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The curse of Uggie Urbina? Tigers have had buzzard's luck with relief pitchers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – If you were to name the one defining trait of Detroit Tigers baseball through the first 20 years of the 21st century, it’s got to be bullpen misery, right?

Not just the fatal playoff daggers thrown by two of the better relievers the club has had in the last two decades – Jose Valverde (84 saves in 2011 and 2012, only to allow 15 runs in 10 postseason games) and Joaquin Benoit (the David Ortiz grand slam in 2013).

Kyle Farnsworth

Not just all the prospects that flamed out – Joel Zumaya, Matt Anderson, Bruce Rondon, Angel Nesbitt.  

No, it goes beyond that. The Tigers, to their credit, have opened their doors to a big batch of well-established, even elite relief pitchers who for varying reasons failed in Detroit.

Let’s call it the curse of Ugueth Urbina. Why not? He’s as good a poster boy for this list as any.

Urbina, one of the heroes of the Florida Marlins World Series run in 2003, had 21 saves for the Tigers in 2004 and was traded to the Phillies for Placido Polanco the next year. In 2007 he was arrested and convicted of attempted murder when he attacked seven people, workers he accused of ripping him off, with a machete.

Let’s take a trip down malady lane, shall we:

►Kyle Farnsworth: The big, hard-throwing right-hander had a good year with the Tigers in 2005 and they flipped him at the trade deadline for relievers Roman Colon and Zach Minor. Then, at the trade deadline in 2008, with the Tigers barely hanging on in the playoff race, they reacquired Farnsworth from the Yankees for an aging Pudge Rodriguez.

The Tigers were 55-53, five games back, when the trade was made. They went 19-33 the rest of the way. Farnsworth pitched in 16 games, allowed 12 runs in 16 innings and blew three saves.


►Troy Percival: From 1996 through 2004, he averaged 35 saves for the Angels and was considered one of the premier closers in the game. The Tigers made a splash in the winter before the 2005 season, signing him, then 35, for two-years and $12 million.

They would trump that three months later by signing another free agent – Magglio Ordonez. 

Percival was not the same pitcher in 2005. He lasted 26 games – eight saves, three blown saves and a 5.76 ERA – before his season, and Tigers tenure, was ended with a forearm injury that kept him on the sidelines in 2006, too.

He served as an advanced scout for the Tigers in 2006 and, even though he didn't throw a single pitch, was voted a World Series share.  

Joe Nathan

►Joe Nathan: Nathan had posted two straight all-star campaigns with the Rangers (80 saves, 0.977 WHIP) when the Tigers signed him as a free agent before the 2014 season – two years, $19 million. He was 39.

Although he had some good moments with the Tigers (35 saves), he will be best remembered for the chin-flick he threw at fans at Comerica Park who were booing him off the mound. His seven blown saves and 1.5 WHIP were the highest of his career. His 4.81 ERA was the second highest of his career.

He was back in 2015 but made just one appearance before tearing the UCL in his right elbow, requiring a second Tommy John surgery.

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►Joel Hanrahan: He made 76 saves in two straight all-star seasons for the Pirates in 2011 and 2012 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2013. The Tigers took a no-risk, high-reward flier on him, paying him $1 million though knowing he wouldn’t pitch in 2014.

Hanrahan came to spring training in 2015 with high hopes, but it was clear from the start his arm hadn’t responded. He tore the UCL again and his career was over.

►Jim Johnson: The Tigers took another low-risk shot with Johnson in 2014. Johnson had posted 101 saves with the Orioles in 2012 and 2013, which earned him a $10 million contract from the Oakland A’s. But he scuffled with the A’s and they released him and ate his contract in August.

He was 31 and the Tigers signed him for the league minimum. A year later, after the Tigers let him go, Johnson would regain his form for the Braves. But in 16 games for the Tigers in 2014, he was dreadful – 13 runs (10 earned) in 13 innings, 12 walks, three hit batsmen.

►Tom Gorzelanny: In 2014, the veteran left-hander allowed just two runs in 21 innings down the stretch for the Milwaukee Brewers.

He was 32 years old and the Tigers signed him before the 2015 season for $1 million. You already know – it didn’t go well. He posted a 5.95 ERA, a 1.7 WHIP and opponents hit .292 against him.

He pitched three innings for the Indians in 2016 and his playing days were over.

►Neftali Feliz: He was just 27 and five years removed from his 40-save Rookie of the Year season with the Rangers when the Tigers signed him off waivers in July 2015 – picking up what remained on his $4.1 million contract.

