Tigers searching for right mix of arms, roles in 'pen

Tigers searching for right mix of arms, roles in 'pen

DETROIT -- The remark from Jim Leyland came in the middle of a pregame session in the Tigers manager's office at Comerica Park. It came out more like a general purpose than a specific move.

"We've got some maneuvering yet to do with our bullpen," he said. "I can tell you that."

That message came three weeks ago, and it still arguably applies now. If not for the amazing start of Miguel Cabrera, it could be a theme of the Tigers' first half. Many expected it heading into the season, but not the way it means now.

Detroit came into Spring Training with a 22-year-old rookie competing at closer. It went into the season with a closer by a committee, then with Joaquin Benoit as the top option before welcoming back Jose Valverde.

That was supposed to be the position of uncertainty. Now, the eighth and ninth innings are pretty well set; it's everything leading up to that is in flux.

There are as many relievers assigned to Triple-A Toledo who were projected to fill roles in Detroit (three) as there are relievers who have spent the entire season in the Tigers' bullpen. Bruce Rondon, Brayan Villarreal and Al Alburquerque all have spent time in Detroit, but all are now Mud Hens.

Octavio Dotel remains on the disabled list with elbow inflammation, with no return imminent. Phil Coke is working toward finding his form since coming back from the DL. Valverde is 4-for-5 in save opportunities with eight innings of one-hit ball -- but with four walks, he's still trying to work into midseason form without a Spring Training.

No surprise, then, that seven of the eight moves with the Tigers' 25-man roster since Opening Day have involved the bullpen.

Tigers relievers rank second in the Majors in strikeouts per nine innings, but second worst in walks per nine innings, resulting in a 2.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio that ranks in the middle of the pack. Only Cleveland's bullpen has thrown more wild pitches than Detroit, which has thrown a dozen.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are 0-3 in games that are tied after six innings, and have dropped five games when leading after six, two off their 2012 total. Tigers relievers' 3-8 record with eight saves isn't necessarily a surprise, but the share of Tigers losses recorded by relievers is high, even for an early stretch.

The three relievers helping keep the relief corps together fill very different roles. Benoit, restored to his setup role after Valverde's return, has thrived since then, delivering 10 innings of one-run ball on five hits with two walks and 13 strikeouts. One scout who watched Detroit's last homestand said it's the best he has seen Benoit pitch since he joined the Tigers in 2011.

Darin Downs, who made the team as a second lefty, has proven far more versatile than that, striking out 25 batters over 20 2/3 innings for the season while stranding seven of eight inherited runners in May. He has actually fared better against right-handed hitters (7-for-40) than lefties (7-for-34, two home runs).

Then there's Drew Smyly, who became a long reliever after Rick Porcello held onto his spot in the rotation. The bullpen assignment was a way to keep his arm in the big leagues. The way he has pitched in relief, it's difficult to see how the Tigers could afford to move Smyly into the rotation.

It's not just Smyly's numbers -- six runs on 20 hits over 28 innings, along with 29 strikeouts. The fact that he protected a one-run lead in the seventh inning Friday night before filling 3 1/3 innings on Saturday says plenty about the holes he's filling. Smyly is pitching so well that Leyland wants to save him for close situations, but can't afford not to have him filling innings.

"He's answered the bell, no matter what we've done with him," Leyland told reporters on Sunday. "He's been kind of the mystery of the bullpen, because he's done so many good things, no matter where you put him."

It's not just the names that have changed since season's start, but the roles. After opening the season with two situational strikeout specialists in Alburquerque and Villarreal, the Tigers now have none. Add in Dotel's absence, and the club has a void in right-handed relief, one that rookie Jose Ortega is trying to fill on the fly.

Strong starts from the Tigers' rotation had helped the Tigers through all the adjustments until last weekend in Texas. The climax came Sunday, when the second of three Cabrera home runs gave Detroit a 7-5 lead in the sixth inning. The Rangers scored six runs over two innings against Ortega, who paid dearly for two walks, and Coke, a victim of defensive shortcomings behind him.

The bullpen threw 17 1/3 innings and 278 pitches over the four-game series, covering more innings than Tigers starters did. No relief staff could stay unblemished under that pressure.

Still, the Tigers need help. They're hoping they have it in Toledo. They expect some refresher work with Alburquerque can get him back in form. Villarreal, meanwhile, said this weekend he's working to shore up his mechanics from one inning to the next.

If not, middle relief could be the Tigers' biggest pursuit on the trade market this summer. CBSSports.com's Danny Knobler cited a source saying the Tigers are "looking hard" for relief help. An American League talent evaluator told MLB.com last week that Tigers scouts are looking at potential trade targets, more for relief depth than for closers.

One way or another, there's a lot of maneuvering left to do.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.