostly on Mike Ilitch, the late, billionaire owner who, contrary to popular opinion, didn’t exactly hand then-president and general manager Dave Dombrowski a blank check to build the ultimate winner.

Yes, Ilitch spent generously, year after year, well beyond the means of what should be considered acceptable for a middle-market team.

But in Ilitch fashion, like he first did with his Red Wings and later his precious Tigers, spent generously on stars. This star. That star. Any gosh-darn star. Because, well, fans will pay, and generously, to see stars like Pudge Rodrgiuez, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander and, really, who pays $60 for a ticket, $20 for parking and $10 for a beer to see Todd Jones?

Interestingly, it long has been cheapest to fill out a quality bullpen than it has been to construct a heavy-hitting lineup or a rotation of studs. While reliever salaries have skyrocketed in recent years — Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen have deals paying them a combined $202 million — for the most part, a big-time slugger or an ace is going to cost you much more than a lights-out reliever, and it’s not even all that close.

Yet, since 2006, the Tigers’ payroll has been socked so much with the salaries of superstars, that there often has been little left over in the budget — yes, Ilitch had a budget, however loose — for a bullpen.

While it’s impossible to know exactly how much money the Tigers have put toward the bullpen over the years — so many guys made the major-league minimum, or slightly above it, and many didn’t even last a whole season, or even close to it, so there are prorated formulas in play, too — we can at least guesstimate, based on numbers at Baseball-Reference.com.

And since the start of the 2006 season, the Tigers’ bullpen — and that’s the predetermined bullpen, including guys who were signed specifically to be relievers, not including the likes of Anibal Sanchez, Nate Robertson or Jeremy Bonderman (Tenure 1, not Tenure 2), etc., whose careers as starters eventually crashed, hard, relegating them to bullpen duty — has not accounted for more than 16 percent of the team’s overall payroll. Twice, in 2008 and 2010, it actually accounted for less than 10 percent. This year, it accounts for about 11 percent. And that includes $5.5 million for Mark Lowe, who pitches for some team called the Tacoma (Wash.) Rainiers. Without that chunk, it’d be about 7 percent, an era low.

The highest it ever was, about 16 percent, was in 2012, the last year the Tigers made the World Series.

Sixteen percent is nothing to scoff at, mind you. After all, relievers, again, still are cheaper, even if not nearly the bargain they used to be, so you wouldn’t expect to spend equal thirds on your three phases —offense, starting pitching and relief pitching. Still, 16 percent is the lowest of the seven most-recent American League champions.

That said, the 2016 Cleveland Indians, who made it all the way to extra innings of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, spent nearly 24 percent of their payroll on the bullpen. The 2015 Kansas City Royals, who won the World Series, spent some 23 percent. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays spent a whopping 33 percent. And how many J.P. Howell jerseys do you suppose they sold?

There’s prioritizing your bullpen, and then there’s what the Tigers too often have done — considering it an afterthought, a nuisance even, like a poor sap husband running to the truck stop on Christmas Eve, hoping to find at least one box of chocolate that doesn’t taste like wax.

Closer Jose Valverde saved 49 games in as many opportunities with the Tigers in 2011, but lost his job less than two seasons later.

Bad choices

Now, that’s not to say the Tigers never have tried to address the bullpen. That’s another common misconception among fans, that one year after another, Detroit’s front office simply ignores the elephant in the room. It’s just not so. They’ve targeted and signed relievers.

They’ve just often made bad choices, picking the Zoink behind Door No. 1, when the Cadillac sat behind Door No. 2.

Starting with the offseason prior to the 2006 season, every winter but two, the Tigers have signed a notable free-agent reliever, or traded for one, and often it’s been multiple ones.

It started with Jones before the 2006 season, and has included names like Jose Mesa, Brandon Lyon, Fu-Te Ni, Jose Valverde, Phil Coke, Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, Alex Wilson, Joel Hanrahan, Tom Gorzelanny, Rodriguez, Lowe and Justin Wilson.