He was still throwing his fastball between 95-96 mph. He still had some bite on his slider. But he couldn’t get hitters out. He had a 7.62 ERA in 28 innings with the Tigers. Opponents hit .303 against him and he allowed six of 13 inherited runners to score.

Francisco Rodriguez

►Francisco Rodriguez: Maybe he doesn’t belong on this list. After two straight All-Star seasons with the Brewers in 2014 and 2015 (121 saves) the Tigers acquired him in a trade for minor-league second baseman Javier Betancourt.

And in 2016, at age 34, he made 44 saves (including No. 400 in his career), with just five blown saves and opponents hitting just .214. He was a marvel, the way he set up hitters and moved his pitches (none of them topping 90 mph) around the plate.

But he cost the Tigers $13.5 million and when he ran out of bullets in 2017, it sank the club. His ERA ballooned to 7.82 and he blew six of 13 save opportunities. It was an ignominious ending for a proud and decorated reliever.

►Mark Lowe: The Tigers paid him $11 million to be Rodriguez’s set-up man for 2016 and 2017. He was coming off a productive season in 2015 (1.96 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 61 strikeouts in 55 innings). He was entering his age-33 season.

It turned out to be his last.

He ended up posting a 7.11 ERA in 54 games with the Tigers and was released before the start of the 2017 season. He signed on with the Mariners, White Sox and Dodgers but never got back to the big leagues. He pitched in 14 games last season for Sugar Land in the Independent League and was tagged for 17 runs in 18 innings.

►Bobby Parnell: Before the arrival of Aroldis Chapman, Parnell’s 102-mph heater was the firmest fastball in baseball. In 2011, he threw seven straight fastballs to Miguel Cabrera, all of them over 100 mph. He was emerging as the future closer of the Mets in 2013 when he blew his elbow out.

His velocity didn’t come all the way back and the Mets let him go after 2015. The Tigers brought him to camp before the 2016 season. He was 31 and his fastball was averaging just 95 mph, but his control issues were more fatal than his velocity.

He ended up pitching in six games for the Tigers, allowing four runs, seven hits and five walks in 5.1 innings. It was his last season in the big leagues.

►Zach McAllister: The Tigers saw first-hand how productive this lanky right-hander was for the Indians. Between 2015 and 2017, he threw 183 innings with a 2.99 ERA and 1.35 WHIP with 204 strikeouts.

When he was released in August 2018, the Tigers snapped him up. They signed him on Aug. 10. By Aug. 21, he was gone. He pitched 3.1 innings and gave up eight runs and 10 hits.

He was in the Dodgers camp this spring, but he has yet to pitch again in the big leagues.

►Edward Mujica: The Tigers weren’t expecting much when they threw him a lifeline in 2017. He was 33 and four years removed from his 37-save, All-Star season with the Cardinals. But after putting up a 46-9 strikeout-to-walk rate at Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers had some hope.

It was quickly dashed. He pitched six innings in five games, allowed seven runs and 11 hits. His 7-0 strikeout to walk rate turned out to be irrelevant.

Travis Wood

►Travis Wood: This is probably the best example of the Tigers’ buzzard’s luck with bullpen guys.

Wood was 31 and coming off a miserable 2017 season when the Tigers invited him to spring training in February 2018. He was an All-Star in 2013 and was one of the heroes of the Cubs' World Series run in 2016 (he allowed just two runs in six postseason innings with seven strikeouts).  

But he ominously showed up in Lakeland with a cast on the middle finger of his right, non-pitching, hand. He had mangled it when the bow he was shooting misfired.

Then, as he was finally able to wear a mitt on his right hand and get back on the mound, he tore his ACL while throwing his first live batting practice session. He never made it back to the big leagues.

►Trevor Rosenthal: In the midst of the 114-loss season last year, the Tigers decided to take a flier on this flame-throwing right-hander. He was an All-Star for the Cardinals in 2015 and earned 93 saves between 2014 and 2015.

Even though he missed the 2018 season after Tommy John surgery, the Nationals signed him to a $10 million deal for 2019. He was 29 and still throwing 100-mph. But he couldn’t throw strikes. He gave up 16 runs (and 15 walks) in six innings with the Nats before they released him.

The Tigers picked him up but couldn’t straighten him out. In fact, it was terrifying watching him throw 100-mph pitches over and near the heads of hitters. In 10 games with the Tigers, he allowed eight runs on three hits and 11 walks in nine innings.

It is probably overly dramatic to say Detroit is where relief pitchers come to die. But as this list shows, there certainly haven't been many fairy tale endings for those that don the Olde English D.

Twitter @cmccosky