There’s a common theme among that roster of relievers, in that for the heavy majority, their best years were pre-Detroit.

Jones was fine, Valverde for a bit, too, and Benoit was an absolute stud — at least, until he inherited the closer’s role down the stretch in 2012, after Valverde crashed and burned, and we all know how that story ended, in 2013, with Hunter upside down in the bullpen, and Ilitch’s best shot at the elusive championship ring up in smoke.

That’s another thing, by the way.

This is not all about the closers. In fact, for the most part, the closers haven’t been the Tigers’ biggest thorn. Jones made you nervous, but succeeded far more often than not. Fernando Rodney, second verse, same as the first. Valverde actually was a perfect 49-for-49 one year. Benoit was fine in 2013, until the end. Even Nathan saved 35 games his first year, and Soria, after an awful introduction to Detroit, was solid his second year. And Rodriguez had a 1.131 WHIP last season, a fact that should shut down the fans who’ve berated GM Al Avila for picking up his $6 million option for 2017, when the team already was on the hook for a $2 million buyout. It was a $4 million gamble. What’s $4 million? The Tigers still pay Prince Fielder $6 million a year, and he’s retired.

It’s just that, with the Tigers’ closers, when they’ve fallen off that cliff, they’ve done so in a flash, with little to zero notice, like Valverde a few years back, and now Rodriguez, leaving the Tigers scrambling for other options.

That’s not an accident, by the way. In fact, that can in large part be attributed to the timing of the Tigers’ signings of closers — when too many of these guys were past their primes before they signed on the dotted line, and some of them well into the sunset of their careers. The end can come fast in baseball, and it can be ugly, and it can often be without warning.

But there’s far more to bullpens than closers. Teams typically carry seven relievers, including a setup man, and a lefty specialist. The Tigers last had a top-10 bullpen ERA in 2006, when they had a good closer in Jones, a lights-out, flame-throwing setup man in Joel Zumaya, and an excellent lefty specialist in Jamie Walker.

Guys who can contribute like Jones and Zumaya and Walker are available, every year, in free agency. It’s just that you have to choose wisely. And too often, the Tigers front office, relying on reports from their army of scouts, have misfired. When was the last time the Tigers hit on a flyer like Greg Holland? Coming off Tommy John surgery, he could’ve been had this winter for $7 million. He has 21 saves for the Rockies.

There was one time, of note, where the Tigers identified correctly, in July 2014, when Dombrowski thought he had a deal in place to land Miller, the ex-Tigers prospect, from the Red Sox. But the Baltimore Orioles jumped into the fray at the last second, offered a prospect (Eduardo Rodriguez) then-Red Sox GM Ben Cherington couldn’t refuse, and he accepted — blindsiding the Tigers.

Miller was an absolute stud for the Orioles, who, in quite the cruel coincidence, swept the Tigers out of the first round of the postseason that fall — thanks, in no small way, to the Tigers’ disaster of a bullpen. They didn’t have a Miller, but they had a Chamberlain, who entered Games 1 and 2 to wild cheers from the opposing fans.

That, of course, was a bad break for the Tigers. Dombrowski tried to get his man, thought he got him, but didn’t.

Former Tigers closer Todd Jones had the nickname of “Roller Coaster” while in Detroit, though he saved 235 games in eight seasons with the Tigers, including a league-high 42 in 2000.

Finding Zumaya

Miller, of course, was a Tiger, at one point. They used the No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 draft to take the lanky left-hander out of the University of North Carolina, and within weeks, he was in the major leagues. He actually finished the 11-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 24, clinching the Tigers’ first playoff berth since 1987 (a year Detroit’s bullpen had the second-best WAR, by the way.)

It took a while, from relieving to starting to finally relieving for good, for Miller to become what he is today, one of the game’s dominant bullpen pieces.

And, at least, the Tigers can take credit for him. They scouted him and drafted him, before, less than two years later, peddling him to the then-Florida Marlins in a six-for-two blockbuster that netted the Tigers a man named Miguel Cabrera.

So, no qualms there, of course — even if another man involved in that trade, Burke Badenhop, went on to have a fine relief career of his own. He was another Tigers draft pick. Charlie Furbush eventually found some success with the Seattle Mariners, Casey Fien with the Minnesota Twins.

The problem is, those stories are as common as a day that goes by without the President of the United States tweeting.

In 2006, the last time the Tigers’ bullpen was above average in the majority of a sampling of seven statistical categories — opponents’ batting average (.242; second), WHIP (1.31; sixth), WAR (4.1; 10th) and fastball velocity (93.3; first) — there were two homegrown relievers who made a significant, positive impact, Zumaya, an 11th-round selection in the 2002 draft, and Rodney, signed as a kid out of the Dominican Republic.

The Tigers, many times, have believed they found the next Zumaya, or the next Rodney, or, heck, even better. But one by one, they didn’t pan out.

There was Ryan Perry. There was Jacob Turner. There was Chance Ruffin. There was Bruce Rondon, who was supposed to be the savior as far back as 2013 and, well, we’re still waiting. The list goes on, and, frankly, gets more depressing. Especially considering the Tigers’ affinity to drafting a stable of hard-throwing pitchers just about every draft.

Since the 2003 draft through last year’s, only three times — 2009, ’10 and ’11 — did the Tigers take more position players than pitchers in the first 10 rounds of the draft. Every other year, it’s been at least a tie, and usually it’s been lopsided toward arms over bats, especially in 2013, when the Tigers used their first seven picks on pitchers, and nine of their first 10.

Of those seven picks, only one has spent significant time with the Tigers, and that’s Buck Farmer. The jury’s still out on him, though his last outing, a spot start, was by far his best in the big leagues, with 11 strikeouts. The Tigers seemed to have a hit there, on Corey Knebel, who was traded in July 2014 to the Texas Rangers for Soria, and now is with the Milwaukee Brewers, and absolutely dominating, with 51 strikeouts in 28 innings this season.

It’s nearly four years later, and those are the only two of those seven picks to pitch in the major leagues. The second-round pick that year, Kevin Ziomek, retired this spring. The fourth-round pick, Austin Kubitza, was released this spring. The 11th-round pick, Chad Green, looks promising for the Yankees; he was traded in the deal that landed Justin Wilson.

Now, the baseball draft is a tricky thing — easily the toughest draft in the four major professional sports, because there are more than 1,200 picks, and baseball scouting isn’t an exact science.

All the time in baseball, one team’s trash is another team’s treasure (hello, J.D. Martinez), and vice-versa.

So there always are going to be exponentially more misses than hits when it comes to baseball draft picks. But for it to be 2017 and the Tigers still are looking for that next Zumaya — who’s been technically retired since 2014, but hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since 2010 — is quite the indictment, all the same.

Just the other day, in the home dugout at Comerica Park, Avila, dressed snappily in cool shades and a suit, met with the media, and, among several topics, he raved about the young arms in the Tigers’ system. The Tigers, last June, used their first five picks on pitchers, and Matt Manning, Kyle Funkhouser, Mark Ecker, Bryan Garcia and Austin Sodders are impressing, as is the first-round pick from the previous year, still-20-year-old Beau Burrows.

So, maybe, just maybe, the tide is about to turn.

Ryon Healy of the Oakland Athletics reacts as he runs to home plate after he hit a walk-off home run against Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez in a game last month in Oakland.

Timing is everything

One sarcastic line that’s been told more than once over the last decade-plus of Tigers’ bullpen meltdowns: You could put Mariano Rivera in his prime on this roster, and he’d be a dud.

Did you know, that actually almost happened?

In 1995, then-Yankees GM Gene Michael opted to shop Rivera, a rookie starting pitcher, and he was very interested in acquiring veteran left-handed starter David Wells from the Tigers. Interestingly, the summer of 1995 was the last time the Tigers were truly in contention before 2006, at 37-33 and three games out of first place on July 9. But Detroit then would lose its next eight games and 14 of its next 17, prompting Ilitch and then-Tigers GM Joe Klein to sell at the deadline. Wells was shipped to the Cincinnati Reds for pitchers C.J. Nitkowski and Dave Tuttle and infielder Mark Lewis, as the player to be named later.

And, so, the Yankees held on to Rivera, who was a setup man on the 1996 World Series-championship team and began his run as closer in 1997, and was key in the Yankees' winning four more titles. He’ll go down as the greatest closer ever, a lock, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and, really, who knows what would’ve happened had he gone to Detroit. Heck, Rivera might’ve remained a starter, and muddled through a .500 career.

Timing and situations are everything. Just ask John Smoltz, who insists to this day his career wouldn’t have turned out as glorious as it did had the Tigers not dealt the minor-leaguer from Lansing to the Atlanta Braves in the summer of 1987.

So while there’s many other, fact-based reasons behind this decade of doldrums when it comes to the bullpen — like this: Detroit’s relievers often are among the worst in strikeouts; not coincidentally, so is their fastball velocity, especially lately — here’s the concession for the boys who still like to cry, “curse.” Yes, there is a bit of luck involved in putting together any major-league roster — and, that especially seems true when it comes to cobbling together a bullpen.

Relievers, from year to year, can be volatile. All-Stars one year, poo the next. Look at Sam Dyson. He was a dynamite closer last year for the Rangers, with 38 saves and a 2.43 ERA, earning him a $3.5 million payday. He was DFA’d last week.

There’s no concrete truth as to why relievers are more unpredictable than other roster spots, though here’s a theory. Most relievers began their professional careers as starters — quality starters are much more valuable, most still argue — but, for whatever reason, they are transitioned to the bullpen. Usually, it’s because there are evident flaws. Maybe, for instance, they haven’t developed that third pitch. Relievers can get by with just two pitches — or, in Rivera’s case, one — but starters typically can’t. That makes for much less margin for error. If one pitch goes, it can be game over.

That’s why no team can field a great bullpen every year — and that’s why St. Clair Shores Tiger fan Kevin Coil has been able to expand his “My Bullpen Makes Me Drink” T-shirt line into several other major-league markets. In case you haven’t noticed, the Royals bullpen is awful this year, and they appear destined for a last-place finish. The San Francisco Giants’ bullpen was awful last year, snapping their string of every-other-year World Series parades.

Speaking of those Giants, they’ve gotten lucky along the way. In the 2012 World Series against the Tigers, they moved struggling former Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum to the bullpen, and he was immaculate, with eight strikeouts over 4.2 innings in two games of the four-game sweep.

The Tigers just never seem to get lucky like that, at least not when it comes to relievers.

Nathan was an All-Star with a 1.39 ERA with the Rangers in 2013. He then signed with the Tigers — who two days earlier had traded Doug Fister in one of the most unpopular transactions in recent franchise history, and one that was seen by many analysts as clearing salary space for Nathan — and he was a hot mess in Year 1, and threw four whole pitches in Year 2. In 2014, Soria hadn’t allowed a home run in 35 appearances with the Rangers, was traded to the Tigers, and proceeded to give up two in his second appearance. In 2013, Jose Veras was a 1.1 WAR guy with the Astros; dealt to the Tigers that July, he was barely above replacement-level.

You see, it’s not that the Tigers haven’t tried to fix the bullpen.

It’s just that it rarely has been the top priority — and in the rare instances when it has been, there has been an owner too preoccupied with bigger names, too many front-office miscalculations, too many ill-fated scouting reports, and, sure, maybe even a little bad luck, to boot